After Facebook backlash, Nestle steps up sustainability

A Facebook campaign led to a PR disaster for Nestle, and now the food giant is cutting ties to companies that contribute to deforestation in their harvesting of palm oil.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
3 min read

An aggressive, meant-to-shock Facebook and YouTube campaign on behalf of Greenpeace has led food conglomerate Nestle to modify its policies regarding the use of palm oil.

Nestle announced early Monday that it has partnered with The Forest Trust, a nonprofit group that helps businesses develop practices to harvest forests sustainably. The partnership is designed to reduce the social and environmental impacts of Nestle's corporate supply chain by severing ties to companies that contribute to deforestation. The first issue addressed will be its use of palm oil--the harvesting of which has been connected to the loss of rainforests and the animal species that inhabit them, as well as to greenhouse gas emissions.

Greenpeace considers this a major victory: two months ago, the environmental group targeted Nestle's use of palm oil with a purposely unsettling video that compared eating Kit-Kat bars to snacking on the bloodied appendages of orangutans. When Nestle lobbied to have the video removed from YouTube, Greenpeace turned the heat up a notch and encouraged supporters to start posting comments in protest on Nestle's Facebook fan page and to change their profile photos to modified versions of the Nestle logo (i.e. "Killer" instead of Kit-Kat"). The whole thing turned into a particularly ugly social-media mess for Nestle when the manager of the company's fan page on Facebook started getting argumentative and rude. The commenters grew more vocal, even after the page manager apologized.

Nestle's announcement on Monday makes no mention of the digital smackdown that pressured it into making this change, but Greenpeace was quick to highlight the role of social media and the more traditional forms of grassroots lobbying.

"With nearly 1.5 million views of our Kit Kat advert, over 200,000 emails sent, hundreds of phone calls and countless Facebook comments, you made it clear to Nestle that it had to address the problems with the palm oil and paper products it buys," Greenpeace's U.K. division said in a statement Monday. "Greenpeace campaigners have met several times with Nestle executives to discuss the problems with sourcing of palm oil and paper products. It certainly seemed like things were moving forward in these discussions. But we didn't expect Nestle to come up with such a comprehensive 'zero deforestation' policy so quickly."

Nestle said it had already set a goal to make its palm oil products 100 percent sustainable by 2015. Right now, it's at 18 percent.

So is its partnership with The Forest Trust anything more than just posturing? Greenpeace is optimistic. The Forest Trust is an "independent organization we've worked with before (and) will be closely monitoring Nestle's progress," according to Greenpeace's statement.

Over on Nestle's Facebook fan page, the atmosphere is a lot sunnier than it was two months ago.

"If Nestle does really well and leads by example, then other large companies willing to keep market share in the future will need to follow a similar track. I feel more happy today than yesterday," one commenter wrote.

Another added, "This is proof that at least Nestle [is] listening to the negative feedback."

But corporate championing of sustainability is under a lot of scrutiny these days, particularly after last month's accident on a BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The petroleum giant, which had spent years rebranding itself as a forward-thinking energy company, still has not stopped the oil gushing into the gulf.

Many commenters on Nestle's Facebook page who were writing about its partnership with The Forest Trust were, at best, cautiously optimistic. "This is good news from Nestle, provided that this partnership with TFT is serious and leads to an ambitious action plan," a Facebook member posted in the comments section.

Others were downright cynical. "Yeah, yeah, mankind will pay for its sinful ways, etc.," one commenter griped. "Let's go sit in a park and play bongos."