Bananas


Ethical shopping guide to Bananas, from Ethical Consumer

Ethical shopping guide to Bananas, from Ethical Consumer


This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.


We peel back the skin to reveal a troubled banana industry

This report includes:

  • Ethical and environmental ratings for 20 banana brands
  • The role of supermarkets in keeping wages low
  • Workers and pesticides
  • Fairtrade and organic bananas
  • Should we trust the Rainforest Alliance certified scheme?

 

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Our ratings are live updated scores from our primary research database. They are based on primary and secondary research across 23 categories - 17 negative categories and 6 positive ones (Company Ethos and Product Sustainability). Find out more about our ethical ratings

 

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Best Buys

as of April 2017


As our ratings are updated daily, it is possible that the company ratings on the score table may have changed since this report was written.

 

For supermarket bananas, go to the ones whose policy is to only sell Fairtrade bananas:

The Co-op, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s.

The Co-op is a best buy in our supermarkets guide.

 

For non supermarket bananas, the Eko Oke brand is best.

It is dual certified as Fairtrade and organic and is sold by independent retailers and wholefood shops.

 


Places
to buy

Image: Banana

 


Image: Banana

 


Ethical Consumer makes a small amount of money from your purchase. This goes to fund our research and campaigning. We ethically screen all the sites we link to.
 
Last updated: April 2017 

 

 

 

The Banana Saga

 

Since the development of the banana export trade in the early 1890s, workers’ rights violations and environmental problems have consistently been reported in the industry.

The campaign group Make Fruit Fair explains that the history of how bananas became one of Europe’s favourite fruits is a “key example of trade injustice and power concentration in the hands of a few multinational companies which has affected the lives of thousands of small banana farmers and workers.”

 

Image: Banana

 

Ethical Consumer’s report looks at the four largest multinational companies that dominate this market – Dole, Fresh Del Monte, Chiquita and Fyffes – and found that none scored best or even middle in our key social and environmental reporting ratings. It seems progress towards a banana supply chain which values its workers and protects the environment is still far away.

This product guide provides a brief history of the banana story to date and the effect this has had on the environment and workers. It will also talk about the current initiatives, certifications and campaigns that help consumers contribute to a better way forward.

 


The banana trade
 

The history of the exported variety of bananas begins in the early 1890s when large amounts of fertile land in central America were colonised by American Fruit companies. Companies such as the United Fruit Company (UFC) – now Chiquita, and Standard Fruit – now Dole,  bought up large areas of land in Honduras, and other Latin American countries, dominating the cultivation, harvesting, and export of bananas along with controlling the road, rail, and port infrastructure.

Through this oligopolistic structure, the companies consolidated their power making it hard for smaller producers to compete against their economies of scale. Weak governance and corruption led to cheaper production costs as companies took advantage of poor environmental and workers’ rights regulations.

 


Fruit companies’ market share
 

Until the 1980s, the global banana export trade was dominated by three companies: Dole, Fyffes and Chiquita. They accounted for over 65% of banana exports. However their dominance has been waning ever since. In 2013, a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) found that they represented just 36% of the global banana exports.

 


 


Supermarkets
 

As the banana companies began a process of divestment from the direct ownership of plantations and ships, the main barrier to entry for businesses subsided, allowing smaller producers and retailers to get a slice of the pie.

According to Banana Linkin Britain, supermarkets sell 80% of the bananas we eat. The grocery retail sector is dominated by just a few big supermarkets, led by Tesco with over 30% of the sector, closely followed by Asda/Wal-Mart and Sainsbury’s (16% each) and Morrisons (12%).”

 

Image: Banana

 

Ethical Consumer rates companies across their whole group activities which means that the supermarkets score lower when compared to the fruit companies.

For most consumers buying bananas, the question will not be which fruit company to buy from or avoid but which supermarket. Some of the supermarkets have direct relationships with banana exporting companies such as Tesco and Fresh Del Monte.

While others, such as M&S and Morrisons, sell bananas which are supplied from some of their own farms. The top nine supermarkets in the UK all sell bananas covered under one of the certification schemes however, we would recommend consumers look for dual certification of Fairtrade and organic bananas. See our ethical shopping guide to Supermarkets. 

