Shopping at Whole Foods is one of the great middle-class pleasures of living in a city or suburb in North America. I know people who chose their apartment building based on its proximity to the Whole Foods, and they admit it without embarassment. To some, eating organic has become a necessity, and Whole Foods provides it with style and plenty of self-righteous, feel-good advertising. You can even read about their core values online. Whole Foods pays their employees well and retains a verbal commitment to the environment and sustainable agriculture, as well as to local organic farmers.
According to an article in Slate, this is where the philosophy breaks down.
Whole Foods claims that organic produce requires less energy to produce through the use of organic fertilizers. What they don’t talk about is how much energy it takes to ship all their organic produce from Chile and California, while buying only very items from local farmers. And those farmers are the ones whose photos hang around the store, providing folksy down-home aesthetic for shoppers.
The most common complaint about Whole Foods is its elitism, pricing their products above what an average working family can afford. This could eventually create two tiers of groceries: healthy food for rich people and processed garbage for the poor and working class. With its recent announcement that it will carry organic food, Wal-Mart stands poised to correct that imbalance. But how? Organic food is notoriously expensive, presumably because it is expensive to produce, and its shelf life is short.
Maybe Wal-Mart will take the same route they take with CDs, selling it at a loss in order to take business away from Whole Foods and other organic retailers, and in the same stroke popularize organic food. The lost profits could easily be made up in China, where the retailer giant recently hired 150,000 new employees in preparation for a large expansion there. Wal-Mart’s business in China could match their American business in 20 years. I shudder to think about it.