Whole Foods Boycott?

After WF CEO John Mackey wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal decrying the administration's proposed healthcare reform, progressives called for a boycott, and Boycott Whole Foods Facebook group got nearly 13,000 members in just a few days.

But I'm not so keen on a boycott. For starters, where would boycotters shop instead? I doubt there is some other grocery near most people which is the very embodiment of progressive utopia in a way that Whole Foods isn't. And even with all of WF's questionable practices, and their CEO's extreme Libertarian views, WF is still likely the most progressive grocery chain around.

Another reason to question a boycott was provided by The Daily Sift:

"In the ideal boycott, you temporarily stop doing business with an organization until they change some particular practice. The classic example is the Montgomery Bus Boycott that ended the segregation of city buses. But a boycott is on shakier ground when you're trying to punish somebody for their personal political beliefs rather than what their organization does. The worst example in recent years was the campaign to get radio stations not to play songs by the Dixie Chicks after one of them told an English audience that she was ashamed of President Bush."

On a related note, many of the boycotters have pledged that they will "never shop at Whole Foods again". But that's not a boycott. A boycott is a temporary cessation of business in order to get a company to change something. If someone pledges never to shop at WF again, what exactly is their goal? What do they hope to change, and how do they think their actions will support that change?

And while we likely won't change the CEO's political views no matter how many of us boycott, there's a lot we can do to keep Whole Foods honest, whether we shop there or not. Indeed, Mackey has a long history of taking Whole Foods in a better direction after (polite but firm) lobbying for such. Let's focus on that.

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Critical articles about Whole Foods Market

This page has summaries of tons of media articles critical of Whole Foods. If you came to this page first, you'll probably be more interested in the digest version, 15 Questionable Aspects of Whole Foods Market.

But if you're really here for the media summaries, enjoy.

WFM sells its values

This NYT article completely failed to mention any of the extensive criticism about WFM's business practices, and suggested by omission that WFM is a perfect example of corporate responsibility.

It starts out explaining how WFM's profits are falling (due to increased competition, as natural foods become more mainstream, and therefore easily available elsewhere), and that in response, WFM has started a marketing campaign that basically says that its higher prices are justified because of the values that go along with them.  That would have been an excellent opportunity for the reporter to ask if that includes values like illegally firing workers who were trying to form a union, for example. (October 19, 2014)

John Mackey: In another universe

In an interview with Mother Jones, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey demonstrates what seems to be the defining characteristic of modern Libertarians:  a little practicality mixed with a whole lot of make-believe, denying and distorting any inconvenient facts that would reveal holes in their ideology.  For example, in Mackey's universe, the U.S. has the highest corporate income taxes in the world (it's actually among the lowest, as a result of falling steadily since 1950), that the U.S. does not have a free-market healthcare system (private doctors, private hospitals, and private insurance companies must be an illusion), that global warming is a good thing, and on and on.  That last one is straight out of the playbook:  At first they said that climate change wasn't occurring.  When they couldn't deny that any more, they said it was occurring, but that humans weren't causing it.  When they couldn't deny that any more, they said that we're causing it but it's not a bad thing.  As though they would have any credibility left at this point.  Mackey tellingly gets his talking points from the Koch brothers and ExxonMobil, and Mother Jones calls him on it.

Mackey founded a successful chain of natural foods grocery stores and had a lot to do with making organic foods mainstream.  It's therefore painful that far from seeming like some sort of hero, he comes off as deranged. (January 18, 2013)

Whole Foods halts raw milk sales in four states

Whole Foods halted the sale of raw milk in stores in four states.  WF says the move is temporary while it's conducting a review to make sure it's complying with all the various regulations, which differ from state to state.  (Incidentally, it's illegal to sell raw milk at all in about 22 states.)  Whole Foods has already been in trouble for selling raw milk that sickened customers to the point of requiring hospitalization and at least one kidney transplant. (more from Food Safety News, March 14, 2010) 