 

Table: Fairtrade

 

 

Price wars
 

The changing of the guard, from multinational fruit companies to food retailers, has brought additional pressures to the banana industry. Over the past few decades, the big UK supermarkets – Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons – have been accused of slashing prices of bananas in efforts to compete for customers.

 

Table: Banana Pricing

 

By selling bananas as loss leaders and price matching with their competitors they have been accused of making it “harder for farmers and workers to achieve the improvements they badly need in wages, access to services like education and healthcare and improved housing, as well as environmental sustainability in banana production.”

For more information about the effects of the price wars on the banana industry read Fairtrade Foundation’s 2014 report ‘Britain’s Bruising Banana Wars’.

 




Environment problems in Banana production
 

Most of the bananas eaten come from one single variety, the Cavendish. Banana Link states:

“This lack of genetic variety makes plants highly susceptible to pests, fungi and diseases and therefore large quantities of insecticides and other pesticides are applied to the crops. As the pests and diseases adapt, ever stronger, more harmful pesticides need to be applied.”

The use of chemicals causes environmental problems such as contamination of water courses; massive levels of waste; soil erosion; deforestation and destruction of habitats; and destruction of soil fertility resulting in high fertiliser use.

As well as an intensive use of pesticides, the conventional production process involves covering banana bunches with polyethylene bags to protect them from wind, attacks from insects and birds, and to maintain optimum temperatures.

 

 

Workers and pesticides
 

For plantation workers and local people, the health impacts of extensive agrochemical use are numerous, ranging from depression and respiratory problems to cancer, miscarriages and birth defects.

Tens of thousands of workers left sterile by the use of a nematicide – DBCP (dibromochloropropane) – in Nicaragua and Costa Rica in the 1970s, are still seeking justice in the US courts from the multinationals involved.

In 2016, Oxfam Germany released a report called ‘Sweet Fruit Bitter Truth’ which investigated the tropical fruit chains of German supermarkets, including Lidl and Aldi. The report found:

“The Ecuadorian banana industry uses highly poisonous substances such as Paraquat, which is not licensed for use in the EU.”

It also found that spraying pesticides from aeroplanes was standard. On a plantation which supplies Lidl amongst others, 60% of the workers interviewed stated that they work on the plantations during or straight after aeroplane spraying has taken place – “a clear violation of state-recommended re-entry safety periods.”

None of the banana companies had publicly available policiewww.bananalink.orgs on their websites stating their policies towards the application of chemicals on their plantations, nor was there any information regarding which chemicals they had banned.

 


 


Workers’ rights in the Banana supply chain
 

Through keeping retail prices low, a downward pressure is created throughout the banana supply chain to cut costs. And it is the workers who usually bear the brunt of the cutting of costs with employers paying lower wages and cutting back on health and safety equipment, and sickness and maternity pay.

 

Image: Make Fruit Fair

 

The International Trade Union Confederations’ report in 2014 ranked several of the banana exporting countries – Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Peru and Ecuador – as some of the worst places in the world for workers.

Banana Link states “Trade union membership is low in some exporting countries due to the widespread use of a range of anti-union tactics by national and multinational banana companies. In Guatemala, banana workers face some of the worst conditions and trade union activists face violence and even assassination.”

In March 2017, the offices of Colombian trade union SINTRAINAGRO were attacked. According to Banana Link, the trade union represents 35,000 workers engaged in the production and/or export of bananas, plus other agricultural products, and has been targeted in the past with an estimated 1,300 leaders and members of the union having been murdered.

 


 


Politics in the Banana Trade

 

Several of the companies have been accused of funding paramilitary organisations.

The recent peace deal signed between the Colombian government and FARC rebel guerrilla group, in December 2016, represented a historic moment for the people of Colombia, who saw millions of people disappeared, feared killed, during the conflict.

In February 2017, Justice for Colombia reported that the Prosecutor General’s Office had announced “private companies are [to be] charged with crimes against humanity”. As part of the transitional justice model, FARC members, as well as thousands of civilians, companies and government officials have been accused of war-related crimes.

Multinational companies, including Del Monte, Dole Food Company and Chiquita were named for voluntarily financing right-wing paramilitary groups in the northern banana-producing region of Uraba.

