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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Fall 2004 > Green Bananas
Bananas being measured
A worker uses a dial caliper to check the growth rate of a banana.

Green Bananas

By Charlene Dy ’03

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J. Gary Taylor ’57 had a front-row seat for one of the most dramatic turnarounds in recent corporate history. Surprisingly, it didn’t involve oil, manufacturing or accounting scandals. Rather, it involved fruit. More specifically, it involved bananas.

Bananas covered with blue bags
J. Gary Taylor ’57 and his wife, Patricia Scharlin, pay a brief visit to their New York apartment between research trips to France and Oregon.

If bananas seem benevolent, consider their history. In the first half of the 20th century, huge corporations like the United Fruit Company controlled the banana industry in Latin and Central America. With vast amounts of real estate, they often exercised enormous, if indirect, influence on the economies and politics of the countries in which they planted (thus the term  “banana republic”). Run more like colonizing empires than businesses, these companies used their economic power to quash local protests, playing the banana game according to their own rules. Although their political and economic behaviors moderated over the years, they were still known in the 1990s as poster children for environmental recklessness and irresponsibility. Banana companies cleared thousands of acres of irreplaceable tropical rainforests in the name of expanding banana cultivation. They used extremely toxic pesticides and chemicals, often applying them indiscriminately (“like water,” says Chris Wille of the Rainforest Alliance), in quantities that led to water contamination, worker poisoning and the death of marine life. For years, the most distinctive feature of Central American banana plantations was the blue plastic bag that covered each banana bunch. Saturated with pesticides to protect the fruit during growth, the discarded bags often were heaped on the ground, or near waterways, leaking poison into local ecosystems.

In 1998, The Cincinnati Enquirer published an exposé on Chiquita Brands International (formerly the United Fruit Company), announcing “Enquirer investigation finds questionable business practices, dangerous use of pesticides, fear among plantation workers.” The articles were later retracted, after Chiquita threatened to sue the paper for using private company information, but the stains of the accusations lingered. Chiquita became the very model of a corporate villain. It beggars belief, then, that five short years after the Enquirer article, Chiquita had utterly transformed. This great corporate sinner had completely changed its operation and its orientation, not only providing a new model for successful corporate responsibility, but actually earning approval from respected environmentalists and labor activists.

Bananas covered with blue bags
The blue plastic bags covering these banana bunches contain pesticides and other toxins. They used to be discarded, letting the chemicals leak into the environment. Now Chiquita has reduced its pesticide use by 14 percent. It also captures all the waste and recycles the bags.

How Chiquita made that transition is the subject of J. Gary Taylor’s book, Smart Alliance: How a Global Corporation and Environmental Activists Transformed a Tarnished Brand.

Tall and broad, with a bushy white beard that would look equally at home on a philosophy professor or a lumberjack, Taylor is a former corporate climber and a current environmental journalist. After graduating from Amherst, he worked at Time Inc., then did a brief stint in luxury retail. Longing for a profession that he could really care about, Taylor recalled a childhood happily spent in the Colorado Rockies and decided to cast his lot with the environmental movement. Degrees from Yale Forestry School in the 1970s led to consulting projects with the Environmental Protection Agency, Tufts University’s Center for Environmental Management and the Sierra Club, most involving water conservation. His voice low and gruff, exuding the authority of one who knows his own mind, he explains, “I didn’t just want to be a tree hugger, I wanted to be an informed tree hugger.”

In 1985, Taylor formed The Environment Group Inc. with his wife, Patricia Scharlin, an environmentalist with a deep commitment to global issues. For the next 11 years, the pair published a successful commercial newsletter, Environment, Health and Safety Management, in order to address the concerns of environmental managers at many Fortune 500 companies.

However, a decade of churning out a high-quality, biweekly publication got to be a bit of a grind. “We wanted the freedom to travel, and to ask more interesting questions,” Taylor says. So they developed a new project called Ground Truth, in which they planned to investigate how five major multi-national companies from different industries addressed environmental responsibility, workers’ rights, and health and safety, among other things. When funding for the project failed, they decided to focus on just one company: Chiquita.

Continued >>

Banana photos: Chiquita Brands International; Gary Taylor and Patricia Scharlin photo: Frank Ward


Online Extra


J. Gary Taylor's "Smart Alliance"

Chiquita Brands International

Rainforest Alliance

Banana Link: "Working for sustainable production and trade in bananas"

American University page with information about bananas, the environment, and international trade

Article about pesticide poisoning from banana plantations

In an unrelated story... Amherst alumnus Doug Fishbone '91 installed 30,000 bananas as an art piece in Trafalgar Square, London: "Artist Goes Bananas"

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