8.24.2009

are my hands clean, and can i stand to get them a little cleaner

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.

* * * *

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?

* * * *

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.

14 comments:

johngoldfine said...

IIRC, this topic led to some discussion and hot words on JoS--not WF, but food generally.

There's a wonderful book by William Ian Miller called 'The Anatomy of Disgust.' Do you know it? It touches on issues of moral purity, on what we can and can't do to keep our hands ethically clean in an impure society--and as a bonus for Orwell-lovers has a chapter on Orwell's sense of smell, figuratively understood.

L-girl said...

JohnGF, there has certainly been some heated discussion about food choices on JoS!

In fact, a long time ago, a commenter who is no longer around (banned!) complimented the way I articulated the "not vegetarian but opposed to dogfighting and that's ok" issue. I wish I could find it, because I haven't been able to nail it since.

I've never heard of that book but it sounds great. I will look it up, thank you!

impudent strumpet said...

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.

Do people normally know about the labour practices of the places where they shop? I very rarely do, unless the information lands in my lap, which it doesn't usually.

L-girl said...

Do people normally know about the labour practices of the places where they shop? I very rarely do, unless the information lands in my lap, which it doesn't usually.

I wondered about that as I wrote it. Whole Foods' bad labour practices have been publicized, so I was assuming a lot of progressive people are aware of them. WF attracts an educated, progressive consumer ("elitist"!).

But maybe WF customers are less informed then I'm imagining. Maybe I know about it because I follow labour issues (to an extent).

Amy said...

I love Whole Foods also, though the closest one is too far away for us to get to very often (and too pricey). It is disappointing to read all about their labor issues, etc. I am sure, however, that there are similar labor issues with most grocery store chains. I know the biggest one in our area is not unionized either. And I am sure their politics and buying practices are no more enlightened.

Maybe that's a rationalization: WF may have some bad practices, but they are no worse than others, so why not shop there? But as long as we are not all able to grow our own food or find some acceptable company that does, it's a rationalization that makes it easier for me.

deang said...

This is such a good post. It really opens the mind to the complexity of making moral choices.

I live a few blocks from the flagship Whole Foods and their corporate offices and I can tell you that there have been some vociferous protesters in front of there in the past few days.

I stopped going there in the early 90s when a liberation theology Catholic coworker told me that the owner not only didn't honor the United Farmworkers grape but was also calling the police on any demonstrators who showed up. That and WF employees telling me that they weren't treated well soured me on it, but I have many healthy options where I live so it really wasn't much of a sacrifice.

Thanks for the post.

L-girl said...

Thank you, Dean!

Amy, the labour practices at WF are much worse than what employees at ordinary grocery stores experience.

Many grocery store workers are unionized - it's not at all unusual. WF has gone to great lengths to interfere with their workers' right to organize - firing, harassment, etc.

No other grocery chain is trying to gut the Employee Free Choice Act.

Mackey is so anti-union that the store makes it a point to not buy UFW-picked fruit, and to not support initiatives to improve working conditions for migrant farm workers. That's just one example.

Their relationships with their suppliers cannot be compared to ordinary supermarkets. Selling high-end, organically grown produce puts them in a different position than conventional supermarkets. To their suppliers, they are sharks in a goldfish bowl.

Whether or not either of us choose to shop there, I can assure you these issues go well beyond the norm.

Amy said...

That really is disappointing, to say the least. They sure have created an image that conflicts with their practices. How the hell have they gotten away with it?

So now I, too, face that moral dilemma. As I said, we do not get to WF very often (a few times a year generally), so it is a fairly easy sacrifice for me, but still a sad one.

L-girl said...

Amy, if you do plan to stop shopping at WF b/c of these things, I hope you'll tell them why. A quick email through their website would be enough.

I doubt I can say with any honesty "I"ll never shop at WF again". I wish I didn't like so much!

Amy said...

Fortunately, I don't have to decide just yet since I likely won't be near one for months. In the meantime, I will see whether they modify their way of conducting business. As you know, I am not someone who generally sees things as black or white, so I rarely say "never" about anything. (I couldn't "!)

L-girl said...

There's no sign that they're changing. Did you read that Op-Ed? Mackey is truly an ass.

It's true that most things are not black and white (although some things certainly are, in my view). But if you're going to shop at WF less or rarely because of these issues, I hope you'll let them know why.

Amy said...

Hmm, that last sentence should have read, "I couldn't even say I never say "never." Somehow it was chopped off.

You are right. I should email them one way or the other to express my view. Will do.

The Raven said...

Isn't the Sweet Honey song powerful?! Whenever I am feeling proud of my actions on any front, I always sing that song in my head and realize how far I have to go...

L-girl said...

Raven, yes, their music is so powerful, in general.

I hope when you work hard and have success, you also let yourself enjoy it and be proud of yourself!