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Whole Foods Co-opts Revolutionary Rhetoric but Mistreats Employees

(Image via Whole Foods Market®)

In late September, Whole Foods quietly delivered the news that an estimated 1,500 employees would be culled over the course of the next two months, despite the grocery chain’s intent to continue expanding nationwide. This announcement comes quickly on the heels of a New York City overcharging scandal, legal accusations of securities fraud and, lest we forget, the chain’s much-ridiculed $6 “asparagus water.”

Arguably, the pro-worker story that Whole Foods tells about itself, its values and its products is one of the core selling points that convinces consumers to pay a higher price for their groceries at a time when Walmart remains the single largest employer in the United States. So what happens when “conscious capitalism” turns out to be nothing more than a well-executed marketing strategy grafted onto business as usual?

Whole Foods’ recent mass layoff of many tenured buyers, marketers and other administrative wageworkers was rationalized in a statement by the company as a measure taken to “lower prices for its customers and invest in technology upgrades” and stay competitive in the grocery retail market – a motive that has troubled remaining employees.

“I gave my notice because I don’t agree with the tactics they use in order to grow,” a Memphis-area Whole Foods employee told Truthout, asking to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. “Unlike Whole Foods Market, my values actually matter,” she added, referencing the “Values Matter” ad campaign put out by the company earlier this year. The campaign highlighted the company’s supposed “Core Values,” which include a promise to “support Team Member happiness.”

Bad PR incidents such as layoffs and federal lawsuits have become pedestrian costs of doing business for many profit-driven, publicly traded corporations. However, they may constitute the beginning of the end for a grocer that makes its name – and justifies its notoriously high prices – with its stated commitment to ethical business practices. Whole Foods cofounder and staunch libertarian John Mackey extols the ostensible virtues of his capitalist praxis in his 2013 memoir-cum-manifesto Conscious Capitalism. In Mackey’s neoliberal utopia, profits reaped by businesses operating under “authentic” (i.e. “conscious”) capitalism that prioritize people and planet before profit are assuredly greater than those generated by conventional business practice, yet he argues that profit inevitably follows these ethical missions.

Mackey’s book takes pains to utilize words like “love” and “loving” while sidestepping the specters of “profit” and “money.” “We can channel our deepest creative impulses in loving ways toward fulfilling our higher purposes, and help evolve the world to a better place,” Mackey writes, overstating his duty to grow the organic grocery empire’s bottom line as essentially facilitating human flourishing and theorizing the corporation as a conduit of social cooperation and progressive change. Conscious Capitalism and its tie-in promotions even go so far as to co-opt the language and imagery of political movement-building to capture the imagination of customers. Mackey’s stated aim in his book and his business is to “demonstrate to a skeptical world the truth, goodness and heroism of capitalism rather than perpetuate the false stigmas of selfishness, greed and profit maximization.” In-store promotional materials for the book’s release included a bookmark urging the reader to “REVOLUTIONIZE CAPITALISM” and a bumper sticker bearing the imperative to “LIBERATE YOUR HEROIC SPIRIT.”

Rosé Revolution Image via Whole Foods Market®(Image via Whole Foods Market®)One of the most puzzling aspects of these marketing efforts was a sign that hung in the produce department of many Whole Foods the same month as the book’s release, bearing the image of a raised, green fist clenching a fair trade bell pepper. “Power to the Pepper!” the sign exclaimed, riffing off the Black Panthers’ “All Power to the People” protest slogan against racially and financially stratified society. A little over a year later, a Pepto-pink sign hung aloft a section of summery wines and declared a “Rosé Revolution” was to take place inside Whole Foods just in time for Mother’s Day, the graphic of a rose in the shape of that iconic clenched fist figuring prominently. Website copy for this campaign sassily proclaims “Viva la Rosé Revolution!” – a nod to a phrase used most often alongside the image of Marxist radical Che Guevara – headlining an article about how to pick the correct pink wine on your next shopping trip.

