Monday, May 31, 2010
I'm disappointed and angry. I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place. I have an amazing opportunity to tell women why they should and how they can be taken seriously as advocates of important issues. But that opportunity is now being sponsored by a couple brands owned by Nestle, a company that I protest against and boycott, and a company that I have criticized others for being involved with.
The Nestle Family Affair
In September 2009 a group of mom and dad bloggers were invited to Nestle's US headquarters in California to learn more about Nestle and its brands. It was an all expenses paid trip, with lots of goody bags full of Nestle product, and Omaha steaks sent to feed their families back home. The Nestle Family event web site, which features photographs, twitter handles, and blog URLs for all of the attendees, had this as an introduction:
Welcome to the Nestlé Family Bloggers Twitter Homepage
Nestlé understands the importance of listening directly to parents. That’s why on September 30 and October 1, we’ve invited 20 Mom and Dad bloggers to our U.S. headquarters to learn firsthand the things that are important to them and their families, and to share a little about us and our brands. Check out what they are saying by following the conversation below from Twitter. Visit this page daily from September 23 through October 7, to learn more about them, their families, their busy lives, and to hear about their experiences at Nestlé. Check out their blogs, too.
Nestle wanted to find out what is important to them and their families, to sell them on their brands, and hoped that they would say wonderful things about Nestle on twitter and on their blogs. This event was all about how Nestle could make its products more appealing to the mom and dad blogger community.
At the time, I wrote an open letter to the attendees. I said, among other things:
I was distressed to see women who I respect and women who are breastfeeding advocates had accepted the invitation. I wanted to believe that they must just not be aware of Nestle’s unethical business practices and that once they found out that they would, of course, decline the invitation and boycott the event. That was not the case. Some of you heard the concerns and said that you didn’t care. Some of you heard the concerns and said you would go anyways because you felt a dialogue with Nestle would be more productive. You are all skilled communicators. But having followed the Nestle fiasco for a long time, I know how ineffective dialogue has been in the past and I know that their public relations people will tell you a good story and try to take you for a ride.
After presenting evidence of a handful of Nestle's many unethical business practices, I concluded by saying:
At a minimum, while you are there, I hope you’ll listen with a critical ear and not take everything at face value. Nestle’s public relations machine is well oiled and they will find a way to “address” your concerns without really doing so. I would like you to tell Nestle in no uncertain terms that you do not support its unethical business practices. I would like you to tell them that you will not be using your blog, your twitter presence, or any other platform you are on to help market their products. I would like you to tell Nestle that you are going to boycott its products and ask your friends and family to do so too. Above all, I would like you to ask yourself how you feel about supporting a company that puts profits ahead of the lives and health of babies.
I stand by those words to this day. Both the words about how ineffective dialogue is with Nestle, which I proved by asking Nestle 18 questions and then posting their answers full of lies and doublespeak on my blog, as well as the words about what actions I would have liked the Nestle Family bloggers to take. As far as I know, some of them asked questions about Nestle's unethical business practices, a few of them didn't tweet or post anything positive about the company, but quite a number of them did post and tweet positive things about Nestle.
Speaking at BlogHer '10: Change Agents
In the fall of 2009, I purchased an Early Bird ticket for BlogHer '10, a conference that brings together more than 2000 primarily female bloggers to network and learn from each other.
While I had attended in 2009 and found the conference to be extremely rewarding both personally and professionally, the decision to attend again in 2010 was sealed when the Call for Ideas came out in October and noted that one of the six programming tracks was going to be on Change Agents:
Change Agents: Politics, activism, social causes, social change. Last year we learned specific skills to help us raise our voices. And then we saw how some bloggers are putting those skills into action with a series of inspiring case studies, both international and domestic. This is track to talk about what you are doing to change the world. On any kind of scale. Locally. Nationally. Globally. It's also the track to talk about what we could be doing to change the world.
This track is what my blog is all about and what I want it to be about. I knew right away that having this track at BlogHer '10 was a huge opportunity for me to share what I do and why I do it and to try to convince more women to become advocates. I also knew that it was a huge opportunity for me to learn from the other inspirational change agents in our community.
