To what extent have the banana multinationals been able to leverage ethical and environmental certification into their bottom lines?

Gone definitively are the days when the banana multinationals were perceived as either exploiters, colonisers or power brokers behind corrupt regimes. The US banana multinationals, not long ago the scourge of fairtrade NGOs, have all invested heavily in first securing and then publicising the social and environmental advances they have made on their farming operations in Central and South America. But can they make it pay?

Last September, Sumitomo subsidiary Fyffes published the results of its third independently conducted Human Rights Impact Assessment. In the same month, Del Monte chairman and CEO Mohammad Abu-Ghazaleh publicly lauded his company for making the Humankind 100 for the second successive year. The prestigious list honours companies that have a positive impact on critical areas, including access to food and clean water, healthcare, and digital services.

Fresh Del Monte was also recently honoured as one of America’s Most Trusted Companies by Newsweek for the second consecutive year. At the end of 2022, the world’s largest fresh produce company, Dole, announced a major upgrade to its Dole Way sustainability framework. This focuses on robust governance and three core pillars – ’For Nature, For People and For Food’ – that cover environmental, ethical and social and nutrition-related issues.

And in June 2023, Chiquita announced its induction into the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform (SAI Platform) as well as its own planned implementation of that entity’s Farm Sustainability Assessment 3.0 across its farms.

Calls to action

Brand activism occurs when a brand or business takes a stand on a particular social, environmental, economic, or political issue. It’s about supporting a cause that aligns with a company’s core values; communicating a commitment to creating a positive impact; and putting that commitment into action.

Brand activism will often incorporate ESG activism, which refers to individuals and organisations that advocate for environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) criteria as part of evaluating business operations.

Much as though the corporates can be accused of jumping on the brand activism bandwagon, the changes they have made appear to have been profound. However, impressive though they may be, these initiatives are not voluntary. They have also been a long time coming.

In the first paragraph of her foreword to the Fyffes’ report, author and Fyffes chief corporate affairs officer Caoimhe Buckley makes this clear when she writes: “On June 1, 2023, the European Parliament agreed its position on the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive. The directive brought companies with European business one step closer to a legal obligation to conduct human rights and environmental due diligence throughout their value chains – and mitigate any impacts.”

From an ethical perspective, the multinationals’ progress is admirable. But from a commercial perspective, questionable at best. It is unclear whether this newly found ethical dimension has enhanced their bottom lines. While clearly they cannot afford to ignore a European Parliament directive, little effort has been made to tell consumers about their social and environmental progress. Probably for good reason – releases target at the trade press, which perhaps better understands the concept of a virtuous supply chain than the consumer, whose primary interest is low prices.

In the eye of the storm

Over the past decade, the attention of activist NGOs has gradually shifted downwards along the chain. They have turned their ire away from the corporates and on to German discount retailer Aldi, which they say puts its own interests and those of its customers in front of the stakeholders at the head of the supply chain.

Then, last August and perhaps anticipating the EU Parliament directive, Aldi experienced something close to an epiphany. It announced it was to implement more responsible purchasing practices, pivotal among which was that prices it paid to its banana suppliers were fairer and more accurately reflected sustainable production costs. Aldi makes the market: so large is its share of the continental European banana marketplace, the world’s largest, that the price it pays is regarded as the benchmark against which all other retailers measure their own offer.

While Aldi may claim to have seen the light, the NGOs continue to hold the retail sector accountable. In early December, Oxfam Germany filed an official complaint against the country’s two largest food retail companies, Edeka and Rewe, under the new German Supply Chain Law. Effective 1 January 2023, this law allows German companies to be held accountable for human rights risks in their supply chains. Trade unions and NGOs can now lodge claims on behalf of victims, and companies can be fined if they fail to meet their human rights obligations.

Among the alleged violations detailed in the Oxfam Germany complaint are: workers on banana plantations in Ecuador and Costa Rica receive inadequate protection from aerial pesticide spraying; migrant workers are exploited by third-party contractors who pay them low wages and steal their healthcare contributions; workers are expected to work long hours, but are not paid for overtime; women suffer harassment and receive lower salaries than men; and older workers in Ecuador are routinely fired just before reaching 25 years of service – the age at which they would be entitled to a modest pension. The complaint also alleges that union oppression is widespread and that active unionists are blacklisted by employers across the sector.

The German Federal Office for Economic Affairs and Export Control (BAFA) is to review Oxfam Germany’s complaint. “It should not go without consequences that individual companies like Rewe and Edeka break the law while others take their legal obligations seriously,” the NGO states. “We hope BAFA will give companies concrete instructions and clearly formulate requirements for prevention and corrective actions in case of human rights violations. If companies do not comply with their obligations, BAFA can impose fines: up to 2 per cent of their annual turnover.”