Corporate Accountability International: Global Action Challenging Unhealthy Corporate Practices

For thirty years, Corporate Accountability International has fought and won campaigns against corporate abuse in the Food, Energy, Tobacco, Water, Oil, and Agribusiness industries. Many of those victories have set precedents in the fight for corporate accountability.

Early history as focused on Nestlé and infant formula

Corporate Accountability International began in 1977, under the name Infant Formula Action Coalition (INFACT). Its first target was the multinational food company Nestlé. At that time, Nestlé was the world’s largest producer of infant formula. Its aggressive global advertising and marketing campaigns promoted infant formula at the expense of breastmilk, despite overwhelming evidence that breast milk was the healthier choice.

Public health advocates were especially critical of Nestlé’s marketing in impoverished regions where money to purchase the formula, access to clean water, and proper sanitation of bottles was scarce or absent all together. As a result, the product was widely misused as people watered down the formula in an attempt to save money. The resulting health problems for mothers, children and families as well as population health were a direct result of Nestlé’s marketing practices.INFACT led a campaign and boycott of Nestlé which centered on bringing the company’s health and human rights abuses into public view and holding the corporation accountable. After nearly 10 years of fighting to restrict Nestlé’s behavior, INFACT saw victory as the World Health Organization (WHO) established global infant formula marketing standards. Nestlé then altered its marketing practices in “economically poor” regions that had been specifically hard hit by their practices, although battles between global infant formula companies and public health activists continue. According to Corporate Accountability International, the Nestle Boycott was an unprecedented victory for grassroots consumer campaigns—the first time a major corporation came to the table with ordinary consumers and agreed to make changes in its behavior worldwide.

Transformation to more broadly focused organization

Since the success of their Nestlé boycott, Corporate Accountability International has expanded, launching several successful campaigns related indirectly or directly to public health. For example, from 1984-1993, Corporate Accountability International (still INFACT at the time) took on General Electric, then the largest producer and promoter of nuclear weapons, for their role contributing to Cold War nuclear arms race. The organization began an international boycott of GE’s commercial goods that highlighted GE’s role in nuclear arms manufacturing. According to Corporate Accountability International, the boycott contributed to GE’s decision to drop its nuclear weapons business.

Beginning in the early 1990’s, Corporate Accountability International launched their Challenge Big Tobacco campaign and by 2003 achieved what its activists view as their biggest accomplishment: the WHO’s enactment of a global tobacco treaty, known as the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). The global tobacco treaty is the world’s first public health and corporate accountability treaty. It has the potential to save millions of lives and change the way tobacco corporations operate around the world. The treaty sets powerful precedents for regulating other industries like the pharmaceutical, water, food and agribusiness and oil industries. In 2004, INFACT changed its name to Corporate Accountability International to more accurately reflect the organization’s expanded mission.

Current Campaigns

Corporate Accountability International currently runs campaigns focusing on the Water, Tobacco, Oil, Food and Agribusiness, and Big Box Retail Industries. Its campaigns target some of the world’s largest corporations with the most direct impact on health, the environment and human rights.

“Think Outside the Bottle”

Corporate Accountability International’s current Challenge Corporate Control of Water campaign fights the privatization of water and the corporations that are attempting global control of this vital resource. The organization has seen national success with the ‘Think Outside the Bottle’ campaign that targets corporations like Pepsi, Coke and Nestlé for their practice of bottling tap water and selling it back to the public. Initial achievements include working to convince mayors to cancel bottled water contracts and to pass a resolution at the June 2007 U.S. Conference of Mayors that supported municipal water and called for a study of the impact of bottled water on cities.

Another water victory came as a direct result of a Corporate Accountability International campaign. Yielding to pressure from that group and other activists, Pepsi announced in July that it will make changes to the Aquafina bottled water drink label naming the waters actual source: the tap. In a press release, Corporate Accountability International called Pepsi’s concession an important first step. In a recent interview on Democracy Now!, Gigi Kellett, the group’s associate campaigns director, explained, she found that:

People on the street… don’t know where the water is coming from. And the bottled water corporations have spent tens of millions of dollars on ads that make people think that bottled water is somehow better, cleaner, safer than our public water systems. And in reality, we know that that’s not true. And so, we want to make sure that we’re increasing our people’s confidence in their public water systems once again and knowing that we need to be investing in our public systems.

Corporate Accountability International defines the success of its campaigns by their ability to persuade corporations to change policies or practices. In exchange for such corporate concessions, the organization ends the boycotts it has organized such as those against Nestlé, General Electric, and Philip Morris/Altria-owned Kraft. This approach relies on grassroots participation, both national and international, to expose unhealthy corporate behaviors and the political ties that keep corporations unchecked by the public sector. The campaigns seek to create public visibility and open debate of key global public health issues.

Tobacco Campaigns

In its Tobacco Industry Campaign, which began in 1993, Corporate Accountability International worked closely with the World Health Organization to target the tobacco industry.

In the early 1990s the organization began campaigns against Philip Morris (now Altria) and RJR Nabisco (now Reynolds American Tobacco). The campaign called for a boycott of then Philip Morris/Altria-owned Kraft, during which Corporate Accountability International exposed Big Tobacco’s attempts to hide behind Kraft’s family friendly image and to disguise its political influence. This campaign may have contributed to the recent company spin-off of Kraft. For the past 14 years, Corporate Accountability International members have attended Philip Morris’ annual shareholders meetings to raise health, human rights and other issues.

At the 2007 Philip Morris/Altria shareholder meeting, for example, Corporate Accountability International Executive Director Kathryn Mulvey called on PM/Altria CEO Louis Camilleri to honor a commitment the company had made to halt sponsorship of Formula One auto racing. Your corporation continues to sponsor these races. You are violating an agreement you signed six years ago—and the global tobacco treaty, which bans tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship in ratifying countries. In this effort, the group used the success of the Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC), to regulate the promotion of tobacco, as a tool to put pressure on individual companies.

As a result of the FCTC, the tobacco industry has faced new scrutiny in its marketing practices and new pressure to adhere to global standards. Corporate Accountability International, as one of many NGOs around the world with official relations with the WHO, played a key role in securing a strong FCTC and in strengthening enforcement action. Together, these hundreds of small and large NGOs have the potential to create a united front against Big Tobacco.

Last month, the President’s Cancer Panel, in which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute were represented, released a report urging the President to ratify the FCTC and to more vigorously regulate food companies that promoted high fat, high calorie, low nutrient carcinogenic diets. The report, “Promoting Healthy Lifestyles,” reminds us; Even absent ratification, by signing the FCTC, the U.S. is obligated not to undermine the goals of the treaty. Thus, the Cancer Panel’s recommendations echoed the call of Corporate Accountability International Senior Organizer Megan Rising, who said, The time has come for the President to heed the call of his top health advisors and the U.S. public and submit the global tobacco treaty to the Senate for ratification. With even a presidential panel accepting its recommendations, it’s clear that Corporate Accountability International has contributed to putting corporate accountability on the nation’s public health agenda.

Photo Credit: All photos courtesy of Corporate Accountability International