Del Monte Slips on a Banana Peel

This week’s Perfectly Predicable Problem: Del Monte Foods and their individually wrapped bananas.

The story has been making the rounds since it hit London’s Daily Mail a few days ago. Last night, it was the lead item on the Daily Show, in a segment called “Pantry of Shame.”

The question of why we need to add plastic to a food that already comes in its own biodegradable wrapper is an obvious one. That’s precisely why the story went viral, and also why it’s amazing that Del Monte didn’t see it coming.

As of this writing, you can search the veritable constellation of Del Monte web sites and not find a response from the company explaining its position.

In fact, the best airing comes not from the company whose brand is on the line, but rather by way of Adam Werbach, Chief Sustainability Officer at Saatchi & Saatchi, who quotes the UK trade press in a thoughtful blog piece at the Atlantic.

The official story is that plastic wrapping slows ripening by reducing oxygen. Del Monte hasn’t said so, but the wrapping could also be treated with material to absorb ethylene, which is given off naturally by the fruit and also speeds ripening. Longer shelf life theoretically equals less waste and shipping.

One also suspects it offers better margins, which is how Del Monte explained it when they announced the technology to the grocery industry back in 2009.

What you do find today if you dig around, is the Del Monte’s sustainability statement about wasteful packaging, which proudly notes that they “have even gone so far as to eliminate UPC stickers on some of our products.”

Regardless of the environmental merits – which seem dubious – there is a clear case of failed storytelling here. Not only did Del Monte not get out in front of the problem, they don’t even appear to be playing catch-up.

The problem starts with the wrapper itself, which says only that it’s “Sealed for Freshness,” and relegating even an oblique reference to “Controlled Ripening Technology” to the back of the bag.

The important point of all this is that if you’re going to change consumer behavior (for better or for worse) around an environmental objective, you had better be prepared to do some explaining.

Consider, for example, the way that Proctor & Gamble explains the energy and environmental benefits of Cold Water Tide, which they knew would be a ripe target for debate. Or the five years that Walmart has spent educating both watchdogs and consumers about their packaging scorecard efforts.

Werbach makes a good a point when he notes that “(c)ommenting on the plastic bag around a banana is like being angry that a Hummer has leather seats or proud that Charlie Sheen is a vegetarian. You’re missing the main event and focusing on the details.”

Unfortunately for Del Monte, that’s not how millions of bloggers and Facebook friends see it.

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One Response to Del Monte Slips on a Banana Peel

  1. Jon –

    You’re right on here. Was Del Monte completely unaware that this would cause controversy? Did they examine a compostable bag? Are they working on a compostable bag? What about getting into the business of using their infrastructure to help support the marketing of local, seasonal fruits instead of fruits halfway across the planet? They’ve given us an example of the perils of a narrow vision. They may have solved one problem that presented itself (freshness) but in the process they destroyed their credibility to a small subset of buyers.

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