The Whole Foods Dilemma

August 27th, 2009 at 11:38 am David Frum | 21 Comments |

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Now two unions are joining the campaign to boycott Whole Foods, in order to punish the company for the free-market healthcare beliefs of its CEO John Mackey. The boycott seeks to punish a company for resisting the political ambitions of the Obama White House. (You can read Mackey’s offending op-ed on the CEO’s blog, here.)

The unions may put a little muscle into what has till now been mostly online chatter. I know how I will respond: by buying an extra half gallon of grass-fed milk when I stop at the store this afternoon. But something more is called for here, a counter-boycott. And I know just the man to lead it: Michael Pollan.

Michael Pollan of course is the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a book I celebrated on this site earlier in the month.

In the course of the book, Pollan makes a point about the kind of food sold at Whole Foods: In most cases, it’s probably not that much better for you personally than is conventionally grown food. Milk without hormones may offer individual benefits, but not organic lettuce. So why bother? Because organic fruits and vegetables and meats offer benefits to the whole society: the first step toward a more environmentally sustainable agriculture.

But farmers will only take this step if they can be assured that consumers will pay the higher prices involved in the shift. The more consumers who agree, the more farmers who will shift.   Which is why organic advocates like Pollan go to such lengths to persuade everybody. Zachary Adam Cohen expressed the point eloquently in the Huffington Post last month:

As a political conservative who favors limited-government, the authentic over the mass produced, the local over the federal, and small business over corporate, the sustainable food movement seems a perfect fit for me. And yet when I look out over the various constellations that make up the movement, I don’t see very many conservatives.

It may be that many of us, accustomed to decades of caricature and derision, simply choose to keep our heads down and soldier on. But as the movement progresses it will be important for advocates of all political stripes to be transparent about their agendas. Transparency is never a bad thing. I also believe that advocates of a local, sustainable food system should be more welcoming and accepting of conservatives that hold the same goals, even if they have different reasons for doing so. It’s not that current stakeholders in local foods activism have excluded conservatives, I do not think they have. But what they also have not done is made it a priority to reach out to community members from across the aisle.

Shopping at Whole Foods is only the first step toward the kind of food culture favored by people like Pollan and Cohen. Still, you know what they say about the journey of a thousand miles.

Now comes the moment of revelation: Whole Foods is not only for liberals. Its CEO thinks that free marketeers have something to contribute to the healthcare debate. What do you know, he turns out to be something of a free marketeer himself. And the reaction in some of the liberal world is outrage and a desire to punish. When push comes to shove, “progressives” do think and feel exactly as Zachary Cohen wished to acquit them of thinking and feeling. They see their food culture as a symbol of belonging, more than as a valuable cause in its own right. And they are prepared to sacrifice the cause in order to defend their claim to the symbol.

Whole Foods has bigger problems than union complaints – it faces the worst recession since World War II, a recession that is driving many shoppers to seek the very cheapest products available, or anyway the products that seem the cheapest thanks to subsidies and supports that conceal their full cost. Which is too bad. American healthcare costs are driven as much by hurtful personal behaviors as by market failures. By promoting a more responsible food culture, Whole Foods does its part to discourage the obesity that now accounts for 1 American health dollar in 10. This is a solution we all should be part of. Instead, too many liberals insist on regarding Whole Foods as something akin to a sect or club, where half the pleasure comes from blackballing new members.

Here‘s Zachary Cohen again:

[C]onservative shoppers will now feel more enfranchised to shop at Whole Foods… [T]hey’ll know that John Mackey stood up for what he believed in, even in the face of a customer base that was likely to get very, very angry at him for doing so. Conservative shoppers will respect that. And they’ll put aside their long established suspicion of the company now that they’ve seen Mackey’s stripes. This is a huge moment, and one that all local foods advocates should seize upon.

Because the reality is this: the progressive boycott of Whole Foods will fail, and an entire segment of the country that never ever would have come to terms with organic produce and products, will now be engaging with them head on. This is a huge victory. I fully expect to see Whole Foods’ revenue bounce from this. Let’s not let this opportunity be wasted.

Here’s hoping.

