Friday, May 02, 2008

The Whole Foods paradox

The LA Times article below came up on the Slow Food blog today. It explains a paradox that I think about frequently when I shop at Whole Foods. Michael Pollan detailed the paradox in his first book on food politics, The Omnivore's Dilemma. Apparently Whole Foods did some serious damage control with its employees after Omnivore came out. I have a student who works there -- she said the management team got them all together to refute some of the negative arguments Pollan makes about Whole Foods in the book. They do sell produce from small family farms now, and our store has started offering grass fed beef, as well. They offer organic versions of almost every kind of produce in the store, giving consumers the opportunity to choose produce that doesn't contribute to the toxicity of our soil and water. They also donate thousands of dollars every quarter to our community and encourage customers to donate also.

Still, Whole Foods has a much larger carbon footprint than, say, our local farmer's market, our CSA, or our little co-op where we pick up our milk and buy beef and wheat. In turn, though, Whole Foods offers variety and convenience that I can't get any other way. I shop there a lot, mostly because it's so close to Brynn's school that it's easy to stop in whenever I need to. Next year (when I go back to only leaving the west side of the city once a week) my trips to Whole Foods will become fewer and farther between. My errands will go back to being efficient trips like they were before I started driving to the other side of town ten or more times a week. I'm looking forward to improving my carbon footprint.

Pasadena’s Whole Foods Market: Is It Sustainable Design?

The giant supermarket on Arroyo Parkway calls itself eco-friendly, but it may be too much of a good thing.

By Christopher Hawthorne
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

April 6, 2008

The massive new Whole Foods Market on Arroyo Parkway in Pasadena represents the height of one-upmanship in Southern California's increasingly competitive grocery store trade. I'll see your three brands of soy milk, it says cockily to Fresh & Easy, and raise you two.

But the store is even more striking for what it says about the similar discontents plaguing the organic food and green architecture movements. The way they come together in this Whole Foods--a piece of green architecture designed to hold an organic food emporium--suggests that both may need to adjust their priorities. Or at least start acknowledging that they've become victims of their own success.

The trouble begins with the fact that both movements have their roots in the counterculture of the 1960s. Growing your own food was one way for Americans, frustrated by the rising power of agribusiness, to stake a claim for regional culture and individual values. The same was true of early efforts at eco-friendly architecture. The first generation of hay-bale, sod-roof structures represented a do-it-yourself aesthetic in the extreme.

Then, roughly a decade ago, both movements began to take hold in the center of the American consciousness. A few corporations, such as Ford and Bank of America, began building their plants and corporate headquarters in accordance with strict green design principles: using recycled materials, energy-efficient water systems and solar panels to minimize the effects of constructing and operating a new facility. At about the same time, Whole Foods and its competitors began showing up in cities other than Berkeley and Seattle--including places that might have seen the principles of organic food as faddish, or even freakish, a few years earlier.

Somewhere along the way, for both organic grocers and the corporate patrons of green architecture, the line between planet-saving and aggressive marketing became blurred. Companies realized that promoting themselves as eco-friendly could be a powerful sales tool. Some, not surprisingly, concentrated more on the marketing message than on their green practices --a strategy that became known as "greenwashing."

Some, if not most, organic food outlets--including Wild Oats, which Whole Foods acquired last year--suggest that the shopper's goal should be to do more with less. But the genius of the Whole Foods approach, under hard-driving Chief Executive John Mackey, has been to realize that many American consumers have a vague desire to buy organic and live healthier but have no interest in dispensing with selection or comfort.

The Whole Foods regional flagship in Pasadena, designed by the KTGY Group in Santa Monica, is an architectural monument to this idea. Along with the Ecolution hemp shopping bags for $7.49 and the "Certified Organic" cotton candy near the checkout aisle, the store has a salsa bar, a coffee bar, a nut bar, a noodle bar, a tapas bar with 20 wines by the glass, a soup bar, a pudding bar and a charcuterie. And a chocolate fountain. There is a sign promising "custom butters," the first time I have seen that word in the plural.

On the Sunday I visited, a group was settling down in the center of the second floor, just behind the pizza oven and not far from the roast-beef carving station, for a full-blown Champagne brunch. TVs hang everywhere so you can watch PGA golf (that's what was on when I was there) while you pick out fair-trade roses from Ecuador.

It's Vegas with organic, gluten-free scones.

On the second floor, near the elevator, there's a large sign--marked "Green Mission"--describing all the store's sustainable materials. They include Neapolitan bamboo ("a highly renewable resource") and Fireclay tile ("made from 50% post-consumer and post-industrial waste"), among others.

"We source materials that rapidly replenish themselves and do not contribute to biodiversity loss," the sign reads. "We support growers of forest and other sustainable products that are responsibly managed."

But the first rule of sustainable architecture is to keep new buildings as small and efficient as possible. With its soaring 30-foot ceilings and endless aisles, 280 subterranean parking spots and all those TVs flickering day and night, this place is neither. It's more like the grocery store version of a hybrid SUV made by Lexus or a 12,000-square-foot "green" house with a swimming pool and six-car garage accompanying its solar panels and sustainably harvested decking.

As food writer Michael Pollan has pointed out, there is a paradox at the heart of Mackey's plan for Whole Foods, which is that to be sustainable the company must keep topping itself. The stores will have to keep getting bigger and more impressive, their revenue growing, new corners of the country conquered--all in the name of reducing resource consumption, supporting small farmers and bringing the planet back into balance. Mackey responded last year to complaints along those lines with a pledge to change some of the company's ways--to buy more fruits and vegetables from local producers, for example, and to pay more attention to how its meat suppliers treat their animals.

But the architecture of the Pasadena store suggests that the fundamental approach hasn't changed. Forget about doing more with less. This green-tinged cornucopia is all about doing more with more.

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