The Ethics of a KitKat – Ruby McIntee

“The author of this piece managed to evoke the seriousness and urgency each one of us should apply to our daily decisions in order to create genuine global change. The text does what only great writing can do: explain the seemingly insurmountable through the relatable.” – Dan Bernardo

I hold my breath as a young mother scans their shopping in the self-service section of Tesco. Cheerios, FELIX cat food, a bottle of Acqua Panna water and finally some baby formula. 

She scans her items, likely ignorant that she need only thank two organisations for her cereal and cat food, snacks, and baby formula. Her entire shop, all from just two companies. The first is BlackRock; the largest shareholder in Tesco PLC and the second is the multinational corporate conglomerate, Nestlé, from which comes every commodity she has purchased. 

Nestlé is one of the world’s largest food corporations, and its enormous size is matched by its proclivity for evil. Initially, we see this in the 70s, with a baby formula scandal in which Nestlé brutally targeted mothers in developing countries using dubious marketing ploys. [1] Among these tactics: inaccurate advertisements claiming the formulae was better for babies than breast milk, dressing up saleswomen as nurses and partnering with quack doctors and hospitals to help them peddle Nestlé products. [2] Perhaps the most insidious tactic was giving out just enough free samples, so that mothers would stop suitably lactating to provide for an infant, rendering the product a necessity and thus coercing them to buy more. In contrast to their advertising, the formula cost many babies their lives. Not only were parents unable to afford formula after mothers stopped lactating, but they also often lacked sterile water to mix the formula which was never as nutritional as breast milk in the first place. 

Although this is Nestlé’s most infamous product, their list of unscrupulous businesses is considerably broader. They requested a $6 million debt repayment from Ethiopia during a severe famine, and all over the world, they have been reported to pollute, deforest, price-fix, union-bust, and even use cocoa harvested by trafficked children. [3] 

But all this is overshadowed by their recent forays into owning and selling water, a necessity for life that is also a dwindling resource in times of climate change. Nestlé makes roughly 4 billion a year [4] from attempting to privatise water by extracting it using expired permits, pumping out more than is legally permitted, and diverting precious, clean water to their production centres, crippling local communities in the process. Or, as this highly unethical practice of commercialising a product that is broadly considered a human right is alternatively known; Nestlé boasts 4 billion Swiss francs of revenue from their “bottled water industry”. 

The efforts to privatise water are very clearly connected to the pressures of climate change. Currently, we are facing an unprecedented water shortage problem, with huge cities such as Cape Town and Mexico City already having endured periodic shutdowns of public water taps. [5] By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water scarcity. We are watching as around half of the world’s wetlands dry up, as otherwise viable freshwater sources become too polluted to use, and yet we continue to waste precious water in inefficient agricultural and industrial processes without proper regulation. Not only that, but global warming is also altering vital weather patterns around the world, causing droughts in some places and floods in others. [6] 

Organisations such as Nestlé and BlackRock have been consistently polluting for monetary gain, adding to the ongoing climate crisis. The figures are appalling, with Nestlé having emitted 92 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, [7] and BlackRock having emitted a whopping 330 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. [8] While many such companies attempt to condemn customers for their emissions, it is important to note how little people like the young mother buying their products in Tesco know about these mega conglomerates. You would never guess that to buy cat food is to be complicit in a system responsible for baby deaths or child labour; in the same way, you would not know that buying from Tesco is contributing greatly to the climate crisis – not just because of how individuals consume but also because of the climate-killing business practices of the company that backs them financially. 

Some people suggest that these companies have the expertise and knowledge to solve our biggest problems. They might be right. But their past behaviour exposes Orwellian truths that predict their future actions. 

Look at Flint Michigan where the residents were battling a water crisis. In a last-ditch effort to save money, the city switched its clean drinking water from Detroit to the flint river. [9] The result: children consuming brown and undrinkable municipal water with high amounts of lead, [10] residents bathing in the contaminated sludge as well as hair loss and skin rashes on those consistently exposed to the toxic water. [11] Meanwhile, Nestlé was paying a measly $200 for the rights to bottle drinking water from the same lake where the residents used to get their free municipal water. [12] Nestlé profited from the disaster, marking up the price and reselling the water back to Michigan residents, who had little choice as they needed clean water. While immoral and unethical, this was entirely legal then, and it still is today. Nestlé recently won its legal case, ensuring they can continue with this profitable enterprise, at least in Michigan. [13]

We could see much of the same problems in Michigan happening globally if we don’t protect water rights and regulate opportunistic conglomerates now. We must ensure that legal verdicts enshrine a person’s right to clean affordable water, and not help pave the way for the privatisation of water. 

We take our water supply for granted, as we do the air we breathe. If we continue to support a system that privatizes water and incentivises mega corporations to profit from disaster, we will all be in turmoil. But it is hard to escape the system. It may be impossible for any individual, no matter how much they understand about the crisis. Perhaps the young mother does know what she is buying. After all, I am in Tesco. I am waiting to buy something. I hold in my hand a Kit-Kat. I don’t have to tell you who makes them. 

I think you already know.


1 Boyd, C. (2012). The Nestlé infant formula controversy and a strange web of subsequent business scandals. Journal of Business Ethics. 

2 Mike Muller. (1974). The baby killer. War on Want. 

3 Nestlé; Corporation Crimes. (2007). Public Interest Investigations Power Base. Retrieved June 3, 2022, from 

4 Nestlé. (2021). Annual review 2021. review-en.pdf 

5 Welch, C. (2021, May 3). Why cape town is running out of water, and the cities that are next. Science. Retrieved June 6, 2022, from water-drought-taps-shutoff-other-cities

6 Water scarcity | threats | WWF. (n.d.). World Wildlife Fund. Retrieved 2022, from 

7 Acting on climate change. (n.d.). Nestlé. Retrieved June 6, 2022, from gb/sustainability/climate-change#flag-fn1 

8 BlackRock tallied its climate impact. Here’s what it found. (2022, February 1). POLITICO. Retrieved June 5, 2022, from 9 Flint water crisis | summary, facts, governor, & criminal charges. (n.d.). Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved June 3, 2022, from 

10 Flint water crisis: $626m settlement reached for lead poisoning victims. (2021). BBC. Retrieved June 7, 2022, from 

11 Clark, A. (2018, July 4). ‘Nothing to worry about. The water is fine’: How flint poisoned its people. The Guardian. Retrieved June 5, 2022, from about-the-water-is-fine-how-flint-michigan-poisoned-its-people 

12 Glenza, J. (2017, September 29). Nestlé pays $200 a year to bottle water near flint – where water is undrinkable. The Guardian. Retrieved June 3, 2022, from news/2017/sep/29/Nestle-pays-200-a-year-to-bottle-water-near-flint-where-water-is-undrinkable

13 Garret Ellison, (2020, April 28). Nestlé wins legal challenge to Michigan groundwater extraction. Mlive. Retrieved June 4, 2022, from challenge-to-michigan-groundwater-extraction.html