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21 Comments so far ↓

  • ConArtist

    Well done. Certainly the liberals can take their prerogative and shop elsewhere, meanwhile it’s time for more conservatives to get on board with sustainable agriculture and vegetarianism. These issues, like sustainability and immigration, conservatives have ceded too much ground to liberals and need to embrace environmental concerns to remain viable themselves. It’s great that a revolt will spawn a counterpoint.

  • joedee1969

    The GOP did lose its way and the people who want to take it back want to distance themselves from the talk radio Glenn Beck right. A lot of us don’t relate to these bomb throwers anymore and feel they are harming us more than anything. I like this site because it is not all right-wing insanity but ground conservatives who know there is a role for government. There are very few sites that are more down the middle of the road and not on the fringe. There are very few writers that stand up to the crazy way right.David and writers like C. Rich are a breath of fresh air to me. They seem to have a brain and won’t drink the kool-aid from conservatives but focus on what is right by it. The problem is as soon as you say something about Rush or Sean or any of them , people say your not conservative and David and a few others don’t live in fear.

  • rbottoms

    Somehow I don’t see the NASCAR/Budweiser demographic embracing sustainable agriculture and urban farming. These are the people who believe global warming is a myth and the earth is 4,000 years old. Mackey insulted his liberal clientele with the Thatcher quote about socialists and we decided to take our money elsewhere, end of story.

    It’s not about putting Whole Foods out of business. What their CEO has done is awaken liberals and progressives who shop at Whole Foods that they are helping to fund the GOP. Just as many of us refuse to order from Dominos or shop at Walmart with no expectation of those businesses disappearing we will similarly adjust or lives to find other outlets than Whole Foods.

    Personally I’ve been inspired to create an iPhone application called Quakewood to use in finding local markets and to provide direct access to the same suppliers that Whole Foods uses. So as a capitalist with a conscience Mackey has done me a favor.

  • sinz54

    “Pollan makes a point about the kind of food sold at Whole Foods: In most cases, it’s probably not that much better for you personally than is conventionally grown food. Milk without hormones may offer individual benefits, but not organic lettuce. So why bother? Because organic fruits and vegetables and meats offer benefits to the whole society: the first step toward a more environmentally sustainable agriculture.”

    Total nonsense.
    You can’t feed 7 billion people on the kind of old-fashioned 19th century farm model that Pollan has in mind. That’s why it was abandoned in the first place.

    The U.S. has been the breadbasket of the world for my entire lifetime. Our current much-maligned agribusiness industry produces so much more food than Americans can consume, that we keep a billion more people alive with it.

    There is no evidence that organic foods are healthier than non-organic. They don’t have more nutrients. The tiny amounts of pesticides used in non-organic foods pose no health risk. Americans aren’t exactly dying in the millions from pesticide poisoning. Their main health risk is obesity. And you can get fat eating organic food too. It’s what your cuisine looks like that matters.

  • sinz54

    I shop based on price and quality. Not to make a political statement.

    I never shopped at Whole Foods, because I regarded the entire organic foods movement as pseudo-science with a heavy ideological tinge to it.

    I see no reason to change now. Organic foods aren’t worth the higher price, whether they’re sold by socialists or by libertarians.

  • liv&win

    its not about organic foods, its about free speech and the attempt on the left to silience any alternative views. If you can’t see that, you are doomed. It is about standing up for the minority, giving them a voice. If you believe in free speech and have a distaste for large union organized protests against someone who voiced his opinion, then Whole Foods deserves your support. Use the market place to show the unions and its thugs, what you think. Vote with your dollars. If you don’t shop at Whole Foods, visit one, buy a loaf of bread or quart of milk. That’s all. You might leave a little note in the customer response box voicing your support for free speech and RESPECT for the right of others to voice their opinions.

  • BarbD

    Count me as an enthusiastic Whole Foods shopper who is also politically progressive.

    I read about the WF boycott, read Mackey’s WSJ editorial, and while I didn’t agree with all of his proposals, I gave him high marks for contributing substantive ideas for reforming health care that are worthy of further discussion.

    Too often, the health care reform debate is nothing more than highly partisan flame wars. That’s unfortunate because it tends to stifle ideas — from both sides — that are worthy of consideration.

  • rbottoms

    its not about organic foods, its about free speech and the attempt on the left to silience any alternative views.

    News flash, the First Amendment isn’t about keeping me from boycotting Whole Foods to make a point, it’s about keeping the government from telling you that you can’t carp about it.

