Fyffes and Chiquita Should Merge Their CSR Efforts

Tuesday, 11 March, 2014

The news this week that two of the world’s largest banana companies (there are only four) are to merge, has been curiously popular in the mainstream news, suggesting the growth of business consciousness in people, or that we just really love bananas.

Coming from the financial press however, little is given away beyond a plethora of prices and percentages. But from our perspective, the merging of Fyffes and Chiquita is one of the most interesting political acts, as two of the world’s largest land owners team up.

The social influence of these two companies is vast, owning large amounts of land all over world, as well employing many thousands of people, and their community credentials provide an equally perplexing picture.

Chiquita is currently a controversial brand, involved in several lawsuits related to payments made to paramilitary groups in Colombia. Its history is equally sullied by involvement in America’s contentious foreign policy in South America in the latter twentieth century, as prime belligerents behind the ‘banana republics’; known back then as the United Fruit Company.

Fyffes on the other hand boasts far less controversy. It is perhaps for this reason that Chiquita’s CSR efforts outdo Fyffes’. As a London listed agricultural company, Fyffes is on our CSR survey, which revealed a thin CSR page, lacking in every department. Looking at it now, nothing has changed, and a stand out complaint is a total lack of information on where the company operates. This problem lends credence to the movement for ‘country by country’ reporting, currently being entertained by the EU.

Chiquita demonstrates a keener CSR department, but their website is still thin on this front. It is in the CSR reports that they try show off their social efforts. But much of the 2009-2012 report falls victim to the usual pitfalls of heavy verbiage and light content. Foundations, initiatives and some stats are present, but there aren’t any concrete case studies of specific projects in action.

The really interesting aspect of the CSR report is at the beginning, which contains a mea culpa regarding Chiquita’s history. It’s the first such admission we’ve seen in any CSR report, and no doubt something that many people across the world would like to see more of.

“114 years on, we recognize that our company hasn’t always behaved with the ethics and transparency we today expect from a company or ourselves” says Chiquita in its 2009-2012 report:

“In our Corporate Responsibility Report issued in 2000 (Page 92), we acknowledged a number of the darker moments in our history. And in our 2008 report (Page 34), we described the dilemma we faced in Colombia during the violent conflicts of the 1990s.”

Why did Chiquita make this admission? It seems that the company has become a figurehead for corporate malpractice, and with giants such as Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gore Vidal taking aim at you, atonement is unavoidable.

But the abiding point of this is that the merger between the two companies should be a call to boost their CSR efforts. For such large companies, their CSR reporting is pretty awful, and it could be because there is not much to report. In their defense, they have come under little pressure from civil society to do so, and it remains a curiosity that EITI and Publish What You Pay have not yet expanded to include agricultural or garment companies. Perhaps fruit and textiles just doesn’t suggest corruption or malpractice in the way a diamond does. But agriculture requires more land, and often more people than extractive industries, and it needs to start demonstrating a CSR regime befitting of this.