In January 2010, BlogHer invited me to be a speaker on one of the panels in the Change Agents track and I accepted. The panel I am on is called Radical Blogging Moms: Don’t Even Think About Not Taking These Moms Seriously:
We’ve explored how “mommyblogging is a radical act,” but what happens when truly radical moms blog? For these bloggers motherhood isn’t the topic, it’s a catalyst for a new level of activism. Does naming motherhood as a fundamental part of these women’s identities impact how seriously they are taken? At the intersection of motherhood and activism, you’ll find these bloggers raising their voices, raising the roof, raising a stink and raising the visibility of their target issues, all while raising their kids.
When I originally purchased my ticket (in the Fall) and when I agreed to be a speaker (in January), the sponsors of the event had not been announced and I know that BlogHer was (and possibly still is) actively seeking sponsors in the Spring of 2010. In discussions with BlogHer, I asked if there were going to be any sponsors for the speaking tracks (as there were last year). The organizers told me that there were no planned sponsors at that time for my panel, but that there could be. They asked me to provide a list of companies that I would deem offensive, and I did so. They agreed that it would be in everyone's best interest to avoid having a company sponsoring a session that featured a detractor and said that it shouldn't be an issue to make sure neither Nestle nor any baby formula company sponsored the panel I am speaking on. I didn't ask about broader conference sponsorship (but probably should have).
Nestle Sponsorship of BlogHer
A few weeks ago, I remember looking at the BlogHer sponsor list because I was thrilled to hear that Bloganthropy, an initiative that I support, was going to be a sponsor. At the time, I don't think that there were any Nestle brands listed on the sponsor page (but I can't be 100% sure). I first learned about Nestle brands sponsoring BlogHer when I read Mom Spark's blog post called Stouffer’s Sponsors BlogHer 2010. Will They Be Judged? (written on May 24, 2010 and pointed out to me on May 29, 2010). I was disappointed and angry that BlogHer would accept Nestle as a sponsor, but not surprised given that they have accepted advertising from Nestle on the website in the past.
I later learned, through e-mails exchanged with BlogHer that Stouffer's and Butterfinger, both Nestle owned brands, would be sponsoring BlogHer (although Butterfinger still isn't listed on the sponsor page as of May 31, 2010, further evidence that sponsors are being added at all times). Their sponsorship of the event will involve having a booth on the exhibition floor, putting some coupons in grab bags, and being listed in some newsletter items. They will not be sponsoring sessions, they will not be hosting big on-site parties, they will not be serving us a sponsored lunch, and they certainly do not get the opportunity to speak at the conference (nor does any other sponsor) as a result of writing a cheque.
The Meaning of Boycott
I do consider myself a boycotter of Nestle and have called on others to boycott too. There are a great many definitions of boycott in different contexts and many of them are pulled together and listed on the Answers.com Boycott page. One of them that I thought was fairly clear is:
An orchestrated way of showing disapproval, such as by not attending a meeting or avoiding a country's or company's products, so as to punish or apply pressure for change of policy or behaviour.
However, what I thought was more useful was the list of antonyms. The opposite of boycott is buy, encourage, support, use.
For me, boycotting Nestle means that I attempt not to buy, encourage, support or use their products. I am aware of the list of brands that they own and that I do not knowingly purchase them. I would never accept an offer to promote or support Nestle to my friends and family, on my blog, on twitter, or in any other business of personal dealings that I have. Essentially, I would not knowingly send any money Nestle's way or accept any money from Nestle.
That said, I do not bring my list of Nestle brands with me to every restaurant I go to and ask the server to verify with the chef to ensure that none of their products slipped into the ingredients (but if they had a "we serve Nescafe" sign, I wouldn't order coffee). I did not get on the next plane and fly home when I found out that the ice cream at the all inclusive resort that we went to was from Nestle. I didn't drag my children kicking and screaming away from the zoo after I realized there was a Nestle logo printed on the back of our ticket. I don't ask before biting into homemade cookies at a birthday party whether they contain Nestle chocolate or not. I do not refuse to shop in stores that carry Nestle brands (but I certainly don't purchase the Nestle brands when I am there).
Other people may go further than I do in their protest and I applaud that. Some people say that my protest is not really a boycott because it is not a pure boycott and perhaps they are right. I'm not that hung up on the semantics of it though. It is more actions and perceptions that concern me. Am I giving money to Nestle? Am I promoting Nestle products? I feel that, on the whole, the significant advocacy work that I do in protest of Nestle, which includes a personal pledge to avoid their products, more than balances out any regrettable minor slippage of Nestle junk into my life.
The difference between the Nestle Family event and the Nestle Sponsorship of BlogHer
In my mind, there are a number of differences between accepting an invitation to the Nestle Family event and going to a partially Nestle-sponsored BlogHer.
