Making ethical choices is easy when it's easy. But what do we do when ethical choices demands real sacrifice? What happens when principles meet wallet, or enjoyment, or convenience?
The name Whole Foods has been in the blogosphere recently, and not because bloggers are praising the store's beautiful produce and delicious prepared food. Whole Foods CEO John Mackey wrote a ridiculous Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal arguing against health care reform. He doesn't believe equal access to health care is a right, and, astoundingly, claims that if everyone ate healthfully, we wouldn't even need health care.
In the face of massive outcry from WF employees ("team members"), suppliers and customers, the store backpedaled like crazy, trying to say Mackey didn't say what he very clearly said.
WF is also notoriously anti-union. In concert with Starbucks, they are actively trying to handcuff the Employee Free Choice Act, the US legislation that is organized labour best hope for renewing any of its long-lost strength, by seeking to strip it of its most important provision.
My niece who works in the organic food community tells me WF mercilessly squeezes farmers and producers, wielding its giant buying power as a blunt weapon, leaving small businesses helpless to compete.
The store is criticized for being "corporate" and "elitist" (two frequently misused words). In some ways, WF has become the Wal-Mart of the green world. But... there's a but.
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Whole Foods brings organic, locally-produced food to huge numbers of people, more than any local store ever could. In the US, they've normalized organic and healthy eating. They offer an unmatched selection of foods and products for special needs, such as gluten-free food, grass-fed beef and cruelty-free personal care products.
They've also put their huge buying power to some excellent uses. The chain stopped carrying live lobsters after conducting an investigation and concluding there is no ethical way to cook it. (After community protest, they made an exception for a store in Portland, Maine.) A decision like that can have a major impact. As I also stopped eating lobster because of the live-cooking issue, this made a difference to me.
All this is true, and for me, it helps mitigate the other, less attractive facts. But... none of this is the real but.
The real but is: I love Whole Foods.
USians are much more familiar with WF than Canadians. In Canada, there are a few WF locations in Vancouver, plus one in Toronto and one in Oakville. In the UK, there are a few in London. But there are almost 300 WF locations in the US.
WF is an overgrown version of what used to be called a "health food store", selling organic and healthy products. They're as large as supermarkets, but organized like a marketplace, with specialty counters for cheese, meat, fish, bakery, sushi, and so on. The quality is uniformly high. Their prices can be outrageous - the joke is "Whole Paycheque" - but they also have great bargains on their own line of organic products.
The real draw of WF, however, is the shopping experience. A good parallel is the world-class restaurant. You think you know what a fine dining experience is until you eat a really high-end restaurant. Whether or not you choose to spend your money that way is another story, but once you have, you understand great restaurants are not just a difference of degree, they're a difference of kind.
I hate to shop, and I never shop for recreation. But I freely admit that I love to shop at Whole Foods.
Now, I don't live close enough to a Whole Foods to shop there all the time, and I couldn't possibly afford it if I did. But ever since they opened their enormous location in New York City's Columbus Circle, WF has been a "treat shop" for me - someplace to shop for a special dinner, or find things I can't get in our regular supermarket, or a great place to have lunch if I'm in the area.
Now, after John Mackey's WSJ spew, many US progressives are swearing never to shop there again. This raised some questions for me.
Did the people vowing not to shop at WF actually shop there in the first place? Many progressive people don't like WF anyway (corporate, elitist, etc.). Will people who enjoy WF actually eschew it because the CEO is a selfish pig? Presumably they've known about WF's bad labour practices - which directly affect more people than that Op-Ed - and still continued to shop there. And: will I continue shopping there?
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Boycotts are easy when they're easy. For me, not eating at McDonald's is the easiest thing in the world. (On our way home from Boston, I succumbed to the Egg McMuffin urge, and gave McDonald's my money for the first time in at least 10 years. Hopefully another 10 years will pass until the next Egg McMuffin.) Not shopping at Wal-Mart is even easier - I've never been in one, ever. I don't know if the plastic chair I bought at Canadian Tire is $3.00 cheaper at Wal-Mart, and I don't care. Getting the absolute lowest price is not important to me. I know those artificially low prices come at a very high price, and I don't want to support Wal-Mart's unconscionable practices.
Boycotting Whole Foods... that's different, because I'd miss it.
How many of us live by our principles when it inconveniences us or costs more money? Or if there's something we just plain like, that we want to keep?
An activist friend of mine mentioned in passing that she doesn't fly Porter, the short-haul airline based in Toronto's City Centre Airport. Although she's not wealthy, she spends more money to fly with Air Canada, because she's lived on the Toronto Islands and she doesn't think there should be an airport there.
I admire that, but when I recently bought a ticket for my mom to visit us, I used Porter. My friend used to live on the islands; she knows how badly the airport affects island life. I can more easily look the other way.
Certainly I don't only act on principle when it's convenient to do so. I've made huge financial sacrifices to attend peace marches and other protests on weekends, when I earn most of my living. Allan and I made the big switch to locally-produced, organic, ethically-raised meat. It's very expensive, and our finances are very tight, but I'm clinging to this decision if at all possible. I don't want to return to contributing to the cruelty of factory farming. (I'm already doing that when I go out to dinner, and I have to live with that.) Those are just a few examples. I have many, and I'm sure you do, too.
But we all also make selfish choices, choices for our own comfort and convenience. The greenest among us use electricity, drive (or at least accept rides in cars) and fly. If we didn't buy products produced through harmful labour practices, we'd all go naked. We pay taxes that support war. Sweet Honey in the Rock asks, "Are my hands clean?"
Some choices are very clear. When a company's - or a country's - policies are blatantly revolting, the choice is easier. There are lines we can't cross.
But most decisions are not simple. We rationalize, ignore and try to make peace with ourselves: "I only shop at Whole Foods once in a while."
Most people live with the cognitive dissoance of loving some animals and eating others. Those who can't or don't want to become vegans or vegetarians. I didn't like either choice - that's how I ended up with Beretta Farms. But it's not a perfect system. I know that. In Philip Roth's novel American Pastoral, there's a horrifying portrait of a young woman who is dying because she will not compromise her principles. She cannot bathe because there are living organisms in the water she would use. She slowly starves to death rather than consume any living thing.
On the other extreme, some people use the mere existence of such compromises and paradoxes as an excuse to surrender all ethics. Oppose the Canadian seal hunt, or bullfighting, or dog fighting, or commercial fur, and someone is sure to ask - snidely, angrily - if you are a vegan, or wear leather. But the choice is not between all cruelty and no cruelty. I eat animal flesh. How does that excuse the torture of living creatures for sport? It does not.
None of our hands are completely clean, but we don't have to purposely wallow in mud.