In his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan (and some of the people he interviews) equate Whole Foods Markets with Wal-Mart. For example, he writes on pp. 248-49:
As far as both Joel and Bev are concerned there isn’t a world of difference between Whole Foods and Wal-Mart. Both are part of an increasingly globalized economy that turns anything it touches into a commodity, reaching its tentacles wherever in the world a food can be produced most cheaply, and then transporting it wherever it can be sold most dearly.
As you might imagine, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey was not at all pleased with this comparison, so he sent Pollan a long letter defending his company which you can read on his blog:
I regret that you did not engage in any serious research about how Whole Foods Market actually does business or you would have discovered that we support local and small farm food production all over the United States as well as in other parts of the world. Whole Foods Market, despite its size, does not operate as a typical monolithic corporation such as Wal-Mart (with which you associate Whole Foods Market several times in your book). . . .Our individual stores are not prohibited from purchasing from local farmers, and, in fact, all of our 184 stores purchase regularly from local growers. Many growers, likely the ones you profiled as “missing in action” at the Berkeley store, are probably using our distribution center on their own volition to take advantage of distribution economies of scale. As a result, the growers spend less time on the road, and place their product in front of a much larger customer base.
Turning to the end of the story for a moment, Pollan wrote Mackey back and Mackey responded. All the letters on the web, and together they make for extraordinary reading. Seriously, can you imagine Wal-Mart engaged in a detailed public discussion with anyone, particularly with someone who’s already criticized them?
While the tone of the discussion is quite civil, Pollan wasn’t buying Mackey’s claims about supporting local agriculture:
Yet, to be perfectly candid, I have trouble squaring some of your claims of support for local agriculture with what I see when I shop at Whole Foods. I see more signage about the importance of local produce than I see actual items of local produce.
A little later in his response, Pollan drops the “W” word again:
In the same way we now need (as you pointed out in our meeting) to raise the bar again on American agriculture, we need to raise it on the American eater too, teaching him about the satisfactions (and nutritional benefits) of eating in season, from his locality, and from a food chain based on grass rather than corn. I think we agree that this is where the “reformation” now is headed; you are in a position to lead rather than to follow it there. To do so is also, I daresay, in your company’s self-interest: as competitors like Wal-Mart and Safeway move into selling industrial organic food, Whole Foods can distinguish itself by moving to the next stage, doing things they can’t possibly do. “Local” surely is one of those things: and your buyers already know exactly how to do it. All Wal-Mart knows is how to source industrial organic food from China.
Reading this paragraph, I was tempted to write that “local” is the new “organic,” but that doesn’t encompass everything it should. Indeed, there is plenty of good food grown in all areas of the United States that is not organic. Some of it is undoubtedly worth eating, and some of it not. Yet having just finished Julie Guntham’s book Agrarian Dreams, it is now clear to me that the term organic has already become a mostly meaningless distinction. Although organic is usually still better than not, organic alone is not enough. An organic Twinkie is still a Twinkie.
What’s really important is that consumers know where what we eat is coming from and how it’s produced. If the stores they shop at are transparent, we can all make informed decisions about what to put in our mouths ourselves. Then we wouldn’t need to rely on a government certification process that has been taken over by the organic industrial complex (although it would be really great if we could again).
If you’ve ever been to Whole Foods you know that shoppers there can spend half their time reading if they feel like it. The company is extraordinarily transparent about the food it sells and this is a very good thing. Furthermore, unlike a certain industrial giant headquartered in Bentonville, Arkansas they actually respond to public pressure. Indeed, in his last letter to Pollan, Mackey announced a remarkable program:
We have set up an annual budget of $10 million to promote local agriculture (especially animal agriculture) wherever we have stores through long-term loans at low rates of interest. Select Regional and Store Buyers will be empowered to extend these loans to help support smaller scale agricultural entrepreneurs. This money will be used to help local producers of grass fed beef, goat milk dairies, organic pasture based eggs, animal compassionate dairy cows, chickens, turkeys, sheep, pigs, etc. Some of the money will also be used to help support local vegetable farmers as well. It is Whole Foods Market’s intention to help finance local agriculture all over the United States. We are going to “walk our talk” with financial support for local, small scale agriculture.
Is this just a ploy? It could be, but the best way to make sure it isn’t would be to walk into your local Whole Foods and ask about which growers the store is helping in your community. Get in their face about it. These people will probably like it.
Before I end this post, let me be clear that I am very familiar with Whole Foods’ labor record. If you’re not, try visiting this site or the labor articles on Whole Foods collected at BuyBlue. [By the way, the company's Buy Blue rating is "apolitical."] In a nutshell, besides being in the food business, passionate opposition to labor unions is the one thing that Whole Foods and Wal-Mart have in common. Nevertheless, I believe that company which wants to make a labor union irrelevent by treating their workers relatively well is an order of magnitude better than a company that treats them like Wal-Mart does. Sure, I wish Whole Foods were a union shop, but I still think that in the great scheme of things the firm does more good than bad.