Whole Foods Market stands out in America as an antithetical supermarket chain, committed to purveying foods free of artificial additives and of organic origin. While Whole Foods products cost significantly more than their counterparts at other supermarkets, the company caters to those willing to pay more for food they deem healthier or of a more ethical origin. Among the many official designations for organic and equitably sourced goods, Whole Foods has created a standard called “Whole Trade Guarantee,” which claims to share a greater percentage of profits with producers, as well as to undertake various community service projects in the poverty-stricken areas the producers live in. One such item boasting the “Whole Trade Guarantee” seal, along with many others, is the Tanzania Schoolhouse Project Chocolate Bar.
To preface my critique of Whole Foods’s advertising of the chocolate bar, I must first say that Whole Foods is undoubtedly doing good in the world, especially compared to other supermarkets. What this advertisement makes me question, however, is how much of that good transpires at the consumer end, rather than the producer end? In other words, might Whole Foods’ social impact be mainly on the end of those who feel themselves morally righteous or at least pat themselves on the back for buying a more expensive, but seemingly virtuous chocolate bar?
My argument arises first from the rather blatant advertising of the chocolate bar, but also from the rather nebulous terms laid out in the above hyperlink about the “Whole Trade Guarantee.” Perhaps my quantitative background makes me unduly skeptical of Whole Foods’s workings, but my main critique concerns the lack of numbers in the presentation of the “Whole Trade Guarantee.” The fact that Whole Foods seems to create many of its own internal standards rather than being certified by Fair Trade, for example, is also problematic, and serves to set the stage further for my argument about perceived good versus actual good. To establish a more concrete portrayal of their social charity, I propose a simple advertisement that delivers impact on the basis of facts, rather than blurrily defined actions.
While the numbers presented in my advertisement are speculative and not necessarily true for Whole Foods, the essence of my advertisement is to present consumers the real consequence of buying the chocolate bar. For example, Taza Chocolate pays a 15-20% premium on chocolate it buys from local producers. Taza also practices Direct Trade, in that the company purchases cacao directly from producers, eliminating profit-siphoning middlemen (Taza, 2015). In the case of Whole Foods, an ad that forces consumers to visualize actual data rather than an ill-defined commitment to build schools in Tanzania serves multiples purposes. First off, it would force Whole Foods to be transparent with their producer relations, as Taza is. Whole Foods’s income is huge, and they could very well only be donating minuscule fractions of their profits to build the indeterminate number of schools proposed. Second, we might learn more of Whole Foods’s self-given labels, such as “Whole Trade Guarantee” and “Fair for Life,” which do not mean much unless independently verified. Third, the Tanzania Schoolhouse Project could be