    That’s all. You might leave a little note in the customer response box voicing your support for free speech

    Mackey was free to implicitly say I am a socialist for supporting Obama by using the Thatcher quote and I am free to not only take my money elsewhere, but to encourage others to do so as well because I rightly feel insulted by it.

    Moral of the story is don’t insult your customers. Until I read the quote I neither knew no cared Mackey was a Republican, now that I do I’ll take my money where it won’t help the GOP even indirectly by giving Mackey another million to drop against causes I believe in.

    Same reason I don’t shop at Walmart or eat pizza from Dominoes.

  • liv&win

    Bottoms, News flash back, you are free to do as you wish, sir. I obviously wasn’t talking to you. I was talking to people like BarbD who want to hear new ideas from non-politicians who may have something to add to the discussion. But I do think it is more than a little aweful that a man voiced his opinion and the only thing you say is that he called you a socialist and you were insulted. Boo Hoo. But my most main point was that the union organized the protest. That, I think, is so outside their charter, that there should be some kind of investigation. The union is there to promote the working conditions and wage interests of its members, not to protest a man because he wrote an op/ed piece.

    Mackey also wrote: In answer to President Obama’s invitation to all Americans to put forward constructive ideas for reforming our health care system, I wrote this Op/Ed piece called simply “Health Care Reform.” An editor at the Journal rewrote the headline to call it “Whole Foods Alternative to Obamacare,” which led to antagonistic feelings by many. That was not my intention – in fact, I do not mention the President at all in this piece.

    He continues:

    I fully realize that there are many opinions on the healthcare debate, including inside my own company. As we, as a nation, continue to discuss this, I am hopeful that both sides can do so in a civil manner that will lead to positive change for all concerned. You are welcome to share your thoughts in the comments section below. (Just remember our comment guidelines prohibit vulgarity and personal attacks.)

  • rbottoms

    But I do think it is more than a little aweful that a man voiced his opinion and the only thing you say is that he called you a socialist and you were insulted.

    Yes, I was a customer, it’s not good business to insult your customers so my money now goes elsewhere.

    An editor at the Journal rewrote the headline to call it “Whole Foods Alternative to Obamacare,” which led to antagonistic feelings by many. That was not my intention – in fact, I do not mention the President at all in this piece.

    You’re right, he didn’t pick the headline, but he did pick the quote and so now my money goes elsewhere, and hopefully no longer indirectly into the coffers of the GOP, a political organization whose policies and platforms I adamantly oppose.

    I am hopeful that both sides can do so in a civil manner that will lead to positive change for all concerned.

    I’ve been quite civil.

    But my most main point was that the union organized the protest.

    The union didn’t start the protest, they joined it. I didn’t ask is there a protest I can join, I dropped Whole Foods an email saying I am no longer a customer and told them why. It wasn’t until sometime after that I joined the Facebook members who support the protest.

    This is self-directed Twitter and Facebook powered collection of people who have decided, in part that making Mackey even richer so he can give more money to the GOP is a bad idea. It’s the power of autonomous gatherings, flash crowds if you will, that will become more and more commonplace as the technology improves.

    It’s inspired me to write software to support it.

    All good outcomes from my perspective.

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  • barker13

    Re: Joedee1969 // Aug 27, 2009 at 12:17 pm (#2) –

    “…distance themselves from the talk radio Glenn Beck right.”

    (*SMILE*)

    Funny. I believe just the opposite. But then again, I’m a constitutionalist libertarian leaning conservative.

    (*WINK*)

    “A lot of us don’t relate to these bomb throwers…”

    Then by all means join the Democratic Party and move it (in relative terms) Righward from within.

    (*SHRUG*)

    Again… don’t take that the wrong way; I’m not saying “my way or the high way,” I’m not saying “you’re either one of us or one of them.”

    Nope. Again… I’m saying as a constitutionalist libertarian leaning conservative that from my point of view it’s a win-win for “moderate” Republicans to leave the GOP (and thus allow the GOP to move further Rightward with less internal resistance) and join the Democratic Party – my expectation and hope being that they’ll retain enough of their principles to move the Democratic Party Rightward rather than they themselves “surrendering” their principles to move individually Leftward.

    (*SHRUG*) (Get where I’m coming from…???) You “pragmatism” fans… you can’t get more “pragmatic” than that!