The New Yorker examines Whole Foods + CEO John Mackey

I've reviewed dozens of articles about Whole Foods, but this one by Nick Paumgarten is possibly the best, because of the useful insight and analysis it offers.  For example, Paumgarten pinned down why Whole Foods is so enigmatic and difficult to summarize:  The company is a bundle of contradictions.  As he says:
"[Whole Foods] is a welter of paradoxes: a staunchly anti-union enterprise that embraces some progressive labor practices; a self-styled world-improver that must also deliver quarterly results to Wall Street; a big-box chain putting on small-town airs; an evangelist for healthy eating that sells sausages, ice cream, and beer." [And later, he describes Mackey's definition of fun as a blending of "self-denial and self-indulgence". And about all Mackey's former colleagues who won't talk to reporters about him for a variety of reasons, "It is ironic that a company so outspoken about transparency has produced a diaspora of such wary silence."]
That's some excellent analysis. Another good bit was where CEO John Mackey decried the flak he got for his healthcare op-ed, while another grocer who wrote something similar didn't get the same scrutiny:
"The C.E.O. of Safeway, Steven Burd, wrote an op-ed piece in June advocating, basically, market solutions to the health-care problem, and nobody gave a shit," he said.
And since Whole Foods is notorious for swallowing up competitors, the story shows how the birth of the first Whole Foods was essentially a takeover:  Mackey had been running a store called Safer Way in Austin in the late 70's. He approached two of his competitors and suggested a merger, implying that he might put them out of business if they didn't agree.  The merger of the three stores was the first Whole Foods, in 1980.

Another useful bit was pointing out that the first Whole Foods was a landmark shift for natural foods retailing, because they sold indulgences like meat and booze. Before this time natural foods were sold mostly in co-ops which eschewed such things.  Whole Foods' offering these items helped natural groceries go mainstream.

One of my favorite parts was the deconstruction of Mackey's anti-union fantasies: "It sometimes sounds as if he believed that, if every company had him at the helm, there would be no need for unions or health-care reform, and that therefore every company should have someone like him, and that therefore there should be no unions or health-care reform. In other words, because he runs a business a certain way, others will, can, and should, and so the safeguards that have evolved over the generations to protect against human venality—against, say, greedy, bullying bosses—are no longer necessary. The logic is as sound as the presumption is preposterous."

The most controversial part of the article was when Mackey said he doesn't believe in climate change and thinks efforts to stop it would be a waste and hurtful to business. As the author notes, "One would imagine that, on this score, many of his customers, to say nothing of most climate scientists, might disagree."

On the plus side: "Employees can compete in a three-month nationwide derby...in which teams get points for exercising and for using mass transit. Beginning in 2010, they will be able to earn better employee discounts by lowering their cholesterol and losing weight." (More from the New Yorker, Jan. 4, 2010)

Pressure for Whole Foods' CEO to resign

The board of directors of corporations oversee the company's CEO.  That's the business version of separation of powers. Except that in some businesses, like Whole Foods, there was no such separation:  John Mackey was both the CEO and the chairman of the board, meaning he led the board that evaluated his performance as CEO.  That's a pretty big conflict of interest.

Corporate governance activists targeted Whole Foods for that reason, and in December, John Mackey resigned his position as chairman of the board, but retains his position as CEO.  Some outlets are reporting something along the lines of, "Following the furor over Mackey's healthcare editorial, he's resigned as chairman of the board of Whole Foods!"  But Mackey's resignation probably had little to do with the editorial, and he's certainly not leaving Whole Foods -- he's still its CEO, which was his main responsibility anyway.

However, others are calling for Mackey to resign as CEO too, citing last year's healthcare op-ed, not because they disagree with his political stance, but because they think that Mackey's alienating WF's core customers is bad for business.

