Does Nestlé care? Consumers want to know

Nestle says, “The impact that we have locally has the potential to be felt internationally; the ideas that you bring to life today could shape our future”.  I couldn’t agree more.  The impact Nestle has internationally can also, of course, be felt locally.

Nearly half the entire Rohingya population in Rakhine state has been either murdered or expelled in what is the 21st Century’s most glaring case of ethnic cleansing; it is increasingly difficult to not characterize what is happening in Myanmar as a full-blown genocide.  Nestle is one of the biggest companies in the world, even without its significant investment in Myanmar, they possess the kind of global influence that could potentially persuade the regime in Yangon to not only halt its pogroms in Rakhine, but indeed, to reverse its policy of repression against the Rohingya.

It is absolutely essential for the most powerful players in the international business community to back up the United Nations’ and the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State’s recommendations for resolving the crisis in Myanmar if they are ever going to bear fruit.  We cannot talk about powerful players without talking about Nestle, the largest foods company on Earth.  Any word from Nestle weighs heavily on the scales of policy-making, not only in Myanmar, but around the world.  Their silence is just as significant.

When major companies like Nestle do not take a stand against genocide, it is interpreted by the regime as permission; and it will be interpreted by consumers as either indifference at best, or actual complicity and collusion at worst.

Nestle has been admirably responsive to public grievances in many instances, such as the recent campaign by Greenpeace over the company’s use of palm oil from Sinar Mas.  They took many steps to address the concerns; steps that no doubt came at a considerable expense for Nestle.

Condemning genocide costs nothing.

What Nestle stands to lose by speaking out is negligible compared to what they stand to lose by their silence; and indeed, to what they stand to gain by taking a stand.  The people in the Southeast Asian region care tremendously about the Rohingya issue; tempers are running high as the pogroms continue while the international community seems to remain largely ineffectual.  A “Day of Anger” has been announced for November 5th, with protests planned in Malaysia and around the world.  But directionless outrage and frustration can lead to very negative and even destructive consequences.  It is time for the global business leaders like Nestle to take the lead in reining in the Myanmar regime by letting them know that multinational corporations and foreign investors do not approve, and will not tolerate the crimes against humanity being perpetrated against the Rohingya.

It is time for Nestle and other leading companies to align themselves with the call for peace and justice in Rakhine.  It is time for Nestle to declare that “We Are All Rohingya Now”.

The necessity of the moral corporate voice

From a Public Relations perspective, I can’t think of an easier way for a company to show its humanity than by condemning genocide and endorsing recommendations for a peaceful resolution in Myanmar.

The United Nations, the official body representing international consensus has already characterised the situation in Rakhine state as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing“.  The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, which issued a detailed report about the repression and violence against the Rohingya and offered solutions, was a project of the Kofi Annan Foundation, headed by the former UN Secretary General who initiated the Global Compact with big business in the year 2000.  There is no controversy in the international community about the nature of what is happening in Myanmar, and companies risk nothing by taking a stand consistent with the position of the UN.  On the contrary, reluctance to do so sends a very negative message making people wonder if companies invested in Myanmar even care that crimes against humanity are being committed; or worse, if they might actually approve of the genocide.

Western multinationals may feel that their foothold in Myanmar is delicate, and that they are at a disadvantage compared to China.  They may believe that if they take a stand on the Rohingya issue, Myanmar will simply rush into the arms of Chinese companies and investors, and they will lose their position in the country.  But the truth is, if they do not take a stand, they run the risk of alienating the broader market of 600 million consumers in Southeast Asia, not to mention people worldwide who are concerned about this issue.

Myanmar is extremely interested in diversifying the sources of its Foreign Direct Investment, and by definition, investment by Western companies brings more value than investment by Chinese companies.  The value of investment is not always derived from the amount of capital, but by the importance of the source of the capital.  And Myanmar is struggling to move away from dependence on Chinese financial support.  Furthermore, the core cause of the violence in Rakhine state is based on the economic ambitions of the government, with a view to improving its position for collaboration with foreign investors and corporations.  A public statement against the violence, and calling for implementation of UN recommendations would be far more likely to result in a cessation of ethnic cleansing than a rejection of Western companies.

Companies like Unilever, Nestle, Shell Oil, Chevron, and so forth, are the targets of almost continuous negative campaigns by human rights and environmental activists who portray them as ruthless, inhuman and corrupt entities that care more about profits than people.  Obviously, this is unfair and simplistic and overlooks the many positive initiatives these companies undertake for the populations where they operate.  But keeping silent about something as horrific as genocide will make it very difficult for any average person to view a company as socially responsible no matter what else it does to prove that it cares about humanity. And, of course, this negative perception will have detrimental market implications.

If taking a stand against crimes against humanity is not the lowest standard of corporate social responsibility, I don’t know what is.  It is becoming more urgent by the day for the international business community to align itself with the consensus of the broader international community and let their customers know where they stand before their silence is interpreted as either indifference or complicity.

We sincerely urge all major corporate investors in Myanmar, and even those who have not entered Myanmar, to join with their consumer constituents, with the United Nations, and with companies like Unilever and Telenor, to publicly declare “We Are All Rohingya Now”.