Have Faith in Business: Nestlé, Religious Shareholders, and the Quest for Ethical Corporate Strategies [1970s-1990s]

From a historical perspective, shareholder activism took many forms and shareholders’ claims were not limited to higher dividends. During the 1970s, some shareholders embraced the goals of activist groups, labor unions and developing countries. This contribution seeks to shed light on such dynamics and focuses on religious shareholders at Nestlé, one of the biggest multinationals in the food-processing industry. By triangulating archival material produced by activists as well as corporate board members, the analysis provides insights into the origins and motivations of a group of religious shareholders, as well as the strategies Nestlé’s leading figures developed in response to such activism. This group of religious shareholders, called CANES (Convention d’actionnaires Nestlé), was led by members of Catholic and Protestant families who had inherited Nestlé shares and who wished to see Nestlé’s strategy being more in harmony with religious and ethical guidelines. According to this group, the firm should donate a portion of its profits to charities and implement economic strategies that would help develop Third World countries. CANES activists used shareholder meetings as a platform to attract the attention of Nestlé’s board and the press. Nestlé’s attitude was rather hostile, even though its mangers did sometimes agree to meet with CANES activists. Instead of addressing CANES’ particular demands, however, Nestlé chose to engage in a broader dialogue with representatives of the main churches in Switzerland, and internationally. The purpose of these meetings was to increase mutual understanding, but also to depoliticize the churches. CANES was finally dissolved at the end of the 1980s, but its legacy still lives on in foundations such as Ethos and Actares which promote socially responsible investment (SRI).