Poor Mackey.  Whole Foods was his idea, his life's work, his store, his company. But now many stockholders are trying to force him out of his own enterprise.  That's the problem with taking a company public -- it's not really yours any more, it belongs to the stockholders.  Just ask Steve Jobs, who was famously forced out of Apple in 1986 (only to be begged back in 1997 to save the company from bankruptcy).  Rank and power doesn't always mean absolute freedom, because in this case being at the top is just like being at the bottom:  either way, you might have to keep your mouth shut to keep your job.  That's never a liberating feeling no matter where you stand in the hierarchy. (More from the Austin Chronicle, "What Would John Galt Do...About Global Warming?  Deny it", Aug. 12, 2009)

Whole Foods CEO angers many by opposing Obama's health care reform

Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey's op-ed in the Wall Street Journal opposing "Obamacare" rankled progressives far and wide, many of whom are blogging up a stormpledged to boycott the company. about it, several thousand of whom have

But jeez, how can this be the first time so many people are hearing about Mackey's extremist Libertarian views? And with 20 years of controversy under the company's belt, how is this op-ed the thing that gets people to boycott? And about the boycott,, where are people going to shop instead? Problematic as Whole Foods is, what company is better? Is there some other grocery chain beating the drum for single-payer healthcare? Likely the difference with Mackey and other groceries wasn't his ideas, it's that he was bold enough to be public about them.

And with the furor over Mackey's opposition to the Obama plan, most have overlooked something else controversial that he said in his piece, but which is something I very much agree with: "Unfortunately many of our health-care problems are self-inflicted: two-thirds of Americans are now overweight and one-third are obese. Most of the diseases that kill us and account for about 70% of all health-care spending&emdash;heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and obesity—are mostly preventable through proper diet, exercise, not smoking, minimal alcohol consumption and other healthy lifestyle choices. Recent scientific and medical evidence shows that a diet consisting of foods that are plant-based, nutrient dense and low-fat will help prevent and often reverse most degenerative diseases that kill us and are expensive to treat."

I agree, and I'll go a step further: Until people start eating vegan, they shouldn't expect anyone else to be responsible for their own healthcare.

P.S. One blogger has found what is likely Mackey's original, unedited piece. Not many surprises, but I liked how he cited important vegan-promoting doctors like John McDougall. Aug. 12, 2009

What smells at Whole Foods?

This article at Socialist Worker is awesome for its fair approach. While they detail the questionable aspects of WF's labor practices, they preface the article with a list of WF's progressive qualities. That's important because, as I take pains to say, while Whole Foods does have many areas for improvement, they also do a lot of good. And it's only fair to give credit where credit is due. Among the positive things about Whole Foods Market listed in the article are:

  • The company supports the Fair Trade movement--encouraging higher wages and prices paid to farmers in poor countries while promoting environmentally safe practices.
  • They give 1 percent of proceeds to their Whole Planet Foundation, which supports micro-loans to entrepreneurs in developing countries.
  • The company's Animal Compassion Foundation seeks to improve living conditions for farm animals. They have strict humane standards for suppliers.
  • Stores periodically hold "5 Percent Days," when they donate 5 percent of sales for that day to an area non-profit or educational organization.
  • Whole Foods rejects traditional corporate management models in favor of decentralized decision-making, described as an experiment in workplace democracy.
  • Rank-and-file workers meet regularly to decide everything from local suppliers to who should get hired onto the Team.
  • The liberal dress code at Whole Foods allows nose rings, Mohawks, visible tattoos and other expressions of individuality to help promote a stated goal of "Team Member Happiness" for its relatively young workforce. Each Team takes regular expeditions, known as "Team Builds," to local farms or other enterprises to educate themselves on how to better serve their customers.
  • "For all its decentralization, the 'unique culture' so beholden to Whole Foods' supporters bears the distinct stamp of its cofounder and CEO, John Mackey, who declared in 1992, a year after Whole Foods went public, 'We're creating an organization based on love instead of fear.'" (more) May 7, 2009

Whole Foods Market: Union Busters

WF's union-busting practices have been well-documented, and here's yet another article on the subject in Mother Jones, which also tackles union-busting by Starbucks.

