March 20, 2006
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
Today's Slate asks, "Is Whole Foods Wholesome?" and follows up with this subtitle: "The Dark Secrets Of The Organic-Food Movement."
Here's what the article tells us about Whole Foods:
"There's plenty that's praiseworthy."
The chairman of the company is dedicated to proving business can be ethical, socially responsible and profitable. One way the company achieves this objective is through marketing organic food to better off folks and charging premium prices.
Whole Foods is dedicated to environmental sustainability.
Whole Foods pays employees living wages, provides good benefits and has a rule that the top executive cannot make more than 14 times the wages of front line workers (Note: The vast majority of companies pay top executives more than 300-to-1 -- and, thereby, reinforce and widen the already Grand Canyon gap separating the bottom 60 percent of households from the top 1%).
Whole Foods is purchasing wind energy.
Whole Foods provides information to customers inside the store with regard to energy cost savings of farming organically.
Whole Foods provides information to customers inside the store that says purchasing organic foods is supportive of small, family farms.
Through the growth of it's business (and related steps), Whole Foods and others have caused a growth in the number of large agribusinesses who now grow organic food. (Note: And, thereby, the share of organic versus non-organic food in the total market.)
During the summer season when locally grown tomatoes are availabe in New York, the Manhattan based Whole Food Stores sells organically grown tomatoes from Chile. The total energy costs of the Chile tomatoes during that season would be greater than the total energy costs from the New York area.
Whole Foods deals mostly with large agribusinesses that grow organic food. Whole Foods does not give the majority -- or even a large minority -- of it's business to small, family farms. Nonetheless, Whole Foods misleadingly places pictures of small, family farmers next to produce grown by larger, organic agribusinesses.
Whole Foods premium pricing puts organic food out of reach for many customers from lower economic brackets.
Following this last point, Slate points out that now Wal-Mart is considering getting into organic food -- a step that would increase the benefits of organic farming to many more people and the planet as a whole. That would be terrific. An innovation started at the 'high end' of the market makes it's way down and, thereby, increases the total 'share of market' for organic farming.
Now, if Wal-Mart would also mimic Whole Foods' policies on living wages, benefits and the ratio of top exectuive pay to front line worker pay, the vision of Whole Foods' chairman would have made an even bigger and positive difference to the world. What a great thing that would be!
And, not coincidentlly, Whole Foods should also revisit it's commitment to small, family farms and stop misleading consumers about the source of its produce. That, too, would be great!
Of course, the odds that the Slate article will induce either Wal-Mart or Whole Foods to take such steps is made smaller by the article itself. "Dark Secrets"? Not Wholesome? It's the kind of overheated, immature journalism that fails to enlighten while only retarding lofty aspirations more than advancing them. (Indeed, a friend who read the Slate piece emailed me that he was now quite worried about the integrity of Whole Foods -- probably just the kind of reaction that Slate hoped for. Namely, one that bred anxiety toward Whole Foods rather than anything remotely constructive in continuing the 'organic food movement.")
It also betrays some ignorance. Should Whole Foods take steps to work with local organic farmers in New York? Yes!! But, the author of the article seems wholly ignorant of the minimum demands of commercial relationships as well as 'apples to apples' accounting. To induce large (or small) farmers to switch to organic, Whole Foods must promise to purchase in volume. It cannot 'just show up' on various days in various parts of the year and say, "Hey if you have organic, I'd like to buy it from you!" Both buyer and seller must focus on the entire economic package -- and the larger the package -- the more comprehensive and continuous it is - the more likely each will commit to the necessary shifts required to move toward organic.
Cherry-picking a part of the year, as the author does in making the energy cost comparison of summer tomatoes from New Jersey versus summer tomatoes from Chile is, as the author likes to write, 'technically correct". Fine. But, perhaps it would have been more enlightening for the author to also share the 'full year' energy audit. That is, the energy costs for Chile tomatoes versus local only. A problem of course is that local New Jersey tomatoes are only availabe in summer -- unless grown in greenhouses -- and then, if greenhouse grown, the full energy audit would be higher.
Should Whole Foods find ways to support New Jersey small farmers and also tap into local, in season tomatoes? Yes! By all means. But the current facts as presented in this overheated piece from Slate are, well, overheated.
A more accurate title for the article might have been this: "Whole Foods Is Not Perfect."
And, the subtitle might have been: "One Store In Manhattan Has Misleading Posters."
Of course, the 'dark secret' of this kind of journalism is that such headlines don't attract many readers. Much better to have misleading headlines.