It’s easy to take bananas for granted. They’re far and away the top selling item in the Produce department—always expected to be in stock, the perfect yellow color, and inexpensive. Yet the supply chain that brings them here is by far the most elaborate of any fruit or vegetable we sell—they’re grown in tropical regions, shipped thousands of miles, and then mechanically ripened in high-tech ripening rooms. How is it that a fruit that has to be so intensively managed is also consistently the cheapest and most abundant?
A sinister side
Turns out there’s a sinister side to the banana trade. Historically and up to the present day, large banana corporations have consistently suppressed workers’ rights and wages, shown a disregard for workers’ health by using unsafe amounts of agricultural chemicals, and bullied governments in banana producing countries in order to keep banana prices low. Worldwide, a little over 33 billion pounds of bananas are exported annually, making them the world’s 5th most traded commodity (after grains, sugar, chocolate, and coffee). Despite the enormity of this trading volume, only five multinational corporations control 80% of the global banana supply. These corporations have been extremely successful in suppressing the price: Even at their absurdly cheap retail prices, on average, only about 20% of the price consumers pay for bananas gets back to their country of origin.
In 2014, Willy Street Co-op sold about 403,000 pounds of bananas. Though this represents a tiny fraction of the world’s supply, we’re committed to doing our part to push the industry to be more equitable towards farmers. That’s why, 99% of the time, you’ll find nothing but fairly traded, organically grown bananas on our shelves.
Equal Exchange & Fair Trade USA
In order to ensure consistent supply, we purchase fair trade organics bananas from two sources: Equal Exchange and Fair Trade USA. Both companies are actively working to develop alternate supply chains, ensure good working conditions, and offer a fair trade price premium to their growers. For relatively small organizations like these to go up against the likes of Chiquita and Dole is no small task—they need committed and consistent partners (like us!) in order to gain even a small foothold in the banana market. By supporting fair trade, we’re helping create new possibilities for banana farmers and the potential for big change in the global supply chain.
The biggest difference between the two types of fairly traded bananas we sell is that while Equal Exchange only works with small scale farmer cooperatives, Fair Trade USA works with cooperatives and plantations. Though workers don’t own the plantations, Fair Trade USA has standards that ensure workers have a healthy and just work environment, a living wage, and a voice in deciding how the fair trade premiums are spent. For more detailed information on these two banana programs, visit www.fairtradeusa.org (Fair Trade USA) and www.beyondthepeel.com (Equal Exchange).
One last thing I should mention: Willy Street Co-op’s price on bananas. Supporting supply chains that offer living wages to farmers and plantation workers doesn’t come without a cost, and as these costs continue to rise, so must our price.
Most grocery stores treat bananas as a “loss leader,” a product that is sold at very low margins in order to keep the retail price low and bring customers in the door. For years, we’ve followed this practice and absorbed cost increases in order to keep our fair trade banana price at 99¢/lb.
As prices continue to rise, we’ve reached the point, if we are going to stick with our fair trade convictions that we need to raise our price. It’s not a decision we take lightly; we believe, and we hope you agree, that the knowledge that your food was raised by people who were compensated fairly for their labor is worth an extra few pennies.