Is Whole Foods Sustainable or Just a High-Priced Hoax? I Took a Job There to Find Out
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Overall, while Whole Foods plays up its relationship to local suppliers, the "local" products you buy are often from national companies that sell to Whole Foods stores all over the country. While this doesn't negate the fact that your local purchases reduce the amount of fuel used to bring the food to you, it does take away from the idea that you're supporting a small, local business.
While Whole Foods has responded to the locavore movement to some extent, its response is driven in many ways more by marketing than by a true philosophical bent.
A Rind is a Terrible Thing to Waste
Another inescapable observation from my work at Whole Foods was the amount of food the store wasted. To be fair, wasted really isn't the right word, because the San Diego Whole Foods had a fantastic composting program, and all of the food we threw out was reincarnated in bags of Whole Foods compost bearing the slogan, "Because a rind is a terrible thing to waste."
Whole Foods should absolutely be commended for its commitment to the environment -- and its very good business sense -- for turning its waste into profitable compost. In my opinion, every other grocery chain should follow suit.
That said, the energy and packaging material required to produce and ship food is wasted when that food goes right into the compost bin. Each night, our bakery filled several shopping carts with spoilage -- food that had reached its sell-by date, most of which was still perfectly fine to eat.
Pastries and hearth breads, for example, were baked and sold on the same day, and any leftovers were considered spoilage. While a shelter picked up the hearth breads, it was the only item that escaped the compost bin. We were told that we couldn't give food away for "liability" reasons and that we could also not take food home because management was afraid we would create extra spoilage to guarantee ourselves free food.
Whenever I could, I would sneak out a bag of day-old pastries and give them to the homeless people in Balboa Park. I would also keep an eye out for products with an expiration date a few days away -- while they were still "fresh," I'd give them out as free samples so we wouldn't have to compost them later in the week.
The alternative to the volume of wasted food is, of course, ordering less food. However, buying the right amount of food is a fine line to walk, and often (especially in the case of newly introduced products) there is no way to predict sales. In addition, our bakery didn't carry foods that contained artificial preservatives, so our products' shelf lives were shorter than those in conventional supermarkets.
And, whenever we ran out of a particular item, customers became absolutely indignant. Time and time again, I would put on a heavy jacket and dig through box after box in the walk-in freezer to look for a particular item someone wanted, because Whole Foods customers expect to get what they want, when they want it. They might care about environmental causes, but unless they've worked in a grocery store, they probably have no idea how much waste their demand for all foods to be available at all times creates.
The flip side is that the customers at Whole Foods pay high prices, which perhaps gives them license to be demanding. (My recent Whole Foods purchase of coffee, three mini chocolate bars, a six-pack of beer and a ready-to-eat package of falafel ran me nearly $30.) A more savvy customer might carefully select only the Every Day Value items, which are more affordable, but the on the whole, the budget conscious aren't Whole Foods' customer base. (I was frequently asked if I'd heard the joke about the "Whole Paycheck." Oh yes, I've heard it.)