Welcome to ‘Whole-Mart’: Rotten Apples in the Social Responsibility Industry

Welcome to ‘Whole-Mart’: Rotten Apples in the Social Responsibility Industry

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 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.

Whole Foods has been aided in its marketing by supporters of “green living” in the media and elsewhere who, at times, treat the company as more of a movement cause than the newly arrived Fortune 500 corporation it is. Seattle’s progressive Evergreen Monthly, for example, offered in its August 2004 “news” section a report on the opening of a new Whole Foods store in suburban Bellevue. The magazine’s editor informed readers who like to use reusable canvas grocery bags that they could now “follow their bliss” to Bellevue for all things natural. Other “news” included reporting that the Bellevue store, in its first weeks of operation, was already drawing “rave” reviews not only from customers, but even from corporate headquarters!

Both the New York Times Magazine and the business magazine Fast Company have offered flattering portrayals of Whole Foods CEO and founder John Mackey, who was 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. Indeed, in his July 2004 article, “The Anarchist’...

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