The so-called ‘Banana Block’ was an umbrella organisation of the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, and controlled territory in the area to protect the banana producers. One of the most feared paramilitary groups in the country, the AUC was deemed a terrorist organisation by the Colombian government and disbanded in 2006. The group was responsible for a number of massacres, human rights abuses, kidnappings and extortions that resulted in the displacement of thousands of Colombians.

In 2007 Chiquita paid a $25 million criminal fine after pleading guilty to charges of engaging in transactions with a terrorist organisation in Colombia. It subsequently sold its Colombian operations, Banadex, to Banacol in 2004.

Banacol was also accused, in 2012, of hiring private contractors to illegally invade and occupy Afro-Colombian peace communities in the Curvarado river region of Colombia in order to clear the land for banana cultivation.

 


 

 

Certification Schemes

 

Fairtrade certification
 

Bananas were one of the first products to become certified under the Fairtrade label over 20 years ago. Its involvement in the banana industry has been credited with helping to support many small producers. 


The Fairtrade label stands for the following principles:

Paying a fair price – Producers get a fair price, covering the cost of production, cost of decent living and a reasonable profit.

Decent working conditions – Workers on plantations, farms, in processing plants and other businesses work in decent and safe conditions and receive a living wage.

Development of local communities – A significant part of the income from Fairtrade is invested into development projects in producer communities. These projects include the provision of drinking water, construction of roads, educational and health facilities, covering costs of education and vocational training, healthcare, microfinance, etc.

Environmental sustainability – Harmful agrochemicals and GMOs are excluded from the Fairtrade system. Additionally, those production techniques are supported that preserve valuable ecosystems and protect the health of both producers and consumers.

The Fairtrade Foundation produced a report, in 2016, which looked at its impact within the banana industry. It found it had:

“Improved livelihoods, with positive impacts on income for banana farmers and benefits for workers on plantations, as well as better living standards, food security and wellbeing for both. Small producer organisations have been strengthened through Fairtrade, and many now share the costs and risks of banana production with their members. Studies also found an improved sense of ownership, communication and trust for workers on many Fairtrade plantations.”

 

Image: Fairtrade Banana worker

 

However, the organisation acknowledged there were areas which it could improve including:

“continuing to work towards living wages for workers, improving knowledge of Fairtrade and encouraging use of the Fairtrade Premium to benefit communities, women and youth. There is also more to be done to support vulnerable groups of workers, improve productivity for farmers and increase cost transparency.”

The Co-op, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose only sell Fairtrade bananas, while M&S mostly sells Fairtrade-certified bananas.



 

Rainforest Alliance
 

An alternative banana certification to Fairtrade is one created by the Rainforest Alliance (RA). This seems to be the preferred choice of many of the UK retailers, in particular Asda, Aldi, Lidl and Tesco who have all committed to selling RA-certified bananas.

RA certification is awarded to farms that comply with a set of standards that are set by the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN). Critics of the RA certification argue that it does not guarantee a minimum wage to producers, nor does it ban many of the pesticides known to cause harm to the workers who apply them.

It is reported that RA has certified over 1600 banana farms (compared to 21,700 banana farmers and plantation workers participating in Fairtrade) and one of its largest supporters, Chiquita, has certified all of its farms in Costa Rica and plans to certify its remaining farms in central America.

One of the founding reasons why the Rainforest Alliance developed its standard was to conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods. However, an academic study of Chiquita’s RA-certified farms, published in 2016, stated:

“Among the different environmental principles of the SAN standards investigated in this study, the results indicate that there is not a difference between RA-certified farms and non-certified farms … The risk with the current RA label is that environmentally concerned consumers make choices they would not normally do when buying fruits and other products branded with this label.”

In 2016, Rainforest Alliance-certified farms were criticised by Oxfam Germany for violating workers’ rights and environmental issues. RA has since been working with Oxfam Germany to correct the issues and ensure the farms certified meet their standards.


 

Organic
 

There are several small farmers’ associations in the Dominican Republic, Peru and Ecuador, and medium- or large-scale plantations in the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Ecuador that are also certified organic. Pest problems are tackled using a variety of non-chemical methods. But most organic production comes from areas not infected by the devastating black sigatoka (black leaf-streak) fungal disease.

 
 
 

 

Company behind the brand
 

Dole is one of the largest fresh fruit producing companies in the world. Dole is considered to be taking steps towards building relationships with trade unions, and actively participated in the World Banana Forum in 2009.

 

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