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Wednesday, August 21,2013

Whole Foods and conscientious consumption

by Terry Link
The recent announcement that our community will have a new Whole Foods store has many excited.  But I’m wondering whether this development — offering 100 new jobs that typically pay above minimum wage, as well as new brands and selections of prepared foods from which to choose — will be completely beneficial. 

The location close to our locally owned Foods for Living and East Lansing Food Co-op has me concerned that either or both could be in for a tailspin. ELFCO has been bringing in freshly grown local produce, breads and other food items through relationships built up over time, where farmer/producer and ELFCO have a supporting relationship. Will those be undercut by the global food chain that caters to Whole Foods? 

While Whole Foods has received high marks for some forms of its enterprise, like all large corporate entities, decisions are made at corporate headquarters far away from the localities where they operate. The “bigger/more is better” mindset in our culture has resulted in the globalization and concentration of power into fewer unrestrained corporate powers — you can see this occurring in the airlines, home improvement retail and grocery industries, to name a few. With that increased power comes the ability to reshape the rules to their advantage; to bully local, state and national governments; and, perhaps most concerning, to increase the general population’s sense of disempowerment and complacency. If the score of the game is competitive advantage, who watches out for human and ecosystem health, justice, democracy, violence, or for development that is equitable, fair and just? This is not in the ethos or business plan of the behemoths that the majority of our pension plans support. Although, the reader should note that Whole Foods founder John Mackey has stated he believes that business has to have a higher purpose than just making money.

Locally owned businesses for the most part don’t have that kind of power and aren’t trying to achieve it. Instead, these businesses want to offer a product or service that is needed or wanted and to make a decent livelihood from it. It can be successful only when that product or service is determined to be of value to consumers in the community it serves. More and more citizens are becoming aware of the hidden costs and looking for other values beyond price when they make a purchase. Is it made in a sweatshop? Is it organic or GMO free? Is it energy efficient? Is the company lobbying for things we don’t support? Is it from a local source or from the other side of the planet? Making that information more transparent and available benefits everyone and allows market decisions to be made based on more than a simple price value.

I have just finished reading Keith R. Brown’s “Buying into Fair Trade: Culture, Morality, and Consumption.” I am inspired by his assertion that conscientious consumption is really deepened by the sharing of stories — when the link between the producer-product-consumer is made more transparent. Unwittingly, I suppose, this concept has undergirded this column I have shared over the past 24 months. His series of questions and selected stories of what more conscientious consumption might look like continues to call my attention. While hopefully I have shared a few new and useful insights and examples in this column, I am sure I have catalogued neither the breadth nor the depth of possibilities worthy of our consideration. I think I could do a better job of this with the help of readers and citizens in our community. So here’s an invitation: Please send me examples of actual enterprises using different approaches. I’d also like to hear questions that nag you about your own consumption choices. And I’d love to hear possibilities you’d like to see made real in our community, e.g. my desire to see businesses proud to note their minimum employee salary/compensation package or maximum/minimum wage ratio. Our locally owned business owners want your business. Let’s help them see what’s important to you besides price.

(Consultant Terry Link was the founding director of MSU’s Office of Campus Sustainability and recently retired as director of the Greater Lansing Food Bank. He can be reached at link@lansingcitypulse.com.)

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