TO GET TO THE BANANAS, you have to go through the water. To get to the water, you have to find Eric Harrison. And to find Eric Harrison, you need to go to court. At the moment the 35-year-old Montana native is in the middle of a legal battle with a New York–based nonprofit that certifies sustainable farms. But for the last four years he’s been fighting some of the biggest fruit distributors in the world.
Back in 2011, Harrison was a law student at the University of Washington looking for a new career path after stints at the Department of Defense in Bremerton and Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue. The law would not only provide a fresh start, but it would also give him a new tool set that he could apply as executive director of Water and Sanitation Health, or WASH, the nonprofit he’d founded in 2006 to improve clean-water supplies in developing countries. “You can build a water system, but that lasts 10 years,” he says. “The law can sometimes effect a much longer-lasting change.”
He hadn’t even finished school when he filed his first suit, after a trip to Guatemala in 2011. There for a law school project, Harrison says he saw how severe flooding and water pollution had affected 4,500 people in the country’s southwestern region. The alleged culprit: Bananera Nacional, a farming operation that produced more than 290 million pounds of bananas for Dole Food Company between January 2010 and January 2011 alone.
Rather than go after the plantation, though, he sued Dole for, among other things, deceptive business practices. In essence, he accused the fruit behemoth of greenwashing: talking a good game about environmental stewardship without backing it up. And though Dole fought to have the case dismissed, it eventually accepted Harrison’s offer to survey the environmental damage with him. A little more than a year later Dole settled the case, agreeing to provide water filtration systems for the affected families. “Maybe I’m an overly optimistic guy,” Harrison says now of taking on such a huge company by himself, “but I honestly believed that there was going to be a positive outcome.”
He’s needed that optimism ever since. In late 2013 WASH sued ubiquitous banana brand Chiquita—for the same list of offenses he’d leveled at Dole—after Harrison claimed to have discovered evidence that one of its biggest suppliers was polluting the water supply to several Guatemalan communities and raining pesticides on more than 7,000 people. As he had with Dole, he invited the company’s reps to join him on the ground, but instead Chiquita sued him for defamation. As of mid-May, Harrison was in the process of settling the countersuit.
He wasn’t done, though, and his next play could be his most controversial. Having struck out with Chiquita, Harrison moved down the food chain last fall to take on Rainforest Alliance, a New York–based nonprofit that certifies sustainable farms around the world, including more than 70 banana plantations in Guatemala. At issue: While the organization claims in marketing materials that all the Chiquita plantations it certifies adhere to strict sustainability standards—giving those farms a stamp of approval that consumers can rely on—Harrison says he can prove otherwise. In fact WASH has offered to drop the case and donate $10,000 to the nonprofit if its reps will accompany Harrison to the farms in question and prove him wrong.
Rainforest Alliance’s attorney declined to discuss the case on the record, but a spokesperson did issue a statement via email: “WASH’s lawsuit is entirely without merit and it cannot meet the burden required to show that Rainforest Alliance’s certification process or public statements are wrong or false in any way.”
The truth, though, is that none of this is about marketing claims or deceptive business practices. It’s about water. And a court document, in which Harrison offers Rainforest Alliance a very specific settlement, makes that clear: In an email dated October 6, 2014, and sent to Rainforest Alliance’s in-house counsel, he agreed to drop the suit in exchange for $249,037.78—the cost to purchase, transport, and install water filtration systems in the affected communities. The nonprofit declined. And as of May the case was still pending.