"In 2006, after truck drivers working at its San Francisco-based distribution center voted to unionize with the Teamsters, the company fired two of the drivers, altered its sick-leave policy, froze wage increases, refused to provide information to the union that was necessary to negotiate a contract, and 'harassed and disciplined employees,' found NLRB investigators, who concluded that 'Whole Foods engaged in a variety of [illegal] retaliatory measures to discourage union activity.' An out-of-court settlement required Whole Foods to reinstate the employees and reverse some of its policies." (more) April 6, 2009

Four groups protest at Whole Foods nationwide

Four national organizations teamed together to leaflet Whole Foods stores nationwide, to draw attention to poor working conditions at one of the company's suppliers (including sexual and racial discrimination), and to try to get Whole Foods to support the supplier's workers. It was an uphill battle, as Whole Foods is notoriously anti-union. This was reported in a radio piece and the link goes to the audio file. (hear audio...) KPFA, Oct. 4, 2008

Five people hospitalized after eating Whole Foods meat

Meat contaminated with E.coli sent five people to the hospital.
Adding to the scandal was that the meat was sold even after it was supposed to have been recalled, and that the supplier in question was the notorious Nebraska Beef Ltd.  (It's been cited for violations so frequently and has been so unsanitary that the Bush adminstration sought to close it down. The company also sued a Minnesota church in a weird attempt to deflect blame for its dirty meat.)  (more...Marler Blog, Aug. 8, 2008

Green America's profile on Whole Foods

Green America's profile on Whole Foods notes:

  • Union organizing at Whole Foods is met with opposition from the company, with reports of surveillance and termination of employees who solicit union participation.
  • Whole Foods is still not fully transparent about the use of GMOs in store-brand products, and has ignored shareholder requests for information on the use of toxic chemicals in products like baby bottles that are sold in stores.
  • Whole Foods carries only a limited variety of Fair Trade Certified(TM) products. (more...)  Green America, June 2008

WF's "organic" foods possibly aren't

Much of WF's private-label "organic" frozen fruits and vegetables come from China, where regulation of organics is pretty laxIt's a huge leap of faith to think that suppliers on the other side of the world are truly supplying organics when they know that know one is checking up on them, especially when China has had such a long list of manufacturing controversies about contaminated products. It doesn't help that one of Wal-Mart's Chinese suppliers of "organic" foods was found to be using pesticides. Whole Foods' product labeling is misleading as well:  They use product names like "California Blend", when the California Blend was really made in China. This investigative report by an Arlington, VA TV station spills the beans (more...) WJLA ABC TV, May 2008

Whole Foods CEO not sorry about using alias

WF CEO John Mackey was caught last year posting under an alias on the Yahoo Finance forum, praising Whole Foods (and himself) while trashing competitors. After several months, he explained himself in a long post on his blog which can be basically summarized as "I'm just not that sorry." (more...)  Silicon Valley Insider, May 2008

Whole Foods discussion at Organic Consumers Association

The Organic Consumers Association posted some criticism of Whole Foods in its newsletter and asked its readers to comment on the group's web forum. The discussion includes a rebuttal by a Whole Foods exec. (more...)  Organic Consumers, April 30, 2008

Whole Foods store in Napa fails county health inspection

When Whole Foods opened a new store in Napa, California, it failed the county health inspection. Whole Foods blamed the scoring system, saying that given the sheer size of the store, there were many more things it could get dinged on, vs. a regular restaurant.  Whole Foods says it fixed 80% of the problems cited within 24 hours, and will be applying for separate permits for the different areas of the store, so that each area can be graded independently. (more...Napa Valley Register, February 16, 2008

Whole Foods listed at "Stuff White People Like"

Whole Foods Market is highlighted in a recent blog entry at the controversial humor site "Stuff White People Like". What's just as interesting as the article itself is the hundreds of comments from readers the story elicited. (more...)  Stuff White People Like, Feb. 3, 2008

Whole Foods CEO sows Wild Oats

The Nation takes on Whole Foods, saying, "[I]t is harder than ever to make the case that shopping at Whole Foods is more socially commendable than at, well, Kroger or Safeway. Whole Foods has faced well-deserved criticism for its effect on the environment, local communities and employees." They also point out that Whole Foods is the country's second-largest non-union retailer (the first being Wal-Mart). (more...)  The Nation, August 28, 2007

WF CEO professes love for Wal-Mart

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey said in a forum post, "I probably admire Wal-Mart more than any other company in the world (except for maybe Whole Foods!). What a great, great company!" (more...) (Daily Kos, 2007)  He did this anonymously under a pseudonym, which was a scandal in and of itself. (NY Times, July 12, 2007)

Whole Foods CEO caught using alias

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey was discovered to have used an alias on the Yahoo Finance forum for seven years, posting glowingly about his company while trashing his competitors. Some believe his criticism of competitor Wild Oats was designed to help drive its stock price down so Whole Foods could acquire it for a cheaper price. Mackey also had the gall to anonymously praise himself. ("I like Mackey's haircut. I think he looks cute!")

