Food and the environment: Welcome to the wheatgerm empire

What started as a vegetarian co-operative in Texas is now America's biggest natural food supermarket chain. And it has its sights set on Britain. By Andrew Buncombe and Katherine Griffiths
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The Independent Online

The trick is to try to keep your eyes down. As you enter a Whole Foods store, take a tip from Odysseus and his crew, who plugged their ears with wax as they sailed past the Sirens, and do your best to block off the sensual delights that suddenly surround you.

Everywhere you look, every breath you inhale, will result in sensory overload. The fruit and vegetable section of a Whole Foods store - always located at the entrance - is like no other. The perfect-looking produce is immaculately presented, gleaming under bright lights. Much, if not most of it, is organic. There are splendid yellow Bartlett pears from Chile, orange and green mangoes from elsewhere in South America and large, luscious limes from California. It's food as art; fruit and vegetables as pornography.

Of course, none of this splendour comes cheap. All too often, a quick trip to buy a loaf of bread can leave you $30 or $40 worse off after you fall temptation to just one or two of all those splendid things you had promised yourself you would ignore.

Indeed, since its inception 26 years ago, Whole Foods - which owns Fresh and Wild, a similar but smaller chain of upmarket natural grocers in Britain, where it is set to open its first store under its own name next year - has done very nicely indeed selling wholesome, healthy products to wholesome, wealthy people. Today, with around 180 stores, it is the biggest natural food supermarket in the US. Last year, sales topped $3.9bn.

This week, the Texas-based chain, headed by its vegetarian founder and chief executive, John Mackey, announced another development in its efforts to cement its environmentally friendly credentials. From now on, it says, it will be using wind-generated energy to power all of its stores. The move will make it the biggest corporate user of renewable energy in the US.

This is not quite what it seems. The stores will not actually be powered by energy solely obtained from renewable sources. But the company will be annually buying 458,000 megawatt-hours of wind-energy credits from a company in Colorado that produces renewable power. This power will be added to the national grid, off-setting the company's entire energy usage. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says such an investment would put Whole Foods ahead of both the US Air Force (312,416 megawatt-hours) and corporate leader Johnson & Johnson (241,398 megawatt-hours), and the move will cut carbon dioxide emissions by the equivalent of taking 60,000 cars off the road for a year.

More sceptical observers claim the most obvious benefit will be a public-relations victory. Andrew Allusi, of the nonprofit group World Resources Institute, said he supported Whole Foods' move and hoped it would inspire other large corporations. "For the choice they have made, as opposed to on-site generation of renewable power, the main benefit is public relations. For a company like Whole Foods, which has a particular kind of clientele, I can imagine this is an important way they relate to their customers," he said. "[But] it's also an investment in the renewable energy providers. It's a boost to them."

The company readily admits the initiative will appeal to its well-heeled customers but insists there is more to it than simply good PR. Company spokeswoman Ashley Hawkins said she suspected many customers would assume the stores were already using renewable energy. "We are off-setting 100 per cent of our electricity with wind energy so we think it's pretty serious," she said. "Our customers are very in touch with environmental issues - that's one of the reasons we did it."

The steady and surefooted rise of Whole Foods is well-known within the US supermarket industry. Its predecessor, SaferWay, was founded by Mackey back in the late Seventies when he dropped out of a philosophy course at Texas University and joined a vegetarian co-operative as a way to meet attractive, progressive women.

Borrowing money from family and friends, Mackey was able to establish SaferWay as his own store and then, only two years later, merge with another local natural foods store to form Whole Foods. It was a business strategy to which he has successfully adhered; in the coming years Whole Foods would ruthlessly target other, smaller, natural food stores and incorporate them in a burgeoning empire.

Mackey is still something of a corporate enigma. He eschews many of the trappings of the business world - his usual business garb is a T-shirt and a pair of shorts - and he recently took five months off work to hike the entirety of the Appalachian Way. And yet his hard-edged approach to business - he would probably call it realism - might not be what one might expect from the boss of a natural food store.

In a recent interview with The Independent in Austin, Texas, Mackey admitted his company attracted a fair amount of harsh publicity. And yet he said he believed that when Whole Foods opens its first store next year in central London - to be located in the former Barkers department store building in Kensington High Street - it will quickly win over its detractors.

