United Fruit Company: Political, Economic, and Social History

"Sustainability"  and "sustainable design" refer to our ongoing responsibility to choose and design methods of manufacturing, building and ways of life that have little to no impact on the long-term health of the environment, society and economy. From government to industry to individual consumers, we must all consider our "ecological footprint" and the legacy we will leave for future generations around the world. Designers and manufacturers are now faced with the responsibility of considering the entire life cycle of the products they create, especially within the context of international trade and globalization. As more goods and materials are shipped around the world, we must consider how products are made, by whom and under what conditions. We need to think about where the raw materials come from, whether they are renewable and how much impact we have on the environment when we grow and harvest these materials. Other factors to be taken into account include the energy and waste from packaging and shipping, the life span and use of the product, and finally its method and location of disposal.


The pilot activity was executed in Grade 12 Geography: World Issues. This learning object also links to the following curriculum, its related themes and outcomes:

  • Grade 12 World History: The West and the World
  • Grade 12 Analysing Current Economic Issues
  • Grade 11 Americas: Geographic Patterns and Issues


This activity can take place over 2 to 3 periods. Use the case study to introduce international trade, globalization and alternative approaches to creating sustainable and autonomous economies in the developing world. The activity is appropriate for individual and group work, and for in-class work or homework.


Similar to problem-based learning, design thinking and the creative problem-solving process of designers are adaptable to many subject areas. They can be applied either as a means of enquiry, for example as a teaching and learning strategy, or as the subject of inquiry, such as designing a brochure or temporary shelter. In either case, students employ creative, critical, and reflective thinking; they engage in research on the particular subject matter, and they analyse and propose responses while working collaboratively in groups. The real-life problems are human-centred and have social, cultural, and economic implications which, in turn, connect students with their communities. Because design thinking and the design problem-solving methodology results in multiple solutions, there is no one right answer to any given problem. Evaluation is based on depth of inquiry, insight, and critical analysis, and breadth of creative and innovative responses. The learning process is self-directed and teachers act as facilitators and guides.

This project is underpinned by design as a problem-solving method with an option to include aspects of design practice through graphic communication of data. The history of the United Fruit Company provides a narrative that sheds light on the inhumane, unjust, and corrupt actions of multinational companies which continues today. Like designers, students develop understanding and empathy in order to respond to human need. Exercising creative thinking and critical analysis, students write scenarios proposing alternatives to the attitudes and actions taken by the United Fruit Company. Students share their ideas with the class in group presentations and discussion.


The United Fruit Company: A Political, Economic, and Social History


The history of the banana as an imported product to North America provides a framework to discuss and analyse multiple issues related to international trade. The narrative is rife with corruption, exploitation, American gunboat diplomacy, and propaganda in the guise of factual information for the purpose of marketing and sales. As a result, the banana has become the fourth most important food product after rice, wheat, and corn. By studying the complex history, students become aware of global trade issues that continue to exist today.

The essence of design is human-centred problem-solving through research, analysis, and creative response. This methodology is applied to the story of the United Fruit Company in three parts:

1. Articulate the problems: Learn about the story of the United Fruit Company by reading the summarized history compiled by Northern Secondary School teacher Dan Dominico: http://www.nssgeography.com/worldissues%20web/Unit%20Food/The%20United%20Fruit%20Company.htm

Conduct further research on the Internet and create a graphic representation of the history and issues using images, charts, illustrations, key words, maps, dates, etc. (Graphic design is about visual communication and in some applications, its role is to simplify complex information.) This might take the form of a concept map or mind map.

2. Problem-solving: Rewrite the story by creating a new scenario where both Central Americans and the United Fruit Company benefit from the export of bananas. Review the case study as an example of a Canadian designer's contribution to collaborative trade. Then consider:

a. Private versus public ownership of land

b. Quality of life of citizens/workers

c. Personal, political and economic autonomy

d. Environmental sustainability

e. International relations

f. Reciprocity

3. Presentation: Prepare a presentation to the class describing your problem-solving process and alternative recommendations for economic development. Consider some questions of your own that emerged from your inquiry.

Evaluation:  Students participate in a group critique and peer evaluation process. Students determine criteria for evaluation.

  • Students write a personal reflection of their insights and experience while working on this assignment.
  • Ask: Now that the assignment is finished, how might you do it differently next time?
Questions to consider:

  • Describe the role of advertising in this history.
  • Describe the use of propaganda.
  • Look at the ratio of winners to losers in this story. Who benefits from capitalism?
  • Does there need to be a loser?
  • How is this story perpetuated in our global economy today?


The pilot activity was executed in Grade 12 Geography: World Issues.

United Fruit Company Will The Banana Split?: A Documentary by Bob Carty for the CBC's Sunday Edition with Michael Enright http://www.cbc.ca/thesundayedition/features/banana.html

Fair Trade: The Banada Trade War http://www.globalissues.org/TradeRelated/Bananas.asp

Student project on the history and politics of the banana trade http://home.wlu.edu/~dennisp/intr132/Project/history.html

The Guardian. Banana Wars. Sunday March 13 2005 http://observer.guardian.co.uk/foodmonthly/story/0,9950,1433606,00.html


Additional Resources

Benyus, Janine M. Biomimicry: innovation inspired by nature. New York: Morrow, 1997.

Elliott, Jennifer A. An Introduction to Sustainable Development. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Hawken, Paul, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins. Natural capitalism: creating the next industrial revolution. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1999.

McDonough, William and Michael Braungart. Cradle to cradle : remaking the way we make things. New York: North Point Press, 2002.

Stitt, Fred A. The Ecological Design Handbook. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999.

Van der Ryn, Sim and Stuart Cowan. Ecological Design. Washington DC: Island Press, 1996.

Resources about Teaching Design

Owen-Jackson, G. (2002). Teaching design and technology in secondary schools. A reader. London: Routledge/Falmer.

Owen-Jackson, G. (2002). Aspects of teaching secondary design and technology. Perspectives on practice. London: Routledge/Falmer.

Heather Whitton
Dan Dominico, Northern Secondary School
1870 - 2006
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