Greenwash Of The Week: Whole Foods’ Boycott Of Canadian Oil Sands.

February 17, 2010

There was some big news the other day about Whole Foods and the Alberta oil sands. Seems that Whole Foods (where I shop, mind you, until I live somewhere there is a year-round Farmers Market) signed on to a campaign by ForestEthics, committing themselves to reducing their reliance on fuel that comes from the terribly destructive Alberta oil sands. Sounds great, right? I mean, who wouldn’t want news of that to spread? The problem, however, is that it is mainly a PR stunt and won’t really do much to help the environment at all. See, Whole Foods has over 280 stores across America and ships foods from all over the world to those 280+ stores – and it’s pretty difficult to truly know where your oil is coming from for all those planes, boats, trucks, and energy sources. In fact, I would say it’s almost impossible. From an article at The Globe & Mail:

“Boycotting is a lot easier. It’s a lot cheaper and you get really good PR,” Mr. Knight said. “But you won’t solve the problem. You’ll bury the problem and hide it and probably make it worse.”

Whole Foods does a lot of things right…and a lot of things wrong. Their CEO, John Mackey, is kind of a whack-job. He doesn’t believe in climate change and doesn’t think we need healthcare reform – so much for being a progressive business owner. Their food is overpriced for the most part. But they do sell quality food, attempt to buy local, and I believe treat their employees pretty well from what I have heard. They are my only option for buying the type of food I buy here where I live, and for the foreseeable future they will continue to be my grocery store.

This “boycott”, however, smells much more like a Greenwash PR stunt than anything else given how their CEO views environmental issues. Come on, Whole Foods, we expect more from you – even with John Mackey at the helm.

Filed in: Greenwash • Tags: ,

About the Author:

After a varied past of being a test driver for automotive television programs, a Hollywood studio lackey, and an online media sales director, David is now the publisher and editor of The Good Human. In his spare time he rides motorcycles, drinks good beer, and builds stuff in the garage. You can follow him on Twitter at @thegoodhuman or G+ at Google
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Comments (9)

  1. David says:

    Yep, it did – but when was the last time you could track where all the oil you used in your car, house, food, products, air travel, etc. came from? You can’t – and that’s why this is a PR move much more than anything else.

  2. Penina says:

    I’m interested in shining more light on this, but I really don’t see enough here that I can be justified in spreading the word. It may *smell* like Greenwash, but that’s not enough for me to go on the offensive.

    In fact, the globeandmail article acknowledges, “Whole Foods switched its Indiana distribution centre from Marathon Oil Co. to CountryMark, a farmer-owned co-operative that produces its own conventional crude and processes it at a small refinery in Mount Vernon, Ind.”

  3. Jessica says:

    As a former employee I can tell you that Whole Foods is all about Greenwashing. When they remodelled our store (a process that continued and change again and again for YEARS) EVERYTHING went into a dumpster. There was no reuse… well, not until I personally took that into my own hands and pulled things out of the dumpster. I have beautiful Italian pots on my porch and stainless tables in my garage thanks to this.
    Who doesn’t reuse or recycle? I mean, with re-use building companies all over my city (many will pick up) it’s simply irresponsible to throw things into the dumpster that are in perfect condition just because they don’t fit your current asthetic fad idea.

    Small vendors? Right. It got harder for them as I worked there and getting them into the store was part of my job, sadly a part that went the way of the dodo as time ticked on (and John promised Michael Pollen to bring in more small vendors). Yet another greenwash.

    It’s sad really. I wanted to believe that they were doing something different but in the end it was same old corporate business as usual.

  4. david says:

    I hope they do go with the free-trade, cage-free, grass-fed, fair-trade stuff – but I also think that if they are going to put out press releases stating they are boycotting the oil sands, they should be required to back that up with proof. How can we be sure they are going to do it? How can they be sure that the bananas coming from South America aren’t being flown here using oil from the oil sands?

    It’s way too big of a statement for a company to make, so they better start proving it 100%…or it’s a greenwash. And we should hold them to proving it.

  5. Tim H. says:

    The jury is still on this one for me and I tend to side with Penina on judging whether this is actually greenwashing.

    The beauty is that simply by covering this story (as did we) more people become aware of the promise and more people will try to hold WF’s feet to the free-range, cage-free, grass-fed, fair-trade fire.

  6. David says:

    Thank you for correcting it here, Libba. Unfortunately, every media outlet is reporting this as a boycott, so I am curious where they got that info from. And as they are reporting it as a boycott, every supposedly “green” site is reporting it as such. Sadly, and as you are admitting here, this is not the truth. Will you also be going to each of these sites giving you free PR about boycotting oil sands and correct them, letting them know this?

    Maybe you guys didn’t release this as PR, but somehow, somewhere, people got wind of it. And its being reported as a boycott when it isn’t one at all.

    Thank you for taking the time to correct that misconception here on the site, I appreciate it. I know WF does a lot of great stuff, but I didn’t buy the idea of a “boycott” at all – it would be impossible to track. Keep up the good work that you are doing, we customers do appreciate the tangible stuff you do.

  7. Libba Letton says:

    Hi, Libba with Whole Foods Market here. Wanted to comment on the idea that this is a PR stunt — check our web site, and you’ll find no press releases, no blog posts, no tweets or FB mentions about this. We’ve done zero outreach on this front.

    Yes, it IS pretty difficult to determine where the oil that becomes fuel is sourced — it’s difficult, but not impossible. Whole Foods Market has a team of people who look at all aspects of our operations, from fuel used for distribution to green building practices and what kind of energy we buy for our stores (wind energy credits). That team”™s goal is to reduce our use of fossil fuel overall, and in the process looks for fuel that has smaller carbon footprints, like non-tar sands fuel. We also use biodiesel where possible in our distribution fleet. We work constantly with our fuel suppliers to stay abreast of the latest technology and fuels available, and they in turn are able to tell us where our fuel comes from.

    Last, this is not a boycott — it’s a strategy of avoiding tar sands fuel where possible — we’re still using it in our Rocky Mountain region, where we weren’t able to find a supplier with alternatives. It’s a small step that does not rule out additional, future actions.

  8. dwhite2762 says:

    I read an article that said that Whole Foods employees pay more for health insurance if they have inherited disease or if they are overweight. I know that I have other local options for shopping and I pay a lot less. The joke about Whole Paycheck is still relevant in my town.