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Leaving Home: Nestle, Nature’s, Stan Any, and “Rootless Corporations”

Leaving Home: Nestle, Nature's, Stan Any, and "Rootless Corporations" by Ness Mountain

Nature's on NE Fremont, which used to be our locally owned neighborhood health food store, now stocks Nestlé products. This is because Nature's Fresh Northwest has been sold to the expanding Wild Oats, as part of a national merger trend. Radical folks in the alternative community used to say that Nature's had already sold out, because it attracts a broader market by selling more commercial products. But the old Nature's never sold Nestlé.

The background: in 1977, INFACT, the Infant Formula Action Coalition, called for an international boycott of Nestlé, the world's foremost producer of infant formula, because of Nestlé's aggressive marketing of infant formula in the Third World. It became the largest boycott in history.

Formula is much less healthy than breastmilk, the perfect baby food. This is especially true in the poor countries, where available water often is not pure enough for infants. But formula companies give hospitals free samples - enough for a mother's milk supply to dry up before parents have to pay for it. When they can't afford it, they water it down. Babies die of starvation and diarrhea - about 1.5 million a year, according to UNICEF.

The boycott was lifted in 1984 because Nestlé promised to follow World Health Organization formula marketing codes. They didn't, and the boycott was reinstated in '88. So boycott Nestlé! Their brands include Nescafe, Hills Brothers, Carnation, Libby's, Alpo, Friskies, Contadina, Alcon, L'Oreal, Lean Cuisine, and several kinds of sweets. (For more information, see www.infactcanada.ca or www.action4corpacct.org/history.htm.)

I asked a store manager at the new Nature's about carrying Nestlé. "These products are here for educational purposes," she said, but when I questioned whether they would be educating the customers about the Nestlé boycott, she hedged: "I can't imagine what that would look like." I pointed to a presentation nook built into the shelving. She found other business to take care of. Welcome to the corporate world, friends!

I interviewed Stan Amy, the man who built Nature's from a tiny store in Corbett, to ask how he felt about the sale and the changes. He sounded a little sad, but he struck me as a realist.

"I tried to avoid this kind of territorial acquisition," he admitted. "I felt that it would be impossible for Nature's to compete in the natural foods market as big companies like Wild Oats moved in. In the grocery business, buying power determines the prices you get from suppliers. So I sold Nature's to GNC [the vitamin company], because we would be able to work with them. They needed our core staff, the buyers and creative people and so on.

"Then GNC stumbled financially. Their stock value fell and they had to sell Nature's to Wild Oats in a territorial acquisition. Our key staff was no longer needed. I have real questions about the general tenor of an economy driven by this kind of short-term oriented stock market. It's right up there with campaign finance.

"I suppose you're aware Nature's now sells Nestlé products" I steamed. "To me, that means that now they are just one more big corporation that doesn't care. How do you feel about it?"

"Well, I did promote the practice of selling familiar products - what we call crossover groceries - to help introduce people to natural foods," he said, "though I agree that they might have chosen another brand. But I'm an evangelical believer in the power of the consumer. As the information age becomes reality, I believe this will become the age of the empowered consumer. My hope is that consumers will recognize the value of local companies, the true corporate citizens. It is the rootless corporations that bother me - disembodied, abstract entities, who relate only to dollars and cents. It's when a corporation has no ties to an area that it loses its humanity and becomes socially destructive." (For the full text of the interview, see www.aracnet.com/~lochness/StanAmy.html).

Will Wild Oats grow roots here in the Northwest? If you're listening, Nature's, write in and speak your piece.

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