First, unlike the Nestle Family event, BlogHer is not just about Nestle and its brands. It is about our community.
Second, I am not going to BlogHer under any pretense or false hope that a dialogue with the Stouffer's or Butterfinger representatives could result in any change in the company's business practices.
Third, there would have been no way for me to attend or speak at the BlogHer event if I had waited until after the sponsors were announced to get a ticket. The tickets were sold out and the agenda was finalized months before the sponsors were announced. This is, obviously, different from the Nestle Family event where the attendees knew from the first moment that they heard about it that it was being paid for by Nestle.
Fourth, I have not given permission to the BlogHer sponsors to use my name and picture in their promotional materials.
The unfortunate commonality between the two events is that Nestle Family attendees and BlogHer attendees are getting something of value from Nestle in return for it having an opportunity to push its brand on them. In the case of the Nestle Family event, it was an all expenses paid trip to California and tons of free product. In the case of BlogHer it is covering a small portion of the ticket price for each person who is attending.
I cannot, in good conscience attend BlogHer if I am going to be benefiting financially in any way from Nestle's contribution to the event. I would like, ideally, for BlogHer to tell them to get lost and to not accept sponsorships from unethical companies. I know, however, that they are not likely to do that. I should, ideally, rescind my Speaker's Agreement and refuse to attend the conference. However, BlogHer is not about Nestle. It is about us: the blogging community. I feel that if I refuse to attend BlogHer, Nestle will have won because it will still be there and yet my opportunity to tell my fellow bloggers why advocacy is important will be missed, as will my opportunity to learn to improve and strengthen my advocacy. I feel like I can, due to the nature of BlogHer, attend the conference and still protest Nestle's presence there (there will be no muzzle applied as I walk through the door).
There are 2400 attendees at BlogHer this year. Attendee registration fees generally cover about 1/3 of the true cost of attending BlogHer. The other 2/3 is covered by sponsors. According to e-mails exchanged with Blogher, the true cost of attending BlogHer this year is $600. That means that approximately $400 per person is being paid for by sponsors, for a total of around $960,000 in sponsorship funds. In my case, as a speaker, the full $600 of the cost of my attendance is being paid for by sponsors. There are currently 37 sponsors listed on the BlogHer '10 sponsor page. Although I do not have the exact figure that Stouffer's and Butterfinger paid, based on where Stouffer's is listed on the page (Bronze sponsor) and what I know about the extent of their sponsorship, I would say they are probably in the middle of the pack when it comes to the dollar value of their sponsorship. I also assume that, like Butterfinger, there are probably a few more sponsors still to be added to the site. So, if we assume there are about 40 sponsors and that Stouffer's and Butterfinger are both "average" sponsors, that would mean that they each account for 1/40 (or 2/40 together) of the sponsorship funds. That means that they spent about $24,000 each or $48,000 total to sponsor the BlogHer event. It also means that Nestle brands are contributing about $20 towards the attendance of each BlogHer attendee (or $30 for me as a speaker).
So what am I going to do? I plan to make a series of charitable donations totaling $600 (the full cost of my attendance at the conference) to organizations that are focused on breastfeeding, children's nutrition and family nutrition.
But I need your help in a few ways:
- I would like your suggestions for charities that you think are most in need that fit the description that I gave above (both Canadian and US charities). I have a few ideas of my own, but am looking for others too.
- I would like to encourage others who are attending to make a $20 donation (or what ever amount they can) in protest of Nestle's presence at BlogHer and in support of these causes. I would love to set up an anonymous mechanism for tracking those donations, but am looking for suggestions on how to do so (i.e. get a total dollar figure and number of participating attendees, without requiring individual people to tell me how much they pledged if they don't want to). Does anyone have suggestions?
Please leave a comment if you have suggestions on either front and I'll put up another post (probably sometime next week) once I've had a chance to mull over the best way to do this.
This is not the end of this issue, it is the start. This post was about my own personal accountability in this very unfortunate situation. Beyond refusing to be quiet and making a charitable contribution to cover off any personal financial benefit that could be coming from Nestle (or other potential sponsors that I disagree with), there will be more actions planned. I have some fires burning, so for those who are interested in a clear yet respectful protest of Nestle's presence at BlogHer '10, please stay tuned.
Image credit: rock and hard place by Leonard John Matthews on flickr