Fine print - February 2012

Chiquita’s slip is showing
By G.D. Gearino

Just when I think I’ve got the tidal charts of business boycotts figured out, I find myself on the wrong side of some issue. For instance, I know I’m not supposed to buy Quilted Northern toilet paper, even if my tender parts beg for its soothing touch, because that brand is manufactured by Georgia-Pacific LLC, which is owned by Koch Industries Inc. And as everyone knows, CEO Charles Koch supports the tea party and thus is first cousin to Satan himself. So if I let so much as a single roll of Quilted Northern into my house, I’m essentially declaring that it’s OK with me if poor children starve, all governments are dismantled, the gay/lesbian/transgender community is oppressed and blue-collar families are evicted from their homes for being 15 minutes late on a mortgage payment. But if I use Charmin, my conscience is clear.

I’m not the only one having trouble navigating these boycott tides. North Carolina’s newest corporate resident-to-be, Chiquita Brands International Inc., recently found itself in the odd situation of simultaneously being a boycotter and boycottee. Grab a pencil and paper, because this is so convoluted that you might need to diagram it like one of William Faulkner’s page-long sentences.

As you may recall, Chiquita announced in November that it had accepted various bribes totaling $22 million to move its headquarters from Cincinnati to Charlotte. (Technically, state and city officials refer to the payments as “incentives,” but let’s call them what they are.) Coincidentally, just days prior to that announcement, Chiquita had written a letter to a West Coast activist group called ForestEthics declaring that the fruit company was committed to eliminating the use of any fuel refined from Canadian tar sands. The process of getting oil from that source is the newest flash point for environmentalists, and Chiquita clearly hoped to get in front of this issue.

To understand the company’s sensitivity to such social matters, it helps to know a little of its history. Until 1970, it was known as United Fruit Co., and it had a well-earned reputation for meddling, to say the least, in the affairs of Central American countries — so much so that the term “banana republic” was used to describe those in the grip of United Fruit. (That phrase was coined by O. Henry — the pen name of Greensboro native William Sydney Porter — by the way. If you ever get on Jeopardy, pray that it comes up. You’re welcome.) The company was so dominant a presence in Guatemala that at one point it even operated the nation’s postal system. Later, in 1954, when the country’s democratically elected government undertook an agrarian-reform movement, United Fruit persuaded the Eisenhower administration to back a CIA- sponsored coup to put a stop to that foolishness. As recently as 2007, Chiquita was fined $25 million by the U.S. Justice Department for paying terrorist groups to provide security to its banana plantations in Colombia.

So when ForestEthics offered Chiquita the chance to burnish its progressive credentials, it’s little wonder the company lunged at it like a fish going after a worm. Who could object to a principled stand on behalf of the environment? Answer: a whole lot of Canadians, who met Chiquita’s boycott with a boycott of Chiquita bananas. When you manage to stir Canada into action, you’ve accomplished something. If you added a healthy dollop of political correctness to the Ned Flanders character from The Simpsons, you’d pretty much have Canadians: diffident, good-natured, polite and sometimes comically concerned with making sure nobody’s feelings get hurt.

What’s most amusing about this is how the right has hijacked grievance and social justice to make its case — a technique typically used by the left. The boycott was spearheaded by supporters of the “ethical oil” movement, who argue that oil produced by a human-rights-friendly nation like Canada should get preference over oil produced by countries with oppressive rulers, which is to say, just about every member of OPEC. The surprise is that the ethical-oil argument was first made by a fellow named Ezra Levant, a well-known right-wing troublemaker in Canada. As anyone with even the most basic debate training knows, arguments are won by the person who most cleverly frames the question. If you want to make the case against tar-sands oil on environmental grounds, Levant and his gang require you to then explain your disdain for human rights. Give him credit for a masterstroke of framing.

Chiquita eventually figured out it had tumbled into a tar pit. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) It sought to end the banana boycott by explaining it had nothing against Canada and its oil industry. A company spokesman told the Canadian Press (its version of our Associated Press) that “Chiquita currently utilizes, and will continue to utilize, Canadian fuel sources. We have encouraged our suppliers to test alternative-energy sources, more fuel-efficient vehicles and to source, where possible, various fuel sources that have a lower carbon footprint and commit to a strategy of continuous improvement.”

Notice that Chiquita tiptoed around the specific use of tar-sands oil, but no matter: That bland, vague utterance is exactly what it should have said in the first place. It’s funny how our newest corporate citizen managed to slip on a banana peel even before setting up.