This caused a storm of controversy which was covered widely by the media, but we'll list just the New York Times article for reference here. (more...)  New York Times, July 12, 2007

The New Yorker decries the big business of organics

This long, tedious article is mostly about organics in general and less about Whole Foods specifically, but Whole Foods does get mentioned a number of times. They point out that huge, corporate farms might be "organic" but they're not necessarily sustainable, and they're a far cry from romantic notions of family farms. For example, just one grower (Earthbound) supplies 70% of all organic lettuce grown in the U.S. They also explain how "organic", and even "free-range" is probably not what you expect: "The second meal [featured in Michael Polan's book] is the Big Organic one that he bought at his local Whole Foods store in California, featuring an 'organic' chicken whose 'free-range' label was authorized by USDA. statutes, but which actually shared a shed with twenty thousand other genetically identical birds. Two small doors in the shed opened onto a patch of grass, but they remained shut until the birds were five or six weeks old, and two weeks later Pollan's 'free range' chicken was a $2.99-a-pound package in his local Whole Foods." (more...)  The New Yorker, May 15, 2006

John Mackey vs. Michael Pollan

UC Berkeley professor Michael Pollan wrote a book in 2006 called The Omnivore's Dilemma, about trying to eat ethically and sustainably. He was pointedly critical of Whole Foods and the large, corporate organic farms that WF has spawned. (In Whole Foods' defense, I'll say that that's better than a world without Whole Foods, which would be nearly devoid of organic foods.)

Anyway, CEO John Mackey didn't take Pollan's criticism lying down, and engaged the writer in a lengthy dialogue. Pollan than invited Mackey to Berkeley to discuss the issues publicly, which Mackey did. This article on the university's website runs down how all this came about and the arguments that each side makes. (more...)  UC Berkeley News, Feb. 28, 2007

Michael Pollan encourages WF to sell more local food

UC Berkeley professor and Whole Foods critic Michael Pollan has been having a very public discourse with WF CEO John Mackey. I could fill up this whole page summarizing just their back-and-forth communiques, so instead I'll cite just one of the best pieces, this open letter from Pollan to Mackey, pointing out that, in Whole Foods, "I see more signage about the importance of local produce than I see actual items of local produce." Pollan encourages Mackey to substantially increase the amount of locally-produced food available at Whole Foods Market. (Happily, Mackey responded by doing just that. The details of that promise are in a later piece, not this one.) (more...)  New York Times blog, June 14, 2006

Whole Foods: Spinning CEO pay

Whole Foods frequently boasts about how it limits executive pay to 14 times the salary of the average worker. What Whole Foods fails to mention is that that figure excludes stock options. When stock options are included, the top exec actually makes 82 times as much as the average worker.

This criticsm of Whole Foods' spin didn't come from some lefty blog like The Huffington Post. It came from Forbes magazine. *That* ought to be a wake-up call for the company.

Anyway, there's an interesting zen riddle here: Which is worse, the obscene amounts paid to execs, or the fact that Whole Foods effectively lies about it? (more...)  Forbes, April 20, 2006

Welcome to "Whole-Mart"

"A closer look at the company's business practices and Mackey's ideas about business and society reveals a vision not that different from a McDonald's or a Wal-Mart. In fact, the Whole Foods business model is more or less the standard stuff of Fortune 500 ambition. This is a vision of mega-chain retailing that involves strategic swallowing up (or driving out of business) of smaller retail competitors. It is a business model that objectively complements the long-term industrialization of organics (that is, large-scale corporate farms) over small family farms. It is also a vision in which concerns about social responsibility do not necessarily apply where less publicly visible company suppliers are concerned. Subsidiaries of...low-wage exploiters of minority workers...are apparently welcome partners in this particular eco-corporate version of 'the sustainable future.'"

