Bananas: Unethical flagship of supermarketing
| Alistair Smith
A typical Tesco banana sold in its Central European stores comes from
Costa Rica. If you visit a Costa Rican banana plantation – off the
beaten tourist route in that Central American “paradise” – then, apart
from the plantation workers and the company employees hired to make
sure you don’t see anything too compromising, the only other life
you’ll see will probably be the vultures and some hardy insects.
Hungarians have no say in what bananas they
eat. If they buy them in Tesco or Lidl – the biggest and fastest-growing
foreign supermarkets on Hungarian soil – then they are bought from an office in
the UK or Germany. The huge profits which Tesco makes on this most lucrative of
fruits are repatriated back from Hungary, Thailand or South Korea to
shareholders concentrated in the City of London. Now WalMart, the world’s
largest corporation in any sector, is also coming to a town near you. Whether
it be WalMart, Tesco, Lidl, Metro or the French Auchan the game is the same:
attracting consumers into their shop, not somebody else’s.
If they can get away with high margins and
low supplier prices, misleading advertising and generally imperial behaviour,
then they will. In Hungary these companies have been caught out more than in
most (see box below), which is to the credit of Hungarian consumers and
farmers. But let’s look more closely at one of those “bread and butter” lines –
bananas – to try and understand the human and environmental costs which these
supermarketing companies are not so keen to advertise.
What you should know about your banana?
The fair trade and organic movements have
made very impressive headway in the last ten years in many countries – to the
point where over half the bananas sold in Switzerland are either organic or
fairly traded or both, and more than one in ten in the huge British market –
but in Central and Eastern Europe bananas are almost exclusively from
plantations in Latin America where production is at the direct cost of people’s
rights and their health and the natural environment is devastated.
Bananas may have been the symbol of
Western-style democracy for East Germans or Russians before and immediately
after the wall came down, but the banana supply chain demonstrates that there
is no democracy when it comes to the distribution of benefits among producers,
traders and consumers. Latin American plantation workers typically work a 60-70
hour week and earn between a quarter and a half of a living wage; they suffer
some of the most horrendous occupational health problems of any industry in the
world; and they are generally powerless to prevent the destruction of the
biological diversity of the areas where ‘wall-to-wall’ plantations have become
a no-go zone for wildlife and other plants.
To make matters worse, the hundreds of
thousands of women and men who work in the banana plantations which produce our
bananas in Europe are often prevented from trying to get together to seek
improvements in their working conditions and wages or on the way the companies
treat their local environment. Independent trade unions are viewed by many
employers in the major banana exporting countries as the work of the devil, to
be avoided at any cost. Every week, workers are sacked for joining together
with others to try and improve their lot, less and less women are taken on
because they get pregnant and cost more or because they might challenge the sexual
harassment which so many are expected to put up with from their supervisors.
One international company said recently that if the unions succeed in
organising in the huge new plantations of the South coast of Guatemala “there
will be a bloodbath”.
A typical Tesco banana sold in its Central
European stores comes from Costa Rica. If you visit a Costa Rican banana
plantation – off the beaten tourist route in that Central American “paradise” –
then, apart from the plantation workers and the company employees hired to make
sure you don’t see anything too compromising, the only other life you’ll see
will probably be the vultures and some hardy insects. These are the only living
creatures which dare go near the chemical-coated plastic waste-dumps or scurry
around the floors of these “green deserts” – or “green prisons” as one Honduran
writer called the plantations. If you were then to go on to the beautiful
Caribbean coast near the Tortuguero National Park to explore the coral reef
that all the guide-books tell you about, you may be heart-broken to discover
that there is almost none of it left. It has quite simply been destroyed over
the last few decades by the cocktail of chemicals used to produce our “cheap”
bananas. The soil is so contaminated after 30 or so years of industrial banana
production that nothing else will grow. Water-courses and ground-water are
polluted for years to come. Forests are irreplaceable. Women in the banana
communities regularly give birth to babies with genetic defects, which they
believe are linked to the chemicals they work with and are surrounded by. In
any case, the workers have no choice but to keep on trying to earn a living
from this trade. In the areas they live, there are few or no alternatives.