"Americans are not perceived as very food savvy and [people will think we are just] another big corporation," he said. "[But the new store] will be the best store we've ever opened - no one is doing what Whole Foods plans to do."

Mackey, who is a vegan but eats eggs, has been criticised by some in the movement who believe he is a hypocrite for allowing his stores to sell meat, fish and dairy produce. "Their message is, 'You either ought to convert your stores to be vegan stores or you should resign'," he said. "It's easy to be a saint on a mountain top. If I tried to do that I would be fired. If I were to leave, the person who took my place would undoubtedly not have the same concern about animal well-being as I do. So does that really help the animals?"

Nor does he shy away from admitting his products are considerably more expensive than those in other supermarkets. "People say they want the highest-quality food and they support local production and they want organic and they want food to be fresher," he said.

"You can't have it both ways. If you want the highest quality, it costs more. It's like complaining that a BMW is more expensive than a Hyundai. Yes, but you're getting a better car."

He admitted, too, that there was a deliberate attempt to develop Whole Foods as a "lifestyle brand" in much the same way as Apple computers and Starbucks, the coffee-shop chain responsible more than any other for the unholy price of a simple cup of Java. "[Those] are lifestyle brands and have a certain committed customer that I think Whole Foods has. They're similar in that all three are perceived as innovative, kind of hip, quality products."

So do Whole Foods' middle-class customers shop there because it is trendy? When they roll up in their SUVs to buy fruit that has been flown in from South America, are they really supporting the environment, no matter how much electricity comes from a wind farm? And is Mackey - who claims there is "no inherent reason why business cannot be ethical, socially responsible and profitable" - living up to his claims?

A quick straw poll conducted yesterday morning at the cafeteria area of a Whole Foods store on 14th Street in Washington DC, proved inconclusive. Dimitri Nadchev, a medical student from Bulgaria who has lived in the US for four years, said he shopped there specifically because much of the food was organic. "The food tastes like food," he said. "A lot of the other food in the United States tastes like plastic."

Another customer, who would only identify himself as Paul, said he used Whole Foods simply because it was convenient. He was not bothered by its organic or environmental credentials. A third customer, a homeless woman, Wanda Witter, angrily said the store had refused to allow her to use her federal food stamps to purchase pre-prepared food for her breakfast. She also grumbled about the prices. "I don't come here that often," she said.

As a food store, it bears little resemblance to the bean, lentil and muesli merchants who began the wholefood boom back in the Sixties. While its fresh produce is undoubtedly healthy and nutritious, a recent article in Forbes magazine pointed out that most customers are also lured by the more decadent products routinely promotes instore with free samples. "Whole Foods is, in truth, a glutton's paradise stock with 350 varieties of chi-chi cheese (including $19.99 per lb Humboldt Fog), $390 bottles of Chateau Latour wine and pallets of mousse cakes, banana cream tarts and other belly-bursting goodies," it said.

One area in which the company always claims to excel is in its relationship with its staff, which it refers to as "team members". Spokeswoman Ashley Hawkins says the average hourly wage of its staff is $15, which compares well with the federal minimum wage of just $5.15.

She said staff also received generous health and pension benefits. The company is routinely included in lists of top 100 employers.

In one area, however, things appear less smooth. Mackey appears opposed to trade unions and none of his stores are unionised. Several years ago when workers at a store in Madison, Wisconsin, tried to form a union, the company made a determined - and ultimately successful attempt - to dissuade them.

When we asked Ms Hawkins about unions, she said she did not believe they were "necessary" in the sort of worker-inclusive, open-dialogue environment, the company was trying to create. "We definitely recognize the rights of workers to organize and hold a union election. Unions have a place in many work environments in our country," she said. "Throughout our history, we feel like we have had an excellent track record of working with team members in a way that they say makes union representation unnecessary for them."

So is Whole Foods simply the "Wheatgerm Wal-Mart", a ruthless corporation that caters for those fortunate enough to afford its prices and uses its "green" image simply as a means to a profitable end? Or is it a progressive, forward-thinking company that is doing what it can to promote wholesome food, cater to its customers' tastes and try and help the environment all at the same time?

Customers in the UK will soon have the opportunity to find out for themselves.