The article also debunks Whole Foods' inclusion in Fortune magazine's list of "100 Greatest Companies to Work For," noting that companies can nominate themselves for inclusion on that list, and that the list "routinely includes firms with yearly turnover rates among full-time staff that are close to a quarter or more of the work force. What should we expect from a list in which companies can nominate themselves or that has at times included such rogues of social irresponsibility as R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, Enron, and even Wal-Mart among the great work cultures?" (more...)  Common Dreams, May 2, 2006

Whole Foods suggests its produce is locally-grown when it really isn't

This article starts off with, "It's hard to find fault with Whole Foods," which makes me wonder, what rock have they been living under? But then they offer up some choice criticism not seen elsewhere: Prominently-posted photos and profiles of local farmers whose products they don't actually carry. "This winter, when I dropped by the store, the only local produce for sale was a shelf of upstate apples, but the grower profiles were still up. There was a picture of a sandy-haired organic leek farmer named Dave, from Whately, Mass., above a shelf of conventionally grown yellow onions from Oregon. Another profile showed a guy named Ray Rex munching on an ear of sweet corn he grew on his generations-old, picturesque organic acres. The photograph was pinned above a display of conventionally grown white onions from Mexico." The article also mentions how Whole Foods deceptively says that small local farmers make up a large percentage of growers, ignoring the fact that these farmers' output is so small as to be miniscule, and that the overwhelming bulk of Whole Foods' produce comes from a small handful of giant corporate farms. (more...)  Slate, March 17, 2006

Whole Foods fights disclosure of toxic chemicals in its products

Whole Foods shareholders proferred a resolution requiring Whole Foods to produce a report of toxic chemicals sich as Bisphenol-A in its products. Whole Foods asked its shareholders to vote against the resolution and wouldn't even let the sponsors of the resolution speak at the company's annual meeting.

Um, wasn't the point of Whole Foods to help shoppers get healthy foods or something? Social Funds, Feb. 9, 2006 and March 16, 2006

"Food Porn"

In an article entitled "Food Porn", Forbes magazine describes the lavish, luxury presentation of products in Whole Foods stores, the financial success of the company, and its plans for expansion. While the article is pretty tame as far as criticism goes, it upset Whole Foods so much that they declined to be interviewed by Forbes for a subsequent article. (more...)  Forbes, Feb. 14, 2005

Whole Foods' failure to label mercury-laden fish

You'd think it would be safe to eat anything in a store that promotes healthy eating. You'd be wrong. Whole Foods not only happily sells mercury-laden fish, they do so without warning their customers of the dangers. One hapless customer got mercury levels so high they had to be reported to the Center for Disease Control. Only when California required grocers to start labeling its fish for mercury did Whole Foods start doing so, but even then one-quarter of its stores did not have properly-posted notices, as required by law. This PDF report from the Sea Turtle Restoration Project shows the results of their survey of grocery stores to check for compliance. (PDF)  Sea Turtle Restoration Project,, Nov. 24, 2003

WF CEO praises McDonald's and asks, "Who has done more good for the planet: Mother Teresa or Bill Gates?"

"'Who has done more good for the planet: Mother Teresa or Bill Gates?' [Whole Foods CEO John Mackey] demands. 'No contest-Gates has helped far more people.' And Mackey has plenty of respect for companies that don't follow his healthy-grub philosophy. 'McDonald's pioneered fast food and gave people what they wanted,' he insists. 'Every company meeting customer desires is doing something good.' " (more...) Fortune, Sept. 2003

Whole Foods vote to unionize upsets Libertarian founder

When workers at a Whole Foods Market Inc. store in Madison, Wis., voted last summer to unionize, it shocked company chairman and founder John Mackey. "The Madison vote was a wake-up call," Mackey acknowledged this week.

