Whole Foods and the Organic Food Industry


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In the past, people did not generally analyze the consequences of the food they ate, but recently, more and more people have been considering the potentially positive or negative effects of food. The ways in which food is grown, produced, and manufactured has been looked into more than ever and there is more emphasis on the “organic” types of food because they are seen as healthier. Whole Foods is a company that tries to be ethically sound in the production and sale of food. They sell organic foods but also carry main staple items that are found in regular grocery stores, so that people can one-stop shop there. Whole Foods is in the business of promoting “less processed, healthier, more sustainable food” (Koehn, Miller, 2007). The business has been steadily growing in the recent years, which shows society’s newfound emphasis on being healthy and eating food that is more “ethical.”

Whole Foods was initially founded in order to provide healthier food options to the public. The organic nature of the food sold at Whole Foods has raised awareness about how animals are slaughtered, how fish are harvested, how produce was farmed, and how other main foods were brought to the market (Koehn, Miller, 2007). Whole Foods’ website states that they are America’s healthiest grocery store, and in their company info section, it states, “We seek out the finest natural and organic foods available, maintain the strictest quality standards in the industry, and have an unshakeable commitment to sustainable agriculture” (Company Info | Whole Foods Market, 2013). Whole Foods wasn’t always considered a major grocery store in the United States; it has grown a considerable amount (360 stores) since its first store opened in 1980.

John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods is a vegan himself and cares deeply about protecting animals as much as possible in the food industry. Although Whole Foods sells many non-vegan foods, they take a special interest in making sure the animals are treated correctly before and during the slaughtering process. This practice is very ethical in nature because it’s clear that Whole Foods has other priorities besides just making the largest profit possible. Whole Foods’ value chain takes social responsibility into account, which sets it apart from competitors (Porter, Kramer, 2006). The slogan, “Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet” is advertised along with its “core values” on many products and is displayed throughout the stores. Whole Foods also tells its customers to “feel good about where they shop.” Instead of using plastic bags that are bad for the environment, Whole Foods uses brown paper shopping bags as well as re-usable cloth bags in order to be environmentally friendly (Johnston, 2007). The items sold at Whole Foods are very wide-ranged, all which are supposed to be healthier options than the foods a regular grocery store sells. At the checkout stations, there are often pictures of local farmers depicted on the checkout screens, which gives people the notion that they are supporting them with their shopping choices (Johnston, 2007). There is a general feeling that shopping at Whole Foods is the smart choice and that it benefits not only yourself, but many other parties as well. In addition, there are often collections of pamphlets near the exits of Whole Foods stores, which contain information on food industry and health issues, for example, genetically engineered foods (Johnston, 2007).

In general, Whole Foods makes their customers feel good about the purchases they make at the store because not only does the food taste good, it is seen as healthy and ethically prepared/brought into the stores for sale. The food is not only good for us, it also harms animals the least amount possible and is grown in a way that is environmentally sustainable. A quote from John Mackey sums up the way they do business: “Whole Foods is not a business for a clique, or for the elite. We wanted the philosophy of the stores to spread throughout the culture. We wanted to change the world” (Johnston, 2007). Whole Foods is clearly very ethically sound all the way from their agricultural processes to the features in individual stores.

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Figure 1: U.S. Organic Food Sales 2002-2011

We’ve seen that Whole Foods has been able to expand so much because the industry of organic food has been growing rapidly in recent years. The industry has grown year to year, ranging between 17 and 21 percent each year since 1997 (Onyango, Hallman, Bellows, 2007). Organic agriculture has been on the rise and there is a marketing trend moving to target today’s average health-conscious person. Consumers want to know the specific benefits a food may deliver before making a purchasing decision (Onyango, Hallman, Bellows, 2007). When consumers pay a high price for healthier, organic food, they are more likely to believe that the food is healthier and is worth the higher price because it will benefit their health (Onyango, Hallman, Bellows, 2007). This is a huge reason why people are willing to pay extra for organic food, such as the products Whole Foods sells.

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Figure 2: Change in Organic Food Sales from 2011-2012 (Hoffman, 2013).

Today’s average consumer is much more concerned about how their food is made and how safe it is to eat, which is also contributing to the organic food boom. Traditional agriculture is associated with pesticide use and other toxic chemicals which are obviously not meant to be ingested, but could be on certain foods that we eat from everyday grocery stores. Organic foods do not have such potentially harmful substances associated with them, which is another reason why it seems safer to eat them. Companies such as Whole Foods are marketing products that are not traditionally grown, but are grown with increased care so that they can be as healthy as possible. This ethical practice is what draws people in to buying organic food. The recent food industry scares such as E-coli and Salmonella make consumers wary about what they put into their mouths and feed their family with (Onyango, Hallman, Bellows, 2007). Organic foods do not have the potential to give people illnesses from these types of poisonings. Another positive aspect about organic food from the ethical standpoint is that organic farming is good for the environment and for agriculture itself. It is also probable that working conditions for organic farmers are far superior than they are for traditional farmers (Onyango, Hallman, Bellows, 2007). The organic industry brings long-term sustainability, profitability, and success for people who are in the business, but also for people that consume these types of food. Such a relationship is not common because many companies are typically not focused on all of their stakeholders as much as they are on their shareholders and profits. When companies are ethically sound, they are likely to do just as well, if not better in terms of profits and company success.

The organic food industry is a relatively ethical industry because of its main purpose—to provide food that is healthier for us and better for the environment than non-organic options. There are many food companies today that do not emphasize the need for environmental sustainability or even the idea that food should be healthy and make us feel good. I believe that such companies are missing the ethical component that Whole Foods demonstrates so well. There is a reason for the shift towards organic food and that is because it is simply better for everyone and everything involved. The shift is causing a greater demand for organic-type foods, which is why Whole Foods has been able to grow as substantially as they have over the recent years. Other companies should learn from their business model and see that looking out for stakeholders and the general consumers is beneficial and can improve a company’s success and growth for a long period of time.

References

“Company Info | Whole Foods Market.” Whole Foods Market. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2013. <http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/company-info&gt;.

Hoffman, Beth. “‘Organic’ One Of The Most Confusing Labels, Report Says.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 17 July 2013. Web. 18 Nov. 2013. <http://www.forbes.com/sites/bethhoffman/2013/07/17/organic-causes-confusion/&gt;.

Johnston, Josée. (2008).”The Citizen-consumer Hybrid: Ideological Tensions and the Case of Whole Foods Market.” Theory and Society, 37.3, 229-70.

Koehn, Nancy F., and Katherine Miller. (2007). “John Mackey and Whole Foods Market.” Harvard Business Publishing, n. pag.

Onyango, Benjamin M., William K. Hallman, and Anne C. Bellows. (2007). “Purchasing Organic Food in US Food Systems: A Study of Attitudes and Practice.” British Food Journal, 399-411.

Porter, M. E., & Kramer, M. R. (2006). Strategy and society. Harvard business review, 84(12), 78-92.

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