Entries Tagged as 'environment'

The Whole Foods Dilemma

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

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.