A Seattle-based law firm has filed suit against Dole Food Company for making proclamations about corporate responsibility while sourcing bananas from an environmentally destructive supplier in Guatemala.
The lawsuit, filed on Nov. 13, 2012, claims that despite Dole's best efforts to convince consumers of its social and environmental responsibility, the company purchased 290 million pounds of bananas from a Guatemalan plantation that Dole knew had destroyed wetlands and poisoned water sources with pesticides.
"Dole promised its customers it had an ‘unwavering commitment’ to environmental responsibility," said Steve Berman, managing partner of Hagens Berman, the law firm suing Dole. "Yet, it gave its business to a plantation that showed a complete disregard for the local environment."
The complaint alleges that the supplier, seeking to protect its banana and oil-palm plantations, built a dam that caused severe flooding downstream from the plantation, destroying local crops in a region that can ill-afford to suffer economic setbacks.
"Farmers in this region – many of which are subsistence farmers – could previously count on two harvests each year," said Berman. "Since the dam was constructed, many are barely harvesting enough to make it through the season."
The complaint further alleges that development of the plantation involved draining 1,200 acres of pristine wetlands.
"The plantation contaminates local rivers with toxic fertilizers and pesticides," said Berman. "The drinking water that local people rely on has nitrate levels ten times the maximum level recommended by the World Health Organization."
If true, the allegations suggest that Dole's behavior in Guatemala is in line with a decades-long tradition of corporate exploitation, wherein American fruit companies have extracted huge profits from the small Central American country while providing no corresponding benefit to local people.
Dole's conduct, then, is distinguished only in that the company, the largest fruit and vegetable company in the world, has made so many highfalutin claims about its commitment to sustainability. Indeed, less than one week after the suit was filed, Dole's European branch received a marketing award for its Dole-Earth marketing campaign, which supposedly allows consumers to trace their fruit back to the farm where it was produced.
"Dole-Earth is setting a new standard in terms of supply chain transparency and inviting consumer right back to farm where it comes from," said Xavier Roussel, Marketing and Communication Director at Dole Fresh Fruit Europe, upon receiving the award. "It is about banana production but mostly about the people behind the product. This engaging and emotional experience is as close as possible to a real farm tour. After completing it, consumers will certainly take a very different look at their banana."
But those who have looked closely at Dole’s bananas have tended to be less complimentary, despite the accolades heaped upon the company’s marketing efforts. In the most recent Newsweek Green Rankings, a widely respected ranking of the environmental sustainability of publicly traded companies, Dole failed to rank among the top 500 on both the global and U.S. lists.
This no-show placed Dole behind nearly all of its competitors in the food industry, including Campbell Soup, H.J. Heinz, General Mills, ConAgra Foods, and J.M. Smucker. According to the rankings, Dole is less environmentally friendly than Altria Group and Reynolds American, two of the world's largest tobacco companies.
"We applaud it when companies make – and follow – declarations of ecological responsibility," said Berman. "But when a company increases its market share by misleading consumers, as we allege Dole has done, that is both despicable and cynical."
Hagens Berman seeks a ruling from the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California that affirms Dole deceived its customers, requires the company to reveal the truth regarding its banana production methods, and awards appropriate damages.
A spokesperson for Dole told TriplePundit that the company had no comment on the suit at this time.
Harry Stevens is a freelance reporter covering climate change, corporate social responsibility, social enterprise, and sustainable finance. Harry has contributed to several media outlets, including Justmeans, GreenBiz, TriplePundit, and Sustainablog. You can follow Harry on Twitter: @Harry_Stevens