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Organic Consumers Association

Is Whole Foods With the Organic Revolution or Against It?

  • By Alexis Baden-Mayer
    Organic Consumers Association, January 25, 2010

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not picking on the Whole Foods shopper. Those who paint Whole Foods shoppers as status-conscious yuppies are trying to discourage potential recruits from joining the revolutionary organic movement. There’s no reason to doubt that the Whole Foods shopper sincerely wants to do the right thing for their health, for the planet and for the workers. But, if there ever was a "frienemy" of the revolutionary organic movement, it is Whole Foods CEO John Mackey. Whole Foods under his leadership seems bent on frustrating consumer expectations, while craftily confusing conscientious consumers and limiting their revolutionary potential.

In the big picture, if you prefer local markets to big box stores, if you want to reduce the human impact on the climate, if you support labor rights or the public support for affordable health care, Whole Foods does not share your values. Nick Paumgarten sums it up in his January 4th profile of Mackey for the New Yorker:
  • To hard-core proponents of natural and organic food, and of food production that’s local, polycultural, and carbon-stingy, Whole Foods is a disappointment—a bundle of big-business compromises and half-steps, an example of something merely good that the perfect can reasonably be declared an enemy of. It’s a welter of paradoxes: a staunchly anti-union enterprise that embraces some progressive labor practices; a self-styled world-improver that must also deliver quarterly results to Wall Street; a big-box chain putting on small-town airs; an evangelist for healthy eating that sells sausages, ice cream, and beer.
Local Organic vs. Big Box Stores & Corporate Organic

After the organic revolution, we’ll all live on land where we’re producing own food or within walking distance of a neighborhood market that sells locally grown organic food – or both. Whole Foods Markets are big-box stores. As Paumgarten quips:
  • To the likes of Wal-Mart and Costco, it has been an impetus to carry healthier, more judiciously sourced food. To small neighborhood natural- or gourmet-food shops, it has sometimes been an impetus to go out of business.
Whole Foods operates in a national and international distribution chain, with no regard for food-miles or local food security. Paumgarten summarizes Michael Pollan's critique of Whole Food's business model:
  • Pollan argued that the impression left by the store’s displays was misleading; “organic” often meant that the food came from gigantic monocultural operations owned by the big food conglomerates, which abide by the letter but not the spirit of the term, rather than from, say, the Edenic chemical-free family farm that you pictured when you paid a dollar more for the organic soy chips. Pollan’s specimen was asparagus, flown, in January, from Argentina. It was organic, by U.S.D.A. standards (which a Whole Foods executive had helped to devise), but it had traveled six thousand miles, and it tasted like cardboard. The irony, then, was that Whole Foods, in lifting one veil from the food industry, was complicit in replacing it with another. Whole Foods was, in Pollan’s account, kind of a phony.
The Organic Solution to Climate Change vs. No Climate Change Problem

The organic revolution will addresses the climate change problem by reducing the roughly half of all greenhouse gas emissions associated with the industrial food system and sequestering another 40% of current greenhouse gas emissions in the soil (that’s if all the world’s cropland were transitioned to organic). Whole Foods’ CEO John Mackey doesn’t care about organic’s potential to reduce emissions or sequester carbon because he doesn’t believe that human activity impacts climate change.

Independent Voice for Labor vs. Employee Benefits as the Prerogative of the Employer

Again, quoting Paumgarten:
  • Mackey regards his blend of paternalism and sovereignty as a recipe for proper governance, an expression of both compassion and creativity. This view is not shared by unions, which have complained that Mackey prevents unionization among his employees, notably at a store in Madison, Wisconsin, where team members had voted to unionize. Unions have picketed store openings and, as activist investors in Whole Foods stock, have called for Mackey’s firing.
  • In the early eighties, Mackey told a reporter, “The union is like having herpes. It doesn’t kill you, but it’s unpleasant and inconvenient, and it stops a lot of people from becoming your lover.” ... His disdain for contemporary unionism is ideological, as well as self-serving.
Health Care As a Human Right vs. Health Care as a Personal Responsibility

There's a wide range of ways to address the country's health crisis. The Organic Consumers Association prefers locally-controled solutions like community health clinics and public hospitals to the current for-profit health-insurance mandates being contemplated by Congress, but we believe that health care is human right and that a representative democracy has a role in ensuring that affordable, effective health care is available to all as a public good. John Mackey sees no role for government either at the local or national level. Paumgarten writes:
  • Mackey’s prescriptions ranged from the obvious (people need to eat better) to the market-minded (promote interstate competition among insurers) to the dreamy (the corporations will take care of us). The gist was that, together, they’d obviate the need for a federal plan, and that the course being pursued by the White House and the Democrats would have disastrous consequences. He led with an epigram attributed to Margaret Thatcher: “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.”

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