In response to the Madison vote and what it symbolized, Mackey has spent the past nine months criss-crossing the country, with a goal of visiting every store by the end of the summer. He has 23 of the company's 143 stores left to go. His goal, he said, is to get back in touch with the company's 27,000 employees, who are called team members. (more...)  Austin American Statesman, June 2003

Whole Foods' anti-union stance

Long article detailing Whole Foods' opposition to unions. Choice quotes: "The labor board is investigating numerous union charges, including one that Whole Foods coerced and retaliated against pro-union employees. Whole Foods packed the store with workers from other locations to influence the vote, the union contends." "' 'They don't recognize the hypocrisy that this company has made billions on social and environmental consciousness,'' Ms. Rasmussen said. ''It's so hollow.''' (more...)  New York Times, May 24, 2003

Whole Foods fires union organizers in Madison

Debbie Rasmussen and Julie Thayer, workers at the Madison Whole Foods Market, were selectively targetted and fired -- ostensibly for giving away/drinking a spoiled drink. In reality they were fired because they have been involved in organizing a union at their store -- the first in the company's history. Their firing is part of a larger effort by Whole Foods management to get rid of union supporters, in order to keep from having to bargain a fair contract with their union, The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), Local 1444. (more from Whole Workers Unite and Austin Chronicle)  Dec. 2002

Whole Foods lays off employees right before Christmas, and right before their benefits became payable

"We care about team member happiness and excellence," proclaims Whole Foods Market's official employee handbook -- but apparently that doesn't apply to the seven cleaners laid off at the company's South Austin bakery facility this month. Given only 10 days' notice, the employees, all of whom are Hispanic, were informed that they would be replaced by an outside cleaning service that the company says can fulfill the workers' jobs as well as other duties more efficiently....

That's not all. By getting the sack just days before the end of the year, the employees won't be able to collect the flex-benefits cash they'd accrued during the year.

"I feel the timing here is suspect," Grote said, adding that in the past his wife received between $1,000 and $1,500 at the end of December. "Whole Foods will keep that money now. We pretty much count on that money all year." With a newborn soon on the way, they'll miss the money even more. Another laid-off employee is also pregnant. (more...) Austin Chronicle, Oct. 25, 2002

Whole Foods Market and the B-1 Bomber

This is a really rambling essay which is hard to follow, but it does make a few good graspable points: From 1988 to at least 1991, over one-third of Whole Foods was owned by three venture capitalist firms which had investments in things like targeting systems for the B-1 bomber, military supercomputers, artificial intelligence systems for Air Force and CIA operations, and industrial chemicals and waste disposal operations.

And then there are the union-busting tactics which are so familiar: "[A] top WFM executive flew into town and called a meeting to tell those employees that if they tried to form a union, they simply would be fired en masse. The threat worked." (more...) Z magazine, Aug. 2002

Minding the Store

This article covers Whole Foods' refusal to support strawberry workers or protect endangered sea turtles, its fierce expansion, its union-busting efforts, and the poor wages it pays. A choice quote:

"People shop at Whole Foods not just because it offers organic produce and natural foods, but because it claims to run its business in a way that demonstrates a genuine concern for the community, the environment, and the "whole planet," in the words of its motto. In reality, Whole Foods has gone on a corporate feeding frenzy in recent years, swallowing rival retailers across the country and building what Time magazine calls "a billion-dollar juggernaut." Whole Foods now boasts eighty-five stores in nineteen states, including its headquarters store in Austin and ten in Texas overall. The expansion is driven by a simple and lucrative business strategy: high prices and low wages." (more...) Texas Observer, Sept. 11, 1998

Whole Foods puts profits above endangered Sea Turtles

The Sea Turtle Restoration Project blasted Whole Foods for refusing to sell Certified Turtle-Safe Shrimp in any of its stores. Shrimping methods are deadly to endangered sea turtles, but Whole Foods is looking the other way. "Whole Foods claims to be an 'active environmental leader' and to support 'environmentally sound products.' Yet it contradicts these high standards by refusing to offer certified turtle-safe shrimp." In response to STRP's criticism, Whole Foods wrote a letter full of distortions, such as that Whole Foods is a supporter of Ocean Trust, "a marine conservation foundation". In fact, STRP alleges that Ocean Trust is a one-person front group for the industry. (more...)  Sea Turtle Restoration Project, Aug. 28, 1998

Whole Foods plays dirty

In response to the United Farmworkers' campaign for better conditions for strawberry farm workers, Whole Foods created and distributed a slick pamphlet trying to convince its customers about how great the working conditions already were. We expect that kind of nonsense from a typical corporation, but it's especially disappointing from Whole Foods. The pamphlets also, quite incredibly, claimed that the farmworkers union wasn't interested in organics or sustainable agriculture(!). (more...)  The Prism, May 1998

Whole Foods Market refuses to support better working conditions for strawberry workers

When activists were passing out literature outside Whole Foods market about the UFW grape boycott, Whole Foods called the cops on them and had them arrested. Embarrassed by the public outcry, Whole Foods promised to honor the boycott and stop selling non-union California table grapes. Whole Foods later broke its promise when they moved their store a couple of blocks away, saying the agreement applied only to the old store.

Later, the UFW asked Whole Foods to join with 5,000 other grocery stores and sign a pledge supporting strawberry workers. But Whole Foods didn't reply. Instead, they created pamphlets for WF customers which criticized the UFW as supposedly being unconcerned about sustainable agriculture. (more...) UFW, Feb. 1998

New Age Capitalist

Article explores the dichotomy between Whole Foods' peace & love image and the fiercely capitalistic character of its CEO. There's some choice criticism, too:

"From our perspective, Whole Foods is a whole sham," says union spokesman Greg Denier. "They're claiming enlightenment in regards to nutrition and good health," says Michael Straeter, head of a picketing UFCW local, "and practicing Cro-Magnonism in [regard to] the rights of employees to establish a union." (more...) Forbes, Feb. 6, 1998

Whole Foods investigates employees' "personal characteristics and mode of living"

"Why would a company that claims to be contributing to the quality-of-life renaissance investigate employees? That's the question posed by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 101, in a leaflet they've been passing out in front of the store. Whole Foods has a Request, Authorization and Consent (RAC) form that must be signed by employment applicants, in which they have to agree 'I further understand that an investigative consumer report concerning me may include information about my character, general reputation, personal characteristics and mode of living.'

"A second leaflet states that while union stores pay 100 percent of employees' health insurance, Whole Foods does not, even though it has a higher operating profit than the food industry average. The union wonders if Whole Foods is more interested in the health of their employees or higher stock dividends." (more...)  The Coastal Post, June 1997

Whole Foods Market:  Anti-Union, low wages

This article quotes another article (no longer available on the web), which says, in part, "Whole Foods keeps up leafy green appearances but makes no apologies for its single-minded devotion to profit and its fierce determination to keep its wages low, its venture-capitalist investors hidden and its workforce young, powerless, and union-free. The rise of this corporation -- pro-New Age in rhetoric, anti-New Deal in practice -- raises hard questions of progressive consumers and the labor movement. Will health food be just for rich people? Will venture capitalists who appropriate the language and symbols of the New Age be able to turn against unions by portraying them as old and unhip?"

The article goes on to say, "The focus of this blistering two-page report is the picket line that meets shoppers at the new Whole Foods location in Berkeley, California. Angry that the new company encourages teamwork but prohibits unions, promotes communication but pays lower wages than other area grocery stores, and stresses feeling good but offers fewer benefits than other similar businesses, United Food & Commercial Workers Local 870 and Butchers Local 120 are now protesting the only non-unionized supermarket in town. Although these demonstrators have clearly had an effect on the number of visitors to the store, for the most part, business at the location continues uninterrupted." (more...) Austin Chronicle, Nov. 22, 1991, p. 8

(Google picks the ads, not me.)

Positive press for Whole Foods

Here's some credit where it's due. This July 2004 article from Fast Company is one of the best I've read about Whole Foods Market. While it shies away from the more controversial aspects of the company, it does give a really good insight into the unique company culture, John Mackey's progressive management style, and the fact that Whole Foods is responsible for the fact that organic foods are now available from coast to coast in even mainstream grocery stores. Of special interest is how animal rights activist Lauren Ornelas, formerly of Austin herself, recently convinced Mackey of the cruelty of factory farming, causing him to go mostly vegan and to direct WFM's suppliers to start treating their livestock more humanely. While I remain critical of some of WFM's more questionable practices, this article amply demonstrates how a company can be a powerful force for making things better. (Read the article...)