In my first blog in this series, I addressed my experiences at Whole Foods Market from the perspective of talent management. This post will address my question, How Sustainable are the Whole Foods Sustainability Initiatives?
During my recent graduate studies through the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University many of my research projects and areas of study focused on global food issues, sustainable agriculture, urban agriculture, and global organic farming practices. So I am able to look at this from a perspective that includes the importance of WFM’s impact on the food industry worldwide!
According to the 1983 Brundtland Commission Report from the United Nations, the true definition of Sustainability is "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” While most people think of “sustainability” as environmental, the environmental piece is only one of three. Sustainability in organizations involves environmental operational practices, economic health, and social responsibility―concerns for employees and the community.
Compare this to the Core Values that Whole Foods has built its company on since 1980:
- Selling the Highest Quality Natural and Organic Products Available
- Satisfying and Delighting Our Customers
- Supporting Team Member Happiness and Excellence
- Creating Wealth Through Profits & Growth
- Caring about our Communities & Our Environment
- Creating ongoing win-win partnerships with our suppliers
- Promoting the health of our stakeholders through healthy eating education.
On the surface, the Whole Foods philosophies and business practices are perfectly aligned with the definition of a sustainable organization. But there are several areas where I found that they may not be:
Whole Foods Market was the first and remains the only certified organic grocer. So you would expect to find a larger selection of local and organic foods. Thanks to WFM other conventional grocery retailers, including WalMart, have started offering a wider variety of organic foods. And it has been a saving grace for so many people with food allergies. Those with dairy, gluten, wheat, and nut allergies, as well as those that are vegetarian or vegan, can meet all of their needs here. Yes, it’s expensive, but after studying the process and expense that farmers must go through to get the certified organic label, it’s explainable.
But, comparing how WFM has traditionally packaged and sold its food, and I’m speaking primarily about the produce, and how it does now, the line between being a “whole foods organic grocer” is becoming quite blurred with that of a conventional grocery store. It’s especially felt in their newer mega-stores. (They have since decided to not go back to a smaller model.) When I shop the produce department, I see the same vegetables wrapped in plastic (so much plastic!!) and stickered with the same UPC code as in any other grocery store. For example, you can no longer buy spinach in bulk (is it the health code, or just that people aren’t buying it as much?). Rather, you must buy the large plastic tubs, reinforced with a plastic band wrapped around it. And I witnessed many shoppers who actually put these plastic containers in an additional plastic bag! Why not? It’s there!
And in the bulk section, there is an equal number of offerings in individual plastic packaging as in the bulk bins. Certainly it’s easier to just grab something already wrapped. And in the bulk offerings, you are putting your selection in a plastic bag anyway. Same with the water: they have an option to refill your own container with filtered water, but right next to that is an entire aisle of a multitude of water in plastic bottles.
From an environmental standpoint, yes, they do a good job of promoting the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra. But any good that does is completely negated when there is an equal offering of plastic-wrapped options.
I understand that in order for a Fortune 500 company that has a responsibility to its shareholders to maintain its value, it must cater to the masses. What a shame for a cool company like this one to lose what it made it so interesting and different in the first place! But, my original question was, is it sustainable? From an economic standpoint, yes. Is it unique? Not so much anymore.
From a standpoint of responsibility to employees and the community, let’s look at community first, and it is a resounding “yes!” But when you look at the development of its people, its talent management, its training and advancement opportunities, it is an equally resounding “no!” And this will hurt them more than they realize. Every year when WFM shows up in the top 25 of Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For, the company description always includes: “Over 1/3 of the workforce is under the age of 25.” So, is it only a good company to work for if you’re under 25? Everyone knows that WFM allows for individuality, and to the extreme in my opinion. This is one reason that WFM attracts younger employees. The other reason is because the hourly wage is so low, and not many middle-aged workers with families to support can afford it. (See my first blog in this series.)
And while the initial orientation for new employees is comprehensive, it falls apart after that. There is no real opportunity to develop and advance except to just work there for a really long time.
As I described in my first blog in this series, I have witnessed example after example of talented, educated, experienced people with so much to offer be passed over for no apparent reason. Even those of us willing to work for the low wages just to work within the company! I can’t imagine that this doesn’t lead to tremendous turnover, which is expensive to say the least, not to mention difficult to gain momentum for new and interesting initiatives.
For the most part, Whole Foods has a sustainable business model. I would caution that they not become a more expensive Kroger, and that they pay more attention to who and how they hire, train, and promote their people.