Behaviour change starts with listening. Here in New Zealand, a major global brand may have started listening for the first time in recent weeks: Dole have both made a U-turn and reached out to critics in an apparent desire to understand where they went wrong in this market and how they might set things right.
New Zealand imports more bananas per capita than any other country in the world. In February 2010, the first Fair Trade-certified bananas hit New Zealand supermarket shelves. Small volumes were imported for the first time by a local start-up food company, All Good, recently recognised in the World’s Most Ethical Companies list. A short time later, Dole began affixing “Ethical Choice” stickers to their own bananas, prompting critical media coverage.
Undeterred, Dole supported the stickers with promotions in-store, in mailboxes and on their website. A number of consumer complaints under the Fair Trading Act resulted in the Commerce Commission advising Dole their claims could be misleading. Despite adverse media and social media reaction, Dole continued to promote their bananas as an “Ethical Choice” until, on 27th May 2013, Oxfam NZ published a report examining labour practices in the Philippines, where Dole source bananas for New Zealand. The report revealed low wages, child employment and ill health effects from toxic chemicals. Within hours of the report receiving TV news coverage, Dole committed to withdraw “Ethical Choice,” giving themselves 90 days.
I was asked to comment on the following day’s Breakfast TV show, during which the interviewer asked what our company would tell Dole if they rang for marketing advice. Two days later I was indeed taking a call from Dole’s representative in New Zealand. The call was neither defensive, as the 2011 media response had been, nor litigious, as Dole have a reputation for being.
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Seemingly bewildered by the public and media response to “Ethical Choice,” the representative seemed to be ready to hear the reality of modern consumers’ desire for ethics and transparency.
First, I was able to tell them their “Ethical Choice” greenwash had damaged not only their banana brand in New Zealand but also the wider Dole reputation here: In conversations and on social media, the public have been joining the dots between Dole bananas, Dole pineapples and other Dole products, and the treatment of Dole growers and the employment conditions of Bangladeshi garment workers. Given a lack of evidence, and a paucity of time, most consumers will give major brands the benefit of the doubt. But they aren't stupid. And they aren't particularly forgiving. Colmar Brunton's 'Better Business Better World' research in 2012 showed 94% of New Zealanders “get annoyed when products pass themselves off as greener than they are.” So I advised Dole that, like Cadbury following their palm oil fiasco here, they can expect a long-term decline in brand trust and consumer support. Ditching “Ethical Choice” alone, at this point, will be too little, too late. Brands risking greenwash must expect to get burnt.
Secondly, I was able to tell Dole that the trend away from public tolerance of corporate profit based on harmful exploitation, of people or the environment, is bigger than they can buck, even given their status as one of the largest food companies in the world. In fact, as such a major household brand, and one with a now grubby reputation, they are likely to find themselves an easy target for consumers choosing to vote for ethics and environmental responsibility with keyboards and their wallets.
Thirdly, I could recommend they seize the opportunity this trend presents to reinvent their business and prepare to thrive in the 21st century. This would rely on an end-to-end overhaul of their entire product supply and distribution chain, internationally, with a major emphasis on listening and responding to the needs of the people growing their crops. The goal would be to create a step-change improvement in human and environmental wellbeing. This does not mean tokenist provision of selected 'green' or 'ethical' lines. Success would require a wholesale commitment to supporting and stimulating independently certified grower co-operatives using organic production techniques across their entire product range, with transparently promoted deadlines for achievement. Inside 5-10 years, Dole could single-handedly improve the wellbeing of thousands of people and millions of hectares of land. Now that would make them an “Ethical Choice,” worldwide.
I don’t know what Dole will do next, or even if the New Zealand representative will convey this message to their head office. I do know that, for the space of one conversation, I felt heard. I also know Dole have started a dialogue with Oxfam, too. Meanwhile, the deadline Dole gave themselves to remove those stickers is fast approaching.