Cross Pollution and Child Labor Off Your Grocery List


Affordable and packed with nutrition, the Cavendish "dessert banana" stocked in every grocery store is one of the most popular natural foods. In 2008, American consumers gobbled up 7.6 billion pounds of the yellow fruit.

A Costa Rican college, EARTH University, has a small commercial operation that supplies sustainable, EARTH-branded bananas to Whole Foods Market (WFM) under the chain's Whole Trade guarantee. A portion of the proceeds from the sales of those bananas go back to the school, helping it extend its hands-on, entrepreneurial education to kids all over the world.

So, what's the price premium for a warm and fuzzy, feel-good banana? It's fair to assume you'd pay more for the fair-trade EARTH bananas, but that's not necessarily the case. Price checks in grocery stores in the Alexandria, Va., area over the last week revealed the following banana prices:

  • Whole Foods Market: EARTH bananas, conventional but sustainably farmed: $0.69 per pound

  • Safeway (SWY): Dole (DOLE) bananas, conventional: $0.79 per pound

  • Ruddick's (RDK) Harris Teeter: Chiquita (CQB) bananas, conventional: $0.69 per pound; Chiquita bananas, organic: $0.79 per pound

  • Giant: Chiquita bananas, conventional: $0.69 per pound; Chiquita bananas, organic: $0.99 per pound

As it turns out, this fair trade fruit is competitively priced. But if you dig a little deeper, you'll discover that there's an even bigger value included with each purchase.

When a Banana's More Than Just a Banana

That dollar or so you might spend on those particular bananas helps drive several worthy causes, including sustainable farming, agricultural research, and the education of kids from all over the globe, including economically challenged places that desperately need more citizens schooled in sustainable business practices.

That's a heck of a lot of bang for your conscience-driven buck.

Earth Bananas
Earth Bananas

Photo: bengarland, Flickr

What the Dollars You Spend Really Buy

Take a look at the receipts in your wallet. The rundown of goods you picked up at the store clearly show what you paid for the item. What's missing is the true cost.

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Who thinks about "conflict minerals" when they shop for a smartphone? We all should. Many smartphones and other mobile devices contain tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold, mined in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Congolese miners are often subjected to brutal working conditions to extract the substances that make our mobile phones.
Want a cheap chocolate fix? Grab some Hershey's Kisses. However, you should know that those Kisses in your shopping cart may take a real toll on people and the world. Hershey has been accused of falling behind rivals in its cocoa sourcing by choosing West African suppliers known for utilizing forced and even child labor.

These are examples of what economists call a "negative externality." Pollution is a popular example of this. Such costs to the environment or society aren't spelled out for you at checkout (or on the companies' bottom lines, for that matter).

Companies can push these costs on to the rest of society, and consumers are none the wiser.

We're conditioned to shop based on price and features rather than the costs to the people subjected to violent, forced labor to produce them. But when you do become aware, you see there are options for your shopping dollars.

Peanut Butter Cups
Peanut Butter Cups

At grocer Giant, a pack of four Reese's peanut butter cups (made by Hershey) costs $1.69. A pack of three Newman's Own Organics (admittedly smaller) dark chocolate peanut butter cups costs $1.39. However, the Newman's Own Organics version contains organic chocolate and is certified by the Rainforest Alliance, which makes sure suppliers aren't using damaging, unsustainable practices and abhorrent working conditions. (Hershey rivals Mars and Kraft (KFT) made commitments to using more certified cocoa several years ago, and Hershey itself recently made a small step toward change.)

A New Way to Think When You Shop

Our consumer-driven society has long embraced the search for the cheapest prices at all costs. We can lament our "throw-away" society looking for the next cheap fix, or we can spin it differently, and spend our dollars more meaningfully.

The very fact that our society is so consumer-driven means we consumers wield a heck of a lot of power to make the world a better place. We all just need to care. The first step is willingness to more honestly address the real cost/benefit analysis of products that are gentler on the world and other human beings.

Instead of making it the last thing you think about in the checkout line, make it the first. Paying up for fair-trade, more sustainable items is a truly novel way to stretch every dollar, yielding far more positive bang for the buck.

Motley Fool analyst Alyce Lomax owns shares of Whole Foods and manages a real-money portfolio focused on socially responsible investing for The Motley Fool owns shares of Whole Foods. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Whole Foods.

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