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History: Challenging corporate power since 1977

The activists who founded this organization had a vision for a better world: a world where people can meet their basic needs and reach their full human potential.

And they knew that to create that world, transnational corporations needed to be stopped from destroying people’s lives and the planet.

This is how Corporate Accountability began: with a commitment to challenging corporate power, a sense of urgency, and sheer determination.

1977: Launching the Nestlé boycott.

In the 1970s, transnational corporations were aggressively marketing powdered infant formula in communities across the globe. And as a result, babies in Global South countries were getting sick and dying from bottle feeding.

In order to sell infant formula to women who did not need — and indeed, were better off without — their products, corporations struck deals with doctors to prescribe infant formula to new mothers. They had salespeople dress up as nurses and sell their products. These salespeople and the corporations that hired them didn’t bother with the reality that these families wouldn’t be able to afford the formula in the long term. Nor did they care that they were selling this product in situations where people had limited refrigeration, fuel and tools to sterilize bottles, and clean water to mix with the formula.

All of this added up to hundreds of thousands of infants dying — babies who would have survived had it not been for Nestlé and other corporations’ unethical marketing practices.

Corporate Accountability (then Infact) was born when four activists joined forces: Leah Margulies, Doug Johnson, Mark Ritchie, and Doug Clement. They agreed preventing more deaths would require a strategic approach that had never been attempted before on a global scale. If the organization and its allies successfully challenged the market leader, Nestlé, to stop its dangerous practices, it might just send a ripple effect across the entire industry.

In 1977, the organization set up shop in a tiny basement office at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. They launched what eventually became the first successful international boycott of a transnational corporation — what Naomi Klein has called the “granddaddy of modern brand-based actions” — the Nestlé boycott.

In addition to the boycott, the infant formula campaign also was driven by the close partnership between U.S. organizers and  with doctors and health professionals in the Global South who were exposing Nestlé’s abuses around the world. When the organizers moved Congress to hold a hearing on this issue, for example, the health professionals from the Global South gave lengthy testimony and were featured as the true experts of the campaign.

As the boycott developed, our strategies and tactics were shaped by organizers and strategists who worked closely with Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Fred Ross Sr., and the United Farm Workers movement.

In the end, the campaign resulted in the first ever United Nations Code of Marketing, setting standards for the whole industry. More on the infant formula campaign.

And we established ourselves as a small-and-mighty campaign organization that was unafraid to challenge abusive corporations. We developed guiding strategies, a toolbox full of tactics, and a respectful approach to partnering with allies in the Global South that would enable us take on some of the most powerful entities in the world. Learn more about our approach.

1984: Nuclear weaponmakers campaign

After the Nestlé boycott, we turned our attention to a set of corporations that were threatening the entire planet: the nuclear weapons industry. We successfully compelled industry leader General Electric to completely move out of the business of producing and promoting nuclear weapons. The campaign employed a range of tactics including producing an Oscar-winning documentary. More on the nuclear weaponmakers campaign.

1994: Tobacco campaign

In 1994, CEOs of seven U.S. tobacco corporations stood before Congress and lied to the U.S. public, saying they didn’t know nicotine was addictive. Meanwhile, millions of people were dying from tobacco-related diseases. Our bold campaign has helped change the aggressive marketing practices and reduced the influence of the world’s deadliest industry. It has contributed greatly to the passage and implementation of the world’s first public health and corporate accountability treaty. Today, we are partnering with allies around the world to make Big Tobacco pay for its harms and set precedents for reining in other deadly industries. More on our tobacco campaign.

2004: Water campaign

Global water corporations like Nestlé and Veolia are intensifying their efforts to put the public’s water in private hands, deepening a world water crisis where one in four people don’t have enough clean water to drink. Corporate Accountability launched a campaign to ensure a world that upholds the human right to water and where human need is put before corporate greed. Since 2006, our water campaign has moved millions of people, dozens of cities, and hundreds of national parks to move beyond bottled water and reinvest in the tap. We have helped compel the World Bank to divest from one of the world’s largest water corporations, and we have protected public water systems by helping prevent their privatization from Lagos, Nigeria to St. Louis, Missouri. And at the U.N., we are advancing a treaty that could protect the human right to water from corporate abuse. More on the water campaign.

2009: Food campaign

In the first decade of the 21st century, we faced a broken food system that was ravaging the environment, causing one in seven people to go hungry, and causing nearly twice that many to suffer from diet-related diseases. We decided it was time to demand change from the handful of global corporations that have fundamentally reshaped the way we grow, eat, and think about our food. And we focused on the rotten core of this broken system: McDonald’s, the largest and most profitable fast food corporation. Since the launch of the campaign, we’ve fundamentally shifted the landscape in which McDonald’s does business. We’ve compelled McDonald’s to conduct an expensive and unsuccessful overhaul of its image, moved institutions from hospitals to the Olympics to sever ties with McDonald’s, and partnered with parents and educators to keep McDonald’s out of schools. More on our food campaign.

2014: Climate campaign

In 2014, millions of people were already feeling the effects of rising global temperatures — the tip of the proverbial iceberg — but the international community still wasn’t taking effective action on climate change. And that’s because the fossil fuel industry and other polluting corporations were using any means necessary to stop binding climate policy. So we began to organize with people around the world to hold these corporations accountable and remove them from the policymaking process. Our campaign has turned what was once an untouchable subject — the fossil fuel industry’s conflicts of interest in climate policy — into a hotly debated issue at the U.N. climate treaty negotiations and in national policymaking. We’ve also supported policymakers from former President Obama to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey to take decisive action on climate change and hold the fossil fuel industry accountable. More on our climate campaign.

2016: Advancing democracy

In 2016, we saw that the unprecedented power of transnational corporations required us to defend and advance democracy. Donald Trump was elected president and promptly enacted a “corporate coup d’état,” in the words of Naomi Klein. He appointed Goldman Sachs and Exxon Mobil executives, among others, to run our government. With a small elite exercising ever-greater control over policy and democracy on the ropes, we launched the Corporate Accountability Action League. We aimed to catalyze an intersectional, pro-democracy, corporate accountability movement capable of steering a course toward global survival and a world where all can thrive.

Activists across the country answered our call to action, filling the streets with people demanding climate justice and building grassroots power to protect public water. Today, in communities across the country, Action League members are doing the deep work of reversing the corporate takeover of our democracy and our lives. Learn more.

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