Surrender at the grocery store

I shop at Whole Foods.

If that sounds like a confession, that’s because it is. I do this despite CEO John Mackey’s union busting, despite his opposition to health care reform, and despite the often exorbitant prices. I do this because I have little choice.

I am vegan. That does not mean I live by produce alone. I like alternative burgers. I like fake cheese. I like particular kinds of granola that I can add to well, lots of things. Locally-owned stores either do not carry a large enough selection or do not carry it consistently. I’d have to burn a lot more gas to find what I need elsewhere.

I order what I can, on line, but a lot of it is perishable and can’t be shipped. And of course there are the occasional things that I need right this very minute.

You see, there just aren’t a lot of options. Whole Foods either bought them out or put them out of business.

I understand that Mackey calls himself a libertarian. That should be with a capital L, for the Libertarian party, which isn’t really libertarian at all; capitalist Libertarians do not acknowledge economic hierarchy. And when John Mackey locates his stores only in upscale neighborhoods, resists unions, and promotes health insurance plans with $2500 deductibles for low-paid workers, it is hard to say he acknowledges economic hierarchy.

When I go into a Whole Foods market, the appearance of wholesome food is overwhelming. The employees (oh, but I’m supposed to call them “team members”) are always friendly, even anxious to serve.

I’ve worked in customer service. I know that the mantra that “the customer is always right” would be laughable if it did not cause so much suffering, especially among low-paid workers. This attitude further demeans low-paid workers in a society that mostly values humans only for their money. So I worry for the people who treat me so nicely.

And I have to remember that many neighborhoods don’t have grocery stores at all. Convenience stores and fast food outlets are the only options many people have. They certainly don’t have anything like a Whole Foods.

While Libertarians trust the market place to regulate social values, the experience of Whole Foods shows that this simply isn’t so. Capitalism has one core value: return on investment. In a Grist interview, Mackey, who calls himself vegan despite eating eggs,

wish[es] Whole Foods didn’t sell animal products, but the fact of the matter is that the population of vegetarians in America is like 5 percent, and vegans are like 25 or 30 percent of the vegetarians. So if we were to become a vegan store, we’d go out of business, we’d cease to exist. And that wouldn’t be good for the animals, for our customers, our employees, our stockholders, or anybody else. If I were to take Whole Foods in this direction I would be removed as CEO.

Mackey denies a dichotomy that “people are either doing things for altruistic reasons or they are greedy and selfish, just after profit,” insisting “the whole idea is to do both.”

Mackey’s approach is to achieve spectacular profits by marketing to well-off health-conscious and environment-conscious consumers. He claims core values besides monetary profitability, but the success of Whole Foods means that I don’t have the option to choose organizations whose practices actually reflect my values.

So yes, I shop at Whole Foods. That doesn’t mean I’m happy about it.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.