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Brand Strategy Greenwashing Corporate Responsibility

Experts link Chiquita’s guilty verdict to a ‘history stained with blood & impunity’


By Audrey Kemp, LA Reporter

June 13, 2024 | 11 min read

After the major banana distributor was ordered to pay $38.3m in damages for financing a right-wing paramilitary group in Colombia, human rights and branding experts discuss the case’s corporate implications and lessons.

chiquita bananas

Chiquita Brands International has been found liable in funding paramilitary groups in Colombia / Credit: Adobe Stock

After 17 years of litigation, Chiquita Brands International, the leading distributor of bananas in the US, was found liable on Monday for financing the United Self-defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary and drug trafficking group that murdered civilians during the Colombian civil war, between 1997 and 2004.

The brand was also ordered to pay $38.3m to the families of eight different victims.

“The verdict sends a powerful message to corporations everywhere: profiting from human rights abuses will not go unpunished,” said Marco Simons, general counsel at EarthRights International, a nonprofit representing victims in the case, following the verdict.

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While Chiquita did not immediately respond to The Drum’s request for comment, the brand said in a statement that “the situation in Colombia was tragic for so many ... However, that does not change [our] belief that there is no legal basis for these claims.”

Here, human rights experts and marketers analyze the events leading up to this historic verdict and the potential repercussions for the brand and its reputation.

A reputational reckoning

Consumers know Chiquita as one of two preeminent banana brands in grocery stores, along with Dole.

The brand is also known for its iconic jingle, sung by Carmen Miranda, the mascot who graces its blue stickers.

Witnessing such a ubiquitous brand violate human rights laws has rattled some in the advertising and branding space. “I was shocked and deeply concerned,“ says Brian Town, founder and chief executive of branding agency Michigan Creative. “This is a brand we all recognize, the same one that had those iconic commercials with Carmen Miranda. To learn that they were involved in such serious human rights abuses is unsettling.”

On its website, Chiquita bills itself as a champion of various social causes, from “implementing the principles of sustainability in all its business practices” to raising breast cancer awareness on limited-edition pink stickers on its bananas.

While marketers and PR experts often laud these initiatives, the recent verdict has left them feeling conflicted.

”It’s fantastic that Chiquita champions important causes, but these efforts are being overshadowed by the unethical side of the brand,” says Ronn Torossian, chairman and founder of public relations firm 5WPR. ”Modern brands [must] demonstrate a genuine commitment to the ethical practices they’re so quick to boast about publicly.”

Jason Keehn, co-founder of boutique agency Accompany Creative, adds: ”If Chiquita can’t maintain a supply chain that adheres to the most basic of human rights when making their signature product, they should focus their resources on improving the tracing and auditing of their manufacturing, before stretching them into philanthropy.”

Peeling back a bitter backstory

Although many were shocked to learn about Chiquita’s abuses in the region, the news didn’t come as a surprise to all.

For those familiar with the history of the banana industry in Central and Latin America, the idea that a banana producer would be implicated in the political struggles of the region should come as no surprise, explains Irina Tsukerman, a human rights and national security lawyer and president of media advisory company Scarab Rising. The industry gave rise to the very notion of “banana republics,” or politically unstable nations dependent on the export of a single natural resource.

Chiquita originated in 1984 from the United Fruit Company, which had nearly a century-long history of exploitation. In 1928, 2,000 striking United Fruit Company workers were killed in Ciénaga, Colombia, in what became known as the “Banana Massacre.” The event inspired Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

There was also the “Banana-gate” scandal of the 1970s, which revealed a $1.25m bribe to the Honduran president to reduce export taxes on bananas following the suicide of the brand’s president, Eli Black, according to the New York Times.

“These reports demonstrated how corporate leadership knew these schemes were taking place, even if they were not direct participants,” says Tsukerman.

Rachael Kay Albers, brand strategist and founder of creative studio RKA Ink, believes the verdict against Chiquita was long overdue. As she sees it, Chiquita’s “entire history is stained with blood and impunity.”

“Chiquita is the poster corporation for the insidious ways companies use propaganda to prop up their public image, all so they can continue profiting off of human rights violations,” says Albers, referring to when the company worked with Edward Bernays, sometimes referred to as ’the father of public relations,’ to maintain a positive public image while spearheading a misinformation campaign that led to the violent overthrow of the Guatemalan government in the 1950s.

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And Chiquita continued its disregard for human rights into the 21st century by bankrolling a paramilitary group that the US designated as a terrorist organization during Colombia’s civil war.

“This company has a century-long track record of funding and agitating civil unrest to protect its profits – all at the expense of the people who produce its products,” Albers says.

Lessons from Chiquita’s ethical crisis

Experts advise marketers and PR leaders to consider the Chiquita case, recognizing that corporate responsibility and ethical business practices are fundamental for ensuring long-term success.

”For marketers, the lesson here is clear: ethical practices are non-negotiable. Brands need to ensure their operations and partnerships are above board,” says Town. ”The fallout from unethical behavior can be catastrophic, not just financially but also in terms of brand reputation.”

From the get-go, companies should establish a “clear human rights policy,” suggests Tsukerman – and ensure that this policy takes into account ”local and regional contexts for potential pitfalls [as well as] labor-related and other grievances.” This approach can not only mitigate the possibility of regulatory noncompliance and costly investigations – but may also help foster stronger trust among consumers and investors.

It’s important to have ”a positive record of building good relations with locals in other countries, have proactive, positive and conscious labor policies and be known as a good employer that benefits its communities and [sets] a good example for governance,” says Tsukerman.

She suggests that these kinds of best practices will not only safeguard brands from legal challenges and reputational damage but can also benefit the bottom line by creating ”better ... working relations with others, bringing in stronger loyalties, better partnerships and at the end of the day, a better financial flow.”

The Chiquita case also underscores the role that agencies and other business partners may be playing in potentially whitewashing unethical business practices, suggests Albers. ”This verdict forces [marketers] to confront the political nature of our work; when we glamorize companies like Chiquita, this can make us complicit in their dirty work,” she says. ”Marketers and advertisers doing creative work to soften and rehabilitate the public perception of companies like Chiquita need to ask themselves if they want to design campaigns that will leave blood on their hands.”

Will Chiquita banana sales feel the verdict’s sting?

At this point, it’s unclear how Chiquita sales might be impacted by the verdict, given the sector’s $25bn valuation, according to Bloomberg.

Tsukerman, for one, predicts the news cycle’s ephemeral nature will lead many to quickly forget the verdict. ”There will be an initial shock and discomfort ... However, over time, there is a huge possibility this reaction may fade,” he says.

In fact, he anticipates that consumer purchasing habits are likely to be minimally impacted. ”Consumers often prioritize factors such as price, quality and brand recognition when making purchasing decisions. Chiquita’s strong brand recognition, in large part thanks to its iconic commercials, might lead many consumers to continue buying their products despite the controversy.”

Others note that the lack of competing banana brands may limit consumer choice. “Grocers rarely have competing banana brands on the shelves and most grocers are looking to maximize profits. If Chiquita helps them do that, I think they’ll acquiesce,” says Greg Zakowicz, senior e-commerce expert at email and SMS marketing platform Omnisend.

However, Torossian notes that “Americans of Colombian descent are more likely to be up and arms about it, as well as socially conscious corporations doing business with Chiquita.”

Although it’s likely that people will continue to consume the highly popular fruit, the Chiquita case sets a crucial precedent for corporations upholding human rights, according to Dr Isabelle Vladoiu, an international human rights law specialist and founder of the US Institute of Diplomacy and Human Rights.

“The fact that such a well-known corporation could engage in such practices serves as a wake-up call for stricter regulations and more robust enforcement of international human rights standards,” says Vladoiu. “It is imperative that corporations, especially those with global reach, are held accountable for their actions to prevent such atrocities from recurring.”

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