A typical Lidl or Auchan banana might well
come from Ecuador, the world’s number one exporter, where almost no worker is
directly employed, where even basic rights are violated on a daily basis, and
where many children still have to work in hazardous conditions in the
plantations… for the simple reason that the adult wages their parents earn
are too low to make ends meet.
Consumers can change things
The movement of citizen-consumers in Europe
that has fast grown in the last decade or so is a prime example of how
individuals and organisations of conscious consumers can change the rules of
the game very significantly. Our experience in Western Europe in particular is
that the more aware people are – the bigger the investment of time and energy
in educating people about the real costs of our food – the more the movement
pressing for alternatives becomes, and the more likely those alternatives are
to actually flourish.
Over 2% of all bananas in the EU-25 are now
sold with a fair trade label. The international Fairtrade mark gives consumers
a guarantee that a minimum price has been paid to the producer and that a
“social premium” has been paid to them to use in their communities. These
labelled bananas are sold in tens of thousands of retail outlets in 17
countries, the vast majority in supermarkets. Other organisations like Banafair
in Germany or CTM Altromercato in Italy also sell bananas in their national
networks of “world shops”, dedicated to exclusively fair trade products. In
Germany, the Banafair model of alternative trading also directly funds public
education with German consumers as well as programmes with trade unions and
small farmers’ organisations in the banana producing countries.
A consumer action check-list
Bananas are an important example of how
consumers can be mobilised to understand and act on the whole range of
economic, social and environmental issues which surround the global supply
chains on which we have all come to depend. For supermarkets, they are a
sensitive subject, because they are one of their most profitable lines (in the
UK and France, the single most profitable of 30,000+ products on their
shelves). This means that consumers, especially acting in a concerted way, can
Every time you buy bananas ask the local
store manager for information about where they come from and in what conditions
they are produced; if this information is not available immediately, follow up
with the retailer concerned.
Contact ACC if you would like to be out in
touch with other people concerned about these issues, or have questions which
are not being answered by the companies.
Convince friends and family of the
importance of having other consumer choices, like fair trade and organic, and
pressure retailers to stock them.
Consider developing a campaign on retailers
who force down prices to their suppliers to the point where decent
environmental and social behaviour becomes impossible. See for example www.tescopoly.org
(in English) and www.attac.de/lidl-kampagne (in German) which includes a
campaign for fair prices for bananas and milk.
Wherever possible, if you are part of a
group, seek your allies, even if you do not agree with everything their
organisation does or says. In order to change big companies’ behaviour you will
not do it alone.
Other costs to consumers: supermarkets
- Price wars between store chains are
damaging suppliers, especially when they sell at below the farmers’ cost of
production – e.g. Auchan Hungary criticised by dairy and water melon producers
for buying at 20-30% below their average cost of production.
- Competition authorities alerted to unfair
and illegal practices – e.g. Tesco fined HUF 36 million in March 2006 for
having misled consumers in its advertising).
- Poor wages and conditions in Central and Eastern
European supermarkets – e.g. several cases of proven infringement of labour
laws in Poland; Auchan threatened with strike over a wage claim in April.
- Small independent stores close down – over
1000 last year in Hungary alone.
- Abuse of planning laws – Tesco did a
massive property deal behind people’s backs and Auchan was fined for ignoring
- Dependency on cars, adding more ‘food
miles’ to the already global supply chains and more pollution. Clean Air Action
Group has been active since the mid-1990s in trying to oppose out-of-town
- These companies become the “captains” of
the food chain, as they own private information about consumer behaviour.
This article first appeared in the
Conscious Consumer magazine, issue 10.
The author, Alistair Smith, works for Bananalink,
a not-for-profit co-operative, that campaigns for a fair and sustainable banana