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Monday, July 30, 2007

Another Whole Foods Environmentalist…


I recently financed an $18 salad at Whole Foods in Mountain View. Nothing else could have made me feel more ill. No, it wasn't the day-old arugula, or the fact that those vegetables were sitting there all day, being bombarded with the germs of hovering faux environmentalists. I didn't even eat the salad. What bothered me that day about the Austin-based grocer wasn't the food, but the insincerity of the entire operation.

Does Whole Foods really care about my health, that of the environment, and greater society? They don't…and I don't believe they are obligated to either. Some call Whole Foods a grocery store, but I think it is much closer to a religion or even a cult. They have organic soy milk on the shelves but what Whole Foods really sells is absolution. The sacrament of faux environmentalism can be fulfilled by merely making a purchase at your local Whole Foods. It doesn't matter that you drove an SUV all day to get there, because at Whole Foods you can buy fair trade coffee, put it in a recyclable knapsack, and feel good that you bought something from what is supposed to be one of America's best companies to work for. That's the perfect antidote for years of spewing carbon indiscriminately into our atmosphere. The consumer drives away with a clear mind, only waiting for the next opportunity to absolve himself on his next shopping trip. Whole Foods is much like organized religion—it's a way to feel better about your misdeeds, and psychologically erase external costs imposed on others and the environment.

The Whole Foods website boldly proclaims, "We earn our profits every day through voluntary exchange with our customers." Wow, that's a really profound idea—but I kind of remember Adam Smith saying something like that in 1776. Their website also touts their enlightened environmental practices and commitment to some form of social responsibility beyond economics. There seems to be some disagreement between Whole Foods and the Austin Chronicle on the social issues. The Chronicle has repeatedly documented cases of supposed "union-busting" and rocky employee relations. Whole Foods is not the earth-loving-sustainable grocery store that you might think, and never was intended to be from the day it went public.

Next time you shop at Whole Foods, do so because they offer great products and a comfortable atmosphere, not because they “really care” about the environment or social responsibility.

4 comments:

Johnny K said...

Interesting post. I'm not a big fan of Whole Foods. Not on philosophical grounds, I just find the store a bit overwhelming and overpriced. Interesting that Whole Foods was in the news today regarding their attempt to purchase the Wild Oats chain.
I wasn’t sure if you were down on Whole Foods or the Whole Foods clientele. Whole Foods sells “experience” as much as product, as do hair salons, coffee shops, Apple Stores, etc. If this works, then the seller must be doing something right. The experience becomes a legitimate draw, along with price and quality. It seemed your annoyance was more at the Whole Foods customers. These are the people who pay lots of money for the experience, but it is at odds with the values they typically represent. If they lived their values, their money and time would be better spent at a food co-op or a farmers market. But that’s a bit inconvenient, a little messy, and they’d have to rub elbows with smelly hippie-types. Better to have this “experience” in a clean, well-lit place, with prices high enough to keep the riff-raff out. In fact, if the prices were lower (reasonable, even), shoppers would feel guilty. The higher prices let shoppers feel like they have earned the experience. Thus the “absolution” you speak of. Pretty smart for Whole Foods to tap into this environmentalist guilt: charging once for organic food, twice for the yuppie atmosphere, and yet a third time to ease the guilt of the combination. Thinking about your post makes me respect Whole Foods business model all the more, and the clientele all the less.

Anonymous said...

I have actually never thought much about whole foods' attempt to better the world or be charitable. I like it because of their products and what they have to offer me as a customer. I do believe certain things are overpriced but there are not many restaraunts you can go to that offer the variety and quality of prepared foods that whole foods does. In addition, if you're running late at night and want to pick up dinner and a few groceries I think it's an excellent place to do that. I think what you were criticizing more is their image of being a "save the world" type organization and while I have heard about them being charitable, I have never done the research or checked on any of that. I see them as an upscale supermarket where people can buy unique products that they personally desire.

Becky said...

I have actually never thought much about whole foods' attempt to better the world or be charitable. I like it because of their products and what they have to offer me as a customer. I do believe certain things are overpriced but there are not many restaraunts you can go to that offer the variety and quality of prepared foods that whole foods does. In addition, if you're running late at night and want to pick up dinner and a few groceries I think it's an excellent place to do that. I think what you were criticizing more is their image of being a "save the world" type organization and while I have heard about them being charitable, I have never done the research or checked on any of that. I see them as an upscale supermarket where people can buy unique products that they personally desire.

Ashley said...

Hey Will! My dad passed this on to me...and interesting it is indeed. We call it "whole pay check" around here in Pittsburgh because you can literally go in and buy one bag of groceries and spend over $100 (i've done it before and felt nauseous).
I think your perspective is full of insight and I do agree with much of it. The aspect that irks me the most is the fact that they don't care to purchase/support local farmers' goods and produce, akin to the Safeways and Raleys of the world. I much prefer to shop at my local Co-Op where you can be a member, a part of the community, and purchase organically and conscientiously without spending your entire paycheck.
I must admit though, Whole Foods has a killer salad bar (if you're stupid enough to pay $10 for it rather than making it at home).

I hope to see you sometime soon...can you come to my dad's for our Labor day party? please!