These hat tips to socialist revolutionaries and pro-labor symbols are a deeply ironic way to sell upmarket produce and alcohol to the masses, especially in light of Whole Foods’ much-discussed revulsion of unions, which Mackey has likened to “herpes” in the past. Mackey sees his company as not being against unionized labor, per se, but rather “beyond unions.” The company’s low-level wageworkers disagree with this assessment. “They try to make it out like it’s so good there you don’t need to unionize, [but] the pay is not that good,” a front-end supervisor told Truthout. “It’s a dollar above minimum [wage] in Chicago.”

As of 2015, none of Whole Foods’ 90,000-plus “team members” are unionized, despite attempts undertaken by individual stores’ employees as recently as this past summer. “I don’t feel the freedom to unionize,” said a Chicago-based, now former employee whose buyer position was eliminated in the layoffs. “Even talking about the ‘u’ word is frowned upon,” said another, who, like the Memphis worker, feels spurred by the layoffs to quit voluntarily despite not being eliminated. Both of these people also requested anonymity, as they plan to seek work at companies that partner with Whole Foods.

1917 Industrial Workers of the World. (Cartoon via Industrial Workers of the World. (Cartoon via co-opting of the “raised fist” icon isn’t just limited to Whole Foods’ marketing campaigns, but can be found all over products in the stores. Oregon-based Rogue Ales and Chicago-made Revolution Brewing both plaster the fist and the likenesses of revolutionary figures on their beers, and Pacha Soap utilizes the raised fist to sell body care products. What do artisanal soap, pink wine, craft beer and peppers have to do with progressive politics, you ask? Everything, it turns out.

I use the term “commodity activism” to describe the current “buy stuff to save the world” zeitgeist – the way in which “doing good” and being a good consumer are collapsed into the activity of ritual consumption at places like Whole Foods. The commodity, in this case, is elevated by the corporation to be a tool of activism, provided one buys the right kind of commodities from the right kind of company: that is to say, organic, fair trade bell peppers from your local Whole Foods.

Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek contextualizes the phenomenon of commodity activism in his book First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, as excerpted extensively in a captivating video by RSA Animate. He explains that in cultural capitalism – the contemporary trend toward corporate social responsibility or “conscious” capitalism – “more and more the tendency is to bring [profit and charity] together in one and the same cluster, so that when you buy something, your anticonsumerist duty to do something for others, for the environment and so on, is already included into it.” Žižek posits that when you spend your money on fair trade coffee from Starbucks or bell peppers from Whole Foods, you also “buy redemption for being only a consumerist.”

This means that the average Whole Foods customer might be aware enough of things like global poverty or exploitation of agricultural workers to feel guilty about their purchase of luxury commodities, and thus feel a need to perform a charitable act to negate it. “If this is not enough, if your ethical needs are still unsatisfied and you continue to worry about Third World misery, then there are additional products you can buy,” Žižek determines, as if narrating Whole Foods’ newest and bleakest ad campaign.

Conveniently, Whole Foods provides a resolution for this guilt that seems impossibly simple and in accord with the consumer’s current lifestyle: Just shop at an ethical grocer, and the act of shopping itself seems revolutionary. You can have your cake and eat it too with “Endangered Species Chocolate,” which invites you to “Indulge in a Cause” while resting assured that 10 percent of the net profits resulting from your purchase of fair trade, organic chocolate will save a toucan. Sir Richard’s Condom Company, which donates one condom to “developing countries” for every condom purchased, saucily suggests that “Doing Good Never Felt Better.” The company SoapBox Soaps labels their product as a “body and soul wash,” and their slogan quite literally equates “soap” with “hope.” The soap gets you clean, but the 25 cents donated to “children in need” on every purchase purifies the soul. Consumers can continue purchasing any number of products indefinitely, imbuing the practice of “conscious capitalism” with expansive possibility.

Ultimately, if Whole Foods doesn’t clean up its public image and recommit to investing in its workforce, raising wages and retaining full-time, store-based employees, it will lose the people-and-planet-minded appeal that drew customers to its stores in the first place. As the employee in Memphis put it, “Whereas the culture of ‘Values Matter’ and ‘Conscious Capitalism’ used to allow team members to feel the values of the place they worked reflected their own and fostered their personal and professional development, it has become a traditional capitalist culture of fear mongering and exploitation.”

Why should consumers keep choosing Whole Foods over the competition once they know they’re not getting the peace of mind they paid for?

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