    “I like this site because it is not all right-wing insanity…”

    (*SNORT*)

    Well… I suppose we can take that as a back-handed compliment to the… er… “non-insane” segment of the… er… Right wing.

    (*CHUCKLE*)

    “…the crazy way right.”

    Ahh… second cousins to the “insane” Right I presume…??? (*GRIN*)

    “…the kool-aid from conservatives…”

    (*ROFLMAO*)

    (*WIPING TEARS OF MIRTH FROM MY EYES*)

    Oh, Joey… cute! Stealing O’Reilly’s tag line. I love it!

    I like you, Joe; you amuse me!

    BILL

  • barker13

    Oh… btw… if Frum wants to shop at Whole Foods good for him.

    Hell… his money… his choice! (Same with all of you!)

    Me…??? I’m a Trader Joe man! (*WINK*)

    Trader Joe’s gives you OUTSTANDING value for the (poor devaluated) dollar; plus, depending upon state and store then sell interesting wine and beer at equally reasonable prices!

    BILL

  • zacharyadamcohen

    Barker13, Trader Joe’s has great value, but they also ship their products all over the world and a great many of their products come from other countries, basically sending your devalued dollar out of the country instead of into local communities here in the states that you could use it. It may not be always convenient, but your best bet is to visit farmers markets in your area, and even look into CSA’s, basically vegetable and fruit coops where you get a weekly delivery during the spring summer and fall. Comes out to about 20 dollars a week in most places, even in NYC.

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  • barker13

    Re: Zacharyadamcohen // Aug 28, 2009 at 1:49 pm (#15) –

    “Trader Joe’s has great value, but they also ship their products all over the world and a great many of their products come from other countries, basically sending your devalued dollar out of the country instead of into local communities here in the states that you could use it.”

    Fair point!

    (Not to go off on a tangent, but I’m a big believer in “buy American” – just not so much when it comes to food where we still enjoy unrivaled world dominance and the vast majority of our spending is on “our” products.)

    Still… even with food products… I buy my “New Mexico Piñon Coffee” at TJ’s. (*SMILE*)

    I’m not sure how my average shopping trip would pan out domestic products vs. foreign products, but for what it’s worth I support buying “local” foodstuffs whenever and wherever possible as a rule of thumb and when on vacation gravitate towards restaurants that feature local farm products.

    I’m a big Vermont fan (yeah, yeah… bunch of commie pinkos…) ever since “discovering” the state when my daughter attended her first semester of college at UVM. I’m a big fan of the Vermont co-ops.

    In other words, Zach… I’m with you!

    Frankly… I can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods. Plus… Whole Foods sells the same sort of foreign “luxury foodstuff” as TJ’s – only at a higher premium with more “glitz” and products overall. I have nothing “against” Whole Foods, it’s just as I originally noted… TJ’s gives me more bang for the buck and I like their corporate “culture” far better than the corporate “culture” at Whole Foods.

    (I understand why Frum likes Whole Foods!) (*SMILE*)

    BILL

  • mycelf

    The question of a boycott really has nothing to do with health care or food, it has to do with voicing an opinion.

    Mr. Mackey’s WSJ opinion piece agrees with the need for health care reform, but raises some legitimate questions about the current proposals on how to go about it. He does have some loaded statements about the potential for a descent into socialism, but all in all it is good public discourse. A call to penalize a business because its CEO ‘takes a position’ is fundamentally undemocratic. Bullying people into keeping ‘unpopular’ opinions to themselves is a tactic of tyranny.

    If you disagree with what Mr. Mackey says about health care, then demonstrate the error of his argument, or provide a better solution, but don’t attempt to stir up the masses to silence his voice.

  • arlington3

    It’s true that TJ is also good, often cheaper and better. But WF has much better produce. I doubt very much that Mackey is a Republican; I could hardly care less. I (conservative female, 33, live and work in DC this last decade), have been shopping for organic produce at WF most of my life and was delighted to see the WSJ piece offering alternatives to Obama being my doctor; however, not much difference one way or another. I’ll still shop at the farmer’s market on Sunday and at WF and TJ during the week. Good for him for having a reasonable opinion and being able to express it in the media; business experience is a plus for op-ed writers. And the organic produce and cereals and meats are just as good as always.

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