Chiquita has tried hard to be good—and got no credit for it.
SOMETIMES you bend over backwards to please, but still get nowhere. That is what appears to have happened to Chiquita Brands, an American firm which is one of the world's biggest suppliers of bananas and other fruit. Despite accommodating eco-warriors, social activists and unions, it has found little reward.
After a campaign by a green group called ForestEthics, Chiquita agree d in November to avoid fuel from Canadian tar sands. Extracting this oil is a dirty process. Environmentalists have worked furiously to block a pipeline, called Keystone XL, which would carry it from Canada to America. Chiquita told ForestEthics that it does not use such fuel in its ships and agreed to avoid its use in lorries.
This may have pleased environmentalists, but it infuriated Canadians who depend on the oil industry. A pro-business lobby called EthicalOil.org is urging a boycott of Chiquita's products that is said to be costing the company a fortune. Chiquita would not quantify its losses.
Chiquita traces its origins to the late 1890s and the United Fruit Company, which treated some of the Central American countries it operated in as banana republics. In recent years, however, the firm has made huge efforts to promote social responsibility and sustainability, working with activist groups such as the Rainforest Alliance. "We can do good and do well at the same time," Fernando Aguirre, the firm's chief executive, wrote in the company's latest social responsibility report, issued in 2008.
Chiquita has signed and largely upheld a global agreement with local and international food unions. It has embraced sustainable farming techniques and allows products to be certified for environmental and other standards. Last year it promised to promote more women and to ensure there is no sexual harassment on the plantations it owns and buys from. But that has not provided protection from big retailers buying bananas direct from plantations and bypassing Chiquita and its main rivals, Dole and Fresh Del Monte Produce.
Many firms in conflict zones face extortion. In 2003 Chiquita became the only American company voluntarily to admit to the Department of Justice that it had paid protection money to Colombian paramilitary forces surrounding its plantations. Now it is facing a raft of American and Colombian lawsuits.
Chiquita's conspicuous lack of reward is beginning to worry some veteran campaigners. Neither Dole nor Del Monte has been interested in following Chiquita in signing a global union agreement, says Ron Oswald, head of IUF, the international foodworkers' union."It's not sustainable for any company in a competitive sector to make progress and gain no recognition for it," he grumbles.