The Appeal of Fair Trade Bananas The Appeal of Fair Trade Bananas

The Appeal of Fair Trade Bananas

May 18, 2011


While fair trade organizations often try to support smaller players in the market, bananas are one instance in which working with the mainstream corporate players has been a necessary step in keeping the fair trade banana market viable in the U.S. The “big three” —Dole, Chiquita and Del Monte—own many of the plantations in Central and South America, and small, independent banana farms are bound to sell into the corporate supply chain in order to get their product to market.

Bananas are sold by the box, rather than by weight, with around 40 pounds of fruit inside. Each box of fair trade bananas carries a premium of around $1 for community reinvestment. The cardboard boxes themselves, as well as the plastic bags into which banana clusters are wrapped straight from the tree, represent a significant additional cost to the grower. For this reason, bananas in particular are a business that depends on scale—large producers can procure materials at a cheaper price, while small producers are stuck paying high prices in order to sell their goods in the same condition as the big players.


Because bananas have a relatively short shelf life compared to coffee, tea or sugar, shipping is a very important phase of the supply chain, and the small producers have little choice but to go through the large shipping channels to get their bananas to the consumer in a timely manner. Various technologies and chemicals have been engineered in order to build in some leeway by slowing the ripening process and adding a few weeks to the stretch from farm to retail.

The ripening of a commercial banana is a stop-and-start process. Ethylene, the organic chemical that triggers ripening, is the enemy of long shipping journeys. Refrigerated cargo containers are generally sprayed with chemicals that inhibit the fruit’s natural production of ethylene. Once the bananas reach the distribution facility, workers drench them in ethylene to restart ripening so that the fruit begins to turn from green to yellow as it reaches the market and, eventually, your kitchen.

Image 1 (cc) by Flickr user Agapfel

Image 2 from Fair Trade USA

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The Appeal of Fair Trade Bananas