Whole Foods Market, one of the biggest grocery chains in North America and a USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) certified organic grocer, is well known for its catalogue of mostly organic goods. The chain has proved to be popular amongst the young and wealthy demographic, who are both environmentally/socially conscious and disposed to spending more money on organic or ethically sourced products. Much of Whole Foods Market’s success can be attributed to the rise of the organic foods industry, which has its roots in the counterculture era of the 1960s, where people started to understand the negative effects of pesticide use, and called for consumption of locally-sourced chemical-free food instead of food produced by industrial food producers. Unfortunately, Whole Foods Market does not represent these values very well, as it sources most of its products from industrial food producers, and also participates in unsustainable business practice such as sourcing food from other countries. The fact that Whole Foods Market’s practices are incompatible with the organic movement says a lot about the sustainability of its products, as the organic food movement stands for change in many unsustainable areas of the food industry, such as chemical use and large-scale agriculture. The use of chemicals and large scale conversion of land for agricultural use is inherently unsustainable, therefore the company as a whole is not very sustainable.
Whole Foods Market’s main product is foodstuffs, most of which it sources from big conglomerates such as Hain Celestial and UNIF (United Natural Foods Inc.). Whilst these companies do adhere to the regulations put forth by the USDA regarding organic food, they are by nature, antithetical to the organic movement. This is because one of the pillars of the organic food movement is that food be produced by small-scale, non-industrial actors. Companies such as Hain Celestial and UNIF therefore deviate from the organic food movement, because their size and practices make them predisposed to large-scale agriculture that places cutting costs over adherence to the beliefs of the organic movement. By sourcing its products from these large industrial food producers, Whole Foods Market knowingly compromises its alliance with the organic movement.
Notwithstanding the energy consumed in supplying all of the stores that Whole Foods Market has globally, Whole Foods Market expends a lot of energy sourcing its food from overseas as well. In many ways the grocery industry in general is unsustainable, because people in industrialized countries expect to see seasonal fruits and vegetables year round, meaning food has to be transported from countries with warmer or cooler climates. Whole Foods Market is no different, and seeing as it is mostly based in North America, it has no local access to food species unique to other parts of the world. Although Whole Foods Market does make efforts to source its products responsibly with its “Sourced for Good” seal, it does not eliminate the harmful emissions caused by the global supply chain that it has.
Despite Whole Foods Market’s mostly unsustainable business structure, the company organizes many programs that are aimed at giving back to the community. One initiative that it started includes sponsorship of food recovery organizations, which are made up of food banks, rescue missions, and more. Through this initiative, Whole Foods Market donates leftover food or food that wasn’t sold to people in need. Donating leftover food not only means that fewer people go hungry, it also means less food waste goes to landfills, where greenhouse gases are emitted during the decomposition process. Therefore, donating leftover food is beneficial both to the environment and society.
However, this does not change the fact that Whole Food Market sells its products at a premium compared to other supermarket chains, which makes its products an unaffordable option for the less wealthy. Although catering to a wealthier clientele is not inherently unsustainable, preventing the majority of shoppers from affording its products means that fewer people have access to the organic produce that Whole Foods Market provides. Thankfully, organic food is now much more widespread, so customers do not have to shop at Whole Foods Market to have access to organic food. However, by making customers pay a higher price for food that is organic, Whole Foods Market makes it harder for customers to choose the healthier option, meaning Whole Foods Market does not prioritize the community’s health over its profits.