Del Monte Responds to Daily Show Criticism of Individually Wrapped Banana
This article originally appeared on the Forbes CSR blog.
Making business decisions isn’t easy. Those decisions can be even more difficult when looking through the lens of sustainability. You have to balance the needs of consumers, the environment, shareholders, employees, just to name a few. Keeping all of these stakeholders happy is quite the challenge for our increasingly interconnected world.
But what happens when one of your stakeholders winds up being a comedian? It’s not every day that the Daily Show With Jon Stewart brings up a sustainability issue. But on last Monday’s show, the comedian and faux newscaster brought to light a product offering of Del Monte Fresh Produce N.A., Inc..
Del Monte Fresh Produce released an individually wrapped banana. As Stewart pointed out, “What problem… what function does the bag serve that the peel does not currently serve? A product for people who love bananas but hate their biodegradability?”
You might be asking yourself the same thing. So I reached out to Del Monte Fresh Produce to get some more background on the story and the company representative’s answers might surprise you. It appears that what comes off as a strange concept – wrapping an individual banana in plastic – isn’t such an open and shut case of poor corporate decision-making.
As an aside, don’t make the same mistake I did. Fresh Del Monte Produce, Inc is based out of Florida and Del Monte Foods is based out of California and they are two entirely different companies. How to know the difference? If the product is in a can or if it’s pet food, it’s Del Monte Foods. While the two companies were once related, they’re now separate.
To tell their side of the story, here’s my interview with Dionysios Christou, Del Monte Fresh Produce’s Vice President of Marketing.
In general, does Del Monte Fresh Produce see sustainability as a strategic advantage? How would you summarize your approach? What are some of your company’s key programs and accomplishments?
At Del Monte Fresh Produce, our sustainability efforts are not driven by the desire to gain a strategic advantage in the market place. As a company involved in the produce, produce-based foods and beverage industry and as a responsible corporate citizen, we recognize our responsibility to ensure that our business activities are guided by the careful balance of the interests of all our stakeholders.
For Del Monte Fresh Produce, sustainability is a management practice that guides our daily business activities wherever we operate. For this reason, the company has established environmental and social policies and procedures as well as numerous programs that protect and sustain the environment, and promote the well being of our employees and the communities where we operate. Our environmental and employee programs are regularly audited by internal and external auditors against internationally accepted environmental standards such as GlobalGAP, ISO 14001 and SA 8000
There are several examples where our sustainability programs have yielded tangible results in our overall efforts to minimize resource use (i.e. our pallet program from sustainable forests, rainwater harvesting and water recycling, installation of energy efficient equipment, etc.). We invite you to read more about our Sustainability program accomplishments at: www.freshdelmonte.com/sustainability-intro.aspx
The company was recently featured on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which – to put it lightly – wasn’t too kind to the idea behind the individually wrapped banana. What was the reaction internally to the Daily Show’s piece?
Jon Stewart uses comedy to address important social issues and we applaud him for that. While his commentary about the Del Monte single wrapped bananas achieved its goal to raise awareness about the proliferation of packaging, it failed to note that the product serves another important role, namely the ability to now offer healthy alternative snacks to consumers in locations when they were previously not available due to the highly perishable nature of bananas.
Everyone knows that there is an obesity epidemic and healthy eating could be an important step forward to address the health and economic consequences on society. A great example of the positive contribution that the Del Monte CRT [“Controlled Ripening Technology”] single finger bananas is the fact that now school children, when they go to their school vending machine, can choose a banana instead of, let’s say, a chocolate bar or potato chips (which coincidentally also use plastic wrappers).
In which markets will the individually wrapped banana be offered? Why did the company think it was necessary to wrap a banana in a bag?
There are currently limited market tests of the Del Monte CRT single finger wrapped bananas taking place in vending machines and convenience store in the US and UK.
The recyclable plastic bag used for single finger CRT bananas replaces the need for the large master bag used with all conventional bananas. Most consumers do not realize that all bananas they purchase, including Fair-trade and organic, are placed in large bags and then in the carton boxes they are familiar with. Once the bananas reach the supermarket then they are removed from the bag and placed on the shelf without any packaging. The purpose of the plastic bag is to protect the bananas from dehydration and avoid premature ripening during the long voyage from the producing countries. Del Monte is currently researching bio-degradable alternatives to the existing plastics used and plans to introduce them as soon as their feasibility is validated.
The primary purpose of the CRT banana technology is to extend the shelf life of the product without using any artificial preservatives or other chemicals or gasses but rather by regulating the product’s natural respiration rate. By achieving this, bananas can now be sold in venues, such as convenience stores, cafeterias and school vending machines, offering consumers a fresh and healthy alternative to the typical snacks linked to the growing obesity epidemic in many western societies. In the past, this alternative was not possible due to the highly perishable nature of bananas and the unwillingness of the retailer or vending operator to absorb high losses due to overripe product.
Also since the product stays fresh longer, it is now possible to reduce the number of deliveries without negatively affecting the quality of the product. This would result in reduced fuel consumption per delivery and minimized greenhouse gasses as a byproduct of waste from overripe product going to the municipal dumps.
For example, at present, in the UK (where the product is being tested) up to 1.6 million bananas are thrown away every day. This is the equivalent of 12 commercial trucks full every 24 hours. Unlike other fruit, banana life cannot be easily extended through refrigeration but Del Monte CRT may prove to be part of the answer
How have consumers responded? Is it selling the way you expected?
While it is still early to draw definitive conclusions, initial results show that consumers are pleased to find in their vending machines and convenience stores the Del Monte CRT bananas as a healthy alternative to traditional snacks
Can you offer more background on the wrapping itself? What material is it made of? How long does it take to decompose?
The material used for the wrapper Del Monte CRT single finger bananas is a coextruded polypropylene structure. The material is recyclable and also has very high calorific value, which can be captured if it is incinerated (a common practice around the world). Del Monte is currently researching bio-degradable alternatives to the existing plastics used and plans to introduce them as soon as their feasibility is validated.
Do you see any conflict between this effort and the overall thrust of sustainability which aims to reduce packaging? What is your response to those who disagree with the company’s decision to market this product?
We do not see any conflict between this effort and the overall thrust of our sustainability strategy. On the contrary we see tremendous alignment.
As mentioned above the material used for the wrapper is recyclable. At this time this is just a limited test targeted to those channels that typically do not carry bananas due to their highly perishable nature (for example, in school vending machines) and would like to offer consumers a healthy snack alternative or to those channels where retailers wish to reduce the cost of spoilage and delivery frequency.
The CRT single finger wrapped bananas will not replace conventional bananas found in traditional channels or where there is no problem of high spoilage. Also, when consumers choose to purchase a CRT single finger banana instead of other less healthy snack alternatives, there should be a corresponding decrease of deliveries and packaging of less healthy snacks that the CRT single finger bananas would be replacing. Lastly, one should consider the positive impact that the CRT single finger bananas would have by substituting less healthy snacks and their corresponding social as well as environmental cost as a result of obesity and related health care repercussions.