On the surface it’s a silly affair, no more serious than a banana peel pratfall. It began in November, when Cincinnati-based Chiquita Brands International—the banana company—wrote a letter committing to avoid “fuels from tar sands refineries” while vowing to work toward the “elimination of those fuels.” That pledge was in response to an anti-oil-sands campaign mounted by ForestEthics, an activist group based in San Francisco’s fabled Haight-Ashbury, the one-time hippie district, against Chiquita and Dole, another fruit giant. “Say no to rotten tar sands bananas,” reads the campaign’s website, rottenbananas.org, part of a broader campaign drawing attention to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would funnel Alberta crude to Texas, but which has now been put on hold over environmental concerns.
What ensued was a fight between environmentalists on the one hand and pro-oil-sands lobbyists on the other, over who can claim to be “ethical.” ForestEthics often wins these battles. Ten years ago, to cite one example, similar persuasion forced the U.S. office supply chain Staples Inc. to sell more recycled paper, a commitment that required it to introduce fundamental changes to its procurement practices. “When we find that wild places and forests are being destroyed, we determine which corporations are purchasing the products of that destruction,” ForestEthics says on its website. “If a corporation refuses to change its practices, we hold that company publicly accountable—with protests, websites, email campaigns, national advertisements, and more.” In other words, the group goes on to boast, “we turn our corporate adversaries into allies.”
With Chiquita it’s been tougher going. That’s in large part due to a counterattack engineered by the Alberta-based Ethical Oil Institute, a pro-industry group that touts Canada’s oil sands as more “ethical” than oil sourced from human rights basket cases like Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. In response to Chiquita’s promise to forgo oil sands crude “where possible,” Ethical Oil launched a campaign to boycott its bananas. The gambit spawned what the group calls a “grassroots” movement among Canadians, who began voicing their disapproval of Chiquita via Facebook and Twitter (one handle that appeared: @BloodBananas). “Canadians should be fighting back,” Ethical Oil spokeswoman Kathryn Marshall says. “We’re proud of our record when it comes to the environment and human rights, and we’re sick of being picked on—we’re the good guys, not the bad guys.”
A number of federal cabinet ministers joined in: “I gather that Chiquita Bananas has no problem with Iranian oil, but is boycotting Canadian oil. No more Chiquita bananas for me,” wrote Immigration Minister Jason Kenney on Twitter. At the same time, Ethical Oil began publicizing low points in Chiquita’s history—major fruit purveyors enjoyed terrific power in South America’s so-called “banana republics,” and Chiquita once paid a fine for handing money over to Colombian terrorists. It was exactly the smear job the company had sought to avoid by agreeing to the ForestEthics commitment in the first place.
Yet despite Ethical Oil’s “grassroots” claims, there are undeniable links to the Tories. The website ethicaloil.org is the brainchild of Ezra Levant, a one-time activist with the Reform and Canadian Alliance parties, a Conservative war roomer in the 2008 federal election, and now a columnist and TV host with Sun News. His book Ethical Oil came out last year. The group’s profile grew under Alykhan Velshi, who left a job as Kenney’s director of communications last summer to run the website as Ethical Oil’s spokesman. In November, Velshi switched jobs again and returned to Ottawa, this time to the PM’s office. No wonder the Tory government’s energy and environment rhetoric has begun to echo the group’s “ethical oil” talking points. Yet Marshall, Velshi’s replacement, dismisses charges that the group has become a government propaganda arm as “conspiracy theories.”
The fact is, though, that all sides are playing PR games here. To start with, the idea that Chiquita could ever avoid oil sands oil just isn’t feasible. “Chiquita cannot differentiate at the fuel pump which crude comes from the oil sands and which comes from other places,” says Janet Annesley of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. “The cynic would say their commitment was for marketing reasons.”