12/21/2011 12:32 EST | Updated 02/25/2012 05:12 EST

Chiquita Slips on its Own PR Banana Peel


After spending the week facing a heated and huge backlash over its ill-considered decision to boycott Canadian oil, Chiquita Brands, the company behind the famous banana, is trying to climb out of the public relations pit it fell into. Not surprisingly, it's not doing a very good job.

It's no wonder Chiquita is worried. After the company made its boycott public,it didn't take long for Canadians, and even some Americans, to swamp the comments section of the produce company's Facebook page, denouncing Chiquita's decision to side with OPEC's conflict oil -- the main alternative to Canada's -- over ethical oil from our oil sands.

In a panic, Chiquita began deleting the comments, but that ham-handed censorship just made people angrier. Canadians across the country, offended that Chiquita would judge our oil unworthy (even though unlike OPEC oil, it's produced peacefully and adhering to some of the world's highest standards for workers and the environment), swore off buying Chiquita bananas and the company's line of Fresh Express salad kits. Determined consumers began spreading the word to their fellow grocery shoppers, their supermarket produce managers, and even telling the executives of grocery chains about the growing Chiquita boycott movement.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney joined in. "I gather that Chiquita Bananas has no problem with Iranian oil, but is boycotting Canadian oil. No more Chiquita bananas for me," he declared on his Twitter feed. Rona Ambrose, the Minister of Public Works, encouraged Canadians to contact Chiquita's CEO, Fernando Aguirre, to "tell him his stand is wrong and how Canada respects the environment and human rights." She said ForestEthics, the environmental group that convinced Chiquita to boycott Canadian oil, doesn't "care about women's rights" because it would have companies choose oil from the misogynist Saudi kingdom over oil from a champion of equal rights.

She wasn't the only outspoken female political leader to publicly condemn the boycott: Danielle Smith, leader of Alberta's Wildrose Party, issued a statement announcing that she, in turn, would "boycott Chiquita products until they reverse their ill-informed decision to avoid fuel from Alberta's oil sands," adding, "I am proud of Alberta's record of responsible resource development." MP Scott Armstrong from Nova Scotia and MP Bob Zimmer from B.C. both announced their plans to take Chiquita products off their own shopping lists. Alberta MP LaVar Payne added his voice, tweeting "Will start to boycott companies who boycott ethical oil from our oil sands in Alberta."

Chiquita was already in a precarious position to be lecturing anyone, let alone ethical Canadians, about moral corporate behaviour. Blog after blog soon began detailing the heinous corporate history of the firm once known as the United Fruit Company, which inspired the term "Banana Republic" for its meddling in South American politics.

Shoppers were quickly reminded of the stories of corruption and support for terrorists that checker Chiquita's company story. The Calgary Herald ran an editorial scoffing at Chiquita's attempt at ethics-washing:

"You'll excuse us if we don't look to Chiquita for moral guidance. It seems the Cincinnati, Ohio-based company would rather buy its conflict oil from regimes that boast their own dodgy human rights records. In that regard, at least, Chiquita is in consistent company."

If some public relations genius at Chiquita thought an oil sands boycott would win the company some easy points in the extremist environmentalist community (where they probably stick strictly to locally grown foods, anyway), executives were suddenly faced with the disastrous fallout that comes with insulting an ethical nation proud of its respect for human rights, democracy, peace and, the environment. Whoops!

Now Chiquita is in damage control mode. Trouble is, the company has no better knack for containing a catastrophe than for avoiding one in the first place. Where ForestEthics claimed Chiquita had vowed it would "eliminate shipping of Chiquita bananas with fuel from refineries that use Canada's controversial Tar Sands," Chiquita Brands has since tried to add some nuance. The company has stated by way of clarification that it isn't "boycotting" oil sands oil, but rather "expressing a preference for fuels with lower than normal greenhouse gas footprints wherever possible."

There's just a couple of problems with that supposed clarification. For one thing, it means that Chiquita will happily buy any oil that has the most minimal carbon impact available, even if it comes from the worst regimes on the planet. The company will judge the morals of its purchasing decision by just a single, narrow criterion, fixating on a few extra puffs of carbon dioxide over the lives of women, minorities, and oppressed people suffering under authoritarian and bloody OPEC regimes.

So by this logic, if North Korea's newest tyrant were to discover an oil deposit tomorrow that was just a fraction less carbon-intensive to drill than oil sands oil, Chiquita would throw its support behind that gulag state before buying Canadian oil. Thanks for clearing that up, Chiquita.

The other thing Chiquita's statement clarifies is just how hollow the company's gesture really is. It will boycott oil from Canada's oil sands only "wherever possible." In other words, if it needs our oil and has no other choice but to use it or keep its trucks idle, it will just have to take ours. So, Chiquita won't actually go so far as to sacrifice its own supply chain efficiencies in the name of boycotting oil sands oil, refusing to use our oil altogether; it will just do it wherever there's an easy opportunity for some green-chic posturing.

This is a big enough issue for Chiquita to discredit Canadians over, apparently, but not quite big enough to risk its bottom line. Ironic, isn't it, that Canadian oil sands producers take millions of dollars from their own bottom lines to spend on programs and technologies aimed at aggressively reducing their own environmental impacts, but Chiquita will only stand up for its own supposed commitments if it's cost-free?

Except Chiquita is now learning that its public snubbing of the oil sands isn't so cost-free after all -- now that Canadians are passing on Chiquita products en masse, now that politicians across the country are condemning the firm, and the company's awkward ethical history is back in the news again.

Anti-oil sands activists may be celebrating their success in luring Chiquita into their ethically troubled web, but you can be sure there aren't a lot of people at Chiquita's headquarters that are feeling very good about it anymore. Here's betting that from now on ForestEthics will have a lot more trouble convincing corporations to put themselves in Canadians' bad books.