Whole Foods the organic Wal-Mart?
by Drummond, Tue Jul 04, 2006 at 11:56:43 PM EDT
Well-to-do liberals don't like to think of themselves as susceptible to the marketing gimmicks that sucker the less enlightened proles. We know that the products we buy are superior because they're packaged in rainbow/tye-die/rough-art wrap, with product names that incorporate words like natural, earth, green, etc. Obviously these products must be owned by progressives, and thus buying these products make the world a better place. If the companies break unions, dodge regulations, pollute, or even commit corporate crimes on occassion, well, all is mitigated by the feeling of superiority we feel over those who buy Western Family or Chef-Boy-Ardee. And the businesses that sell these products must be progressive in their own right, particularly if they have "the look."
And how do we know we're in such a business? Mark T. Harris explained it in his Dissent Article last Winter:
On a trip to Portland, Oregon, in 2004, I wandered into the Whole Foods Market, where shoppers are greeted with soft-hued lighting, high ceilings, and carefully groomed displays of choice desserts and organic foods. The overall effect is more like entering some modern cathedral to upscale consumption, one in which the creed is not suffering, but celebration (although with plenty of tithing at the cash register). Casually dressed clerks add to the sense of Whole Foods as business as unusual. The mostly young employees convey a kind of "alternative" aura that says, "You'll never catch me working at Wal-Mart."But the article continues:
But where Wal-Mart has come under deserved scrutiny from labor, community, and feminist activists for its exploitive "big-box" business model and miserly wages, Whole Foods, the world's largest natural foods retailer, enjoys a reputation as a progressive trendsetter at the forefront of a "green lifestyle revolution" in American life. After all, a slogan like "Whole Foods, Whole Planet, Whole People" conjures up more ennobling vistas of planetary progress than, "We Sell for Less."
Indeed, as you walk through the store, you can see that a lot of care goes into the Whole Foods ambience. This is shopping as experience, food merchandising as a gallery show. But more than the aesthetics or products of the "authentic food artisans" on display, what's being sold here is Whole Foods itself. This is shopping for those market-branded Americans known in the "socially responsible" business community as the Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) crowd. These are the millions of so-called cultural creatives who apparently want some personal development and social justice with their blue-corn tortilla chips and echinacea.
Actually, there is a lot to object to. A closer look at the company's business practices and (John) Mackey's ideas about business and society reveals a vision not that different from a McDonald's or a Wal-Mart. In fact, the Whole Foods business model is more or less the standard stuff of Fortune 500 ambition. This is a vision of mega-chain retailing that involves strategic swallowing up (or driving out of business) of smaller retail competitors. It is a business model that objectively complements the long-term industrialization of organics (that is, large-scale corporate farms) over small family farms. It is also a vision in which concerns about social responsibility do not necessarily apply where less publicly visible company suppliers are concerned. Subsidiaries of cigarette manufacturers (for example, Altria, owner of Kraft's organic products) or low-wage exploiters of minority workers (such as California Bottling Co., Inc., makers of Whole Foods's private-label water) are apparently welcome partners in this particular eco-corporate version of "the sustainable future."Mackey, the company's CEO has been described as "something akin to a world-changing prophet of organica, a corporate 'hippie' subverting the business paradigm, one heirloom tomato and chocolate enrobing station at a time. (Right wing hippies aren't unheard of. Just ask Ann Coulter.) In fact, as explained in a more recent Common Dreams article, Mackey is a right wing ideologue who believes that all prosecutions of corporate crime should be abolished. All of them. Corporate personhood does not extend to corporate personal responsibility. The article describes him as a fan of Milton Friedman, although he expressed in a Reason debate that he is not quite so cynical as Friedman with regard to the role of humanitarianism in the free market. Still, he is a great fan of "Ludwig von Mises and Abraham Maslow, Austrian economics and astrology." And in fact Whole Foods does stand for an ideology, as he described in his keynote speech to a Whole Foods convention.
And yet, his primary customers are liberal yuppies, who "have enough money to spend $9 on a pound of cherries." Just remember, Whole Foods is not a cooperative. It is not union. It is not committed to local growers. It is not in any way progressive. In this Slate article it is suggested that WalMart may even be more progressive than Whole Foods.
Meanwhile, here's a site dedicated to unionizing Mackay's business.
The photo is from the Slate article linked above.