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PlaNet News & Views

Posted on 27-3-07

By Alan Marston, 27 March 2007
After its all boiled down wisdom is knowing where the limit is and
ipso-facto the unwise don't know limitation and therein lies the root of
their danger. Take for instance the the simplest and most pervasive
political doctrine of protest `power to the people' which flourishes on
ignorance of the fact that when the poor get powerful they're bastards
too. Or closer to home - the supermarket - when the merchants of organics
and green-whatever get to be corporates they'll mall us too.
Naturally the warning signs of monopoly madness appear first in the USA.
'Love where you shop!" proclaim the signs at the entrance to the vast
branch of Whole Foods Market in Austin, Texas. Well, a kiwi won't buy that
tosh? Not yet, but soon shopping at an `Organic' supermarket in NZ will
mirror America's natural foods superstore chain where even at nine in the
evening everyone in the shop has already bought the `righteousness-dinner'
by which they can eat their way to goodness. Next will be green-power your
way in combat with climate change with your own turbine from XYG Corp
closely followed by become a millionaire with our unique to AirHead Corp
solution to poverty and crime.
No individual ever lost money (and that's all they gain) by selling
unlimitations, the whole of course suffers an increase in entropy, more
commonly known as chaos.
Whole Foods shops are a supermarket chain giving us warning of things to
come. Pile it high, sell it cheap, the business plan of Tesco's UK founder
Jack Cohen remains the dominating ethos of supermarket trade. John Mackey,
the founder, chairman and CEO of the $5.6bn (£2.85bn) Whole Foods Market,
piles it pretty and sells it nice. But Mackey is more messianic in his
quotes. His is a company "based on love, not on fear". Shades of Dick
Hubbard. "Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet" is the slogan. "We
believe in a virtuous circle embracing the food chain, human beings and
mother earth," proclaims another sign at the store's entrance. There are a
lot of signs in a Whole Foods Market - all part of making you feel like a
better, healthier, happier shopper.
Happiness can indeed be sold cheap.
Sure there are sceptics but there's always the other side and there's no
denying that through his green-tinged supermarket chain Mackey has
introduced the ethics of food supply to the American mainstream. As one
organic vegetable farmer, a rare breed in Texas, told me: "You can't argue
with one thing - if it wasn't for Whole Foods we'd still be handing out
leaflets telling folk what organic is." The thing is in the word whole.
The organics movement is meant to be about wholeness which is about not
taking sides but going through the middle of it all without extremes at
either end. This bit of organics is always lost-in-translation to the
market. Wholefoods generates twice the profit per square foot of any other
US supermarket - and it is opening 20 new stores a year. In February, it
swallowed its main rival, Wild Oats Markets, in a takeover worth half a
billion dollars, adding another 110 stores to give it nearly 300 across
north America. That's not done by taking the middle way.
Now Whole Foods is going to Britain: a "European flagship" shop opens in
London in June, on three floors in the former Barkers department store in
Kensington. At more than 80,000 sq ft, it will be the largest food store
in the city centre. If it does well, there will be "a lot more", according
to Mackey. With this move, Whole Foods will enter the vicious fight that
is British supermarket retailing right at the battleground's heart - the
conscience-struck consumer.
Welcome to the future-room wherein for a small price your conscience is
checked out at the entrance in exchange for a plastic soul.
Sales of organic food have risen by more than 30% in the past two years.
Both here and in the US, it is the fastest-growing sector in food retail.
This is why, with supplies becoming a problem as the boom accelerates,
British chains have been so busy this winter shouting "greener than thou"
at each other: Tesco, Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury's have all announced
schemes to buy more local produce, reduce "food miles" and clean up their
carbon. Whole Foods' arrival will take this tussle to another plane.
Whole Foods' trick is to marry green - even if it is a pretty soft version
of green - with comfort. Selling organic doesn't have to mean an unwashed
carrot in a shop smelling of mould and patchouli. Or being guilt-tripped
by a viciously priced-up banana in Sainsbury's. Quite simply, they are the
most gorgeous supermarkets I have ever seen. This is not just about the
sheer lavishness - the 600 cheeses, the 20 yards of fresh-fish counter,
the 32 different freshly made sausages from "free-roam pigs" - but also a
palpable sense that the notion of mass retailing of food has been turned
on its head. There is a sense of ease and wholesome fun - Disney does
Borough Market. You are encouraged to fossick and chatter as you might in
a grocer's shop - remember those? This is no strip-lit warehouse. The look
is opulent, more Harrods food hall than Waitrose clinical.
There are mini-restaurants dotting the spaces between the aisles: a sushi
bar, the trattoria, the Living Foods salad counter. A long canyon walled
with vats, 200 of them, full of every flour, pulse and bean I have ever
heard of, waiting for you to fill your own bag on an honesty-box basis. In
the book aisle, you will find Al Gore, Mohammed Yunus and solar-powered
radio sets on the shelves. The own-brand loo paper is chlorine-free, of
course, but also "100% recycled with 80% post-consumer content", whatever
that is. And everywhere there are assurances of goodness, endless detail
on just how decent products are. This is the root of why Whole Foods
Market is a cult - ask any New Yorker, in whose city a fourth store is
just opening. Its stores are its temples, adept at making you feel you
have done good just by entering the ("conscientiously constructed from
sustainable materials") building.
There are Americans who are sarcastic about Whole Foods. It is widely
known as "Whole Paycheck" and, as one Texas journalist put it, a temple of
"bobos" - bourgeois bohemians who "talk like hippies but walk like
yuppies". I couldn't find anyone in the Austin store who would grumble.
Most people were ecstatic. "I love this store," said an old lady in the
dairy section. "Sure, it's not so cheap, but it's so friendly and homey."
Clutching my arm, she told me how to cash in on that. "Here's a secret -
pick up something and tell the attendant you're not sure you'll like it.
They'll write on the label, and - guess what! - when you get to the
checkout, they'll give it to you for free!" There is indeed a defining
company policy that says that if a customer is looking at two different
apples in a befuddled manner, they should be offered a bite of each. It
would be fun to see Sainsbury's try that.
The staff are "passionate, attentive team members", according to the WFM
website. They wear kepis and aprons; dreadlocks and goatees seem to be the
company standard for hair organisation, and they are ridiculously
charming. This may be because by US retail standards they are reasonably
well-paid, starting at $10 an hour (the US minimum wage is $7.25 an hour),
and they get free health insurance and significant profit share. They
appear to run their teams democratically (though forming unions is
discouraged). They hail you, a "guest", not a customer, from their
counters with offers of a sample of freshly roasted jalapeño and lime
cashews or a piece of "outstanding Texas barbecue" in the tones of a
larky-but-respectful market trader.
Wholefoods buries the notion that supermarkets must be pared down, frills
minimal, all to pass on maximum savings to the price-conscious customer.
It is the Starbucksification of the supermarket. And if it works in
Britain, the shift in supermarket culture could be swift: remember,
armchairs and skinny lattes were alien artefacts in our cafes hardly 10
years ago. Mackey states that he has never understood the fixed mindset of
supermarkets, whose guiding model was Wal-Mart. "Not everyone is concerned
with getting mediocre food at the lowest price," he has said, and he has
proved that true.
Whole Foods Market is in most ways an ordinary capitalist empire, geared
to the market and its mania for growth. It turned over $5.6bn last year
out of 190 stores in the US, Canada and the UK (it has owned the London
natural foods chain Fresh & Wild, which has six outlets, since 2004): the
company's phenomenal rise from just 12 shops when it went public in 1992
has been largely through aggressive takeovers. It is still not a big
player in the vast world of US retail, but Whole Foods' profit margins
have got the big supermarkets thinking. There are now basic lines on
staple goods whose prices compare pretty well with the standard
supermarkets. And these are getting worried. In March last year, Wal-Mart
started to stock organic foods - though most are hidden away in a weirdo's
corner with the tofu and the vegetarian cheese, just as British
supermarkets used to do before they realised the golden premium there is
in selling organic alongside conventional produce.
Whole Foods Market began in an Austin garage in 1978, when Mackey, a
philosophy graduate hippie, and his then girlfriend, Renee Hardy, turned a
vegetarian co-op into a shop, using local farmers as suppliers. They
called it SaferWay - a gag at the then dominant Safeway. The store was a
hub for the university town's alternative scene and it was militantly
vegetarian. Yet, from early on, Mackey showed some pragmatic
entrepreneurial traits. Within a couple of years he decided to "sell
products that I didn't think were healthy - meat, seafood, beer, wine ...
We were a whole-food store, not a holy food store."
Mackey and his colleagues grew by buying up other, less financially astute
enterprises - and by borrowing the centralised distribution systems of the
traditional retailers. By 2004 Whole Foods was America's fastest-growing
mass retailer, in 2005 it was in Fortune magazine's top 500 US companies
and last year it made a $1.6bn profit. In June 2006, a share bought in
Whole Foods for $2.92 in 1992 was worth more than $70. The expansion goes
on: a target of 80 shops in the UK and Europe has been mentioned and
Mackey says he wants to double turnover - to $12bn - by 2010.
Mackey, 54, runs the empire partly from his 720-acre ranch outside Austin,
where he tends chickens (and eats their eggs), venturing out in person and
by blog to conduct arguments with people in the organics movement who
believe that Whole Foods has betrayed most of its principles. He is an
intriguing combination of the patriarchal idealist and a hard-headed,
growth-pursuing businessman, with strong libertarian views. Deeply
anti-union (he is widely quoted as likening unions to "having herpes"), he
is criticised for refusing to back what might seem obvious causes, for
instance over the rights and pay rates of migrant labour on American
farms. But he still has a quest, according to his blog, to reform
industrial agriculture, and indeed "to make the world a better place".
Late last year, in a letter to Whole Foods' 43,000 staff, Mackey
announced: "I am now 53 years old and I have reached a place in my life
where I no longer want to work for money, but simply for the joy of the
work itself and to better answer the call to service that I feel so
clearly in my own heart." As of January 2007 he said he would reduce his
own salary to $1, donate his stock options to the company's charitable
foundations, and set up a $100,000 fund for team members with emergencies.
The letter was signed: "With much love".
For all that, the fundamental green movement in America has fallen out of
love with Mackey and his shops. One reason is that the core promise of the
stores "to offer the highest quality, least processed, most flavourful and
naturally preserved foods" is plainly not borne out in the aisles. The
rank of chiller cabinets stocking "natural" TV dinners is just one
example. It's "whole foods-lite" - what the market can take, not what the
rhetoric would suggest.
The other is more elemental - that big cannot be good. Supermarket chains
and sustainable, natural food production just aren't compatible. Michael
Pollan devoted a section of his 2006 book The Omnivore's Dilemma to a
devastating critique of Big Organic, as exemplified by the rise of Whole
Foods and the industrialisation of organic agriculture in the US. Many of
the pioneering whole earth and organic farms in the west coast region have
been taken over by the same grand agricultural corporations they were set
up to oppose. One vast operation in California grows 80% of all America's
organic lettuces. An issue that particularly bothers Pollan and his
followers is the issue of local sourcing - not least jetting in asparagus
from South America in January. Whole Foods is unashamedly pulling in
produce from all over the world.
Take for instance a stack of bottles of Italian fizzy mineral water
bottles, sold under Whole Foods' budget- label brand, on special offer at
99 cents a litre. Can a shop seriously call itself environmentally
responsible when it is shipping products that are available locally half
way across the world? Wholefoods answer "We're offering a choice - and the
imported fizzy waters sell better than local."
In the view of Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers
Association in the US, Whole Foods' green policies are "just a veneer".
"They'll do the right thing if pushed by the media - otherwise it's just
business as usual."
Clearly, trading off ethical ideals against consumer desires is how Whole
Foods has thrived. Though in the end the customer comes first, as Jason
Duran, produce team leader for the chain's south-west region, told me. He
believes people in the north shouldn't eat grapes in December. But he
doesn't believe Whole Foods should stop them from doing it and so Whole
Foods sells grapes and asparagus in January, flown in when necessary.
Duran acknowledges that there are fewer local organic producers in Texas
than there were 15 years ago - a fact that disappoints him.
Stung by the criticism, the company is working to address the complaints
over the miles its food travels - pushing local produce harder in the
stores and offering cheap loans to local producers. Whole Foods is given
some credit by campaigners, not least for having worked to stop the
dumbing-down of the US's official organic standards, in the face of
powerful lobbying from Big Agriculture for the bar to be set as low as
possible. Mackey has said that the company must now consider going "beyond
organic", and do more to address other ethical concerns around
industrialised food. Whole Food is pushing its own fair-trade label,
called, in classic Whole Foods style, "World of Good".
But this has not satisfied critics like Cummins: "Whole Foods now is a
big-box retailer - and it's much more concerned about competing with the
other big boxes than issues of ethics and sustainability. But the rhetoric
goes on because Mackey is good at it - good at PR." In the view of many
American green campaigners, Whole Foods took an anti-big-shop movement,
assimilated its virtues, did away with its annoyances, and made another
big shop out of the result.
Vox pop, Joan Gundermann, a determined smallholder who has seen her
90-acre market-gardening enterprise in the US through tornadoes and
floods, raised a son with severe diabetes and won a fight with Whole Foods
Market. She was one of Mackey's early suppliers, and is now, in her
easygoing way, among his sternest critics. "At the beginning Whole Foods
loved us and took care of us, but then it went all greedy. When they got
bigger they got just like all the other big boys. Suddenly you couldn't
sell direct to the stores but you had to go through their centralised
distribution scheme. In effect, we were locked out - I lost $40,000 worth
of produce that season. I said, if you want, go and play with the
California boys. You can screw a Texas farmer once, but not twice."
Now, she says, in satisfaction, Whole Foods has "come crawling back".
Carol Ann Sayle, who runs Boggy Creek Farm, an organic market garden in
the Austin suburbs, told me: "We said to them, 'We don't want our salad to
go to Lousiana. We want it to go downtown to our store.'"
For Gundermann and Sayle, and many in the organic movement, Whole Foods is
less a betrayal of their ideals than an example of a missed opportunity -
the chance to harness the enormous consumer power it has generated to the
original ideals of the organic movement. "All these stores say 'fresh
produce' - that's a big lie," says Carol Ann Sayle. "There's no such thing
as fresh in a retail store. We need to start by being honest with the
Brad Stufflebeam, president of the Texas Organic Farmers and Growers
Association, sees the problem as lying far deeper - the supermarkets, by
making food cheap, have destroyed the agricultural system (Americans
spend, on average, less than 10% of their income on food, down from 24% in
1947). "We've devalued food and we've devalued farmers. Now the skills are
being lost: the average farmer in America is 65 years old." It's a point
that Mackey acknowledges - if we are to return to a more sustainable
agriculture, we will have to learn to pay more for our food.
If its not Whole Foods it'll be Greengoodies, whatever. The great unwise
will be perpetrate their own retail mugging until the one limitation they
do know, a limited budget, is attracted over to the next promoter of a
cheap cleansing of conscience.
Meanwhile you and me and the rest of the wise minority will of course
continue to struggle to pay more for our own conflicted path with its
battered sign - `The Middle Way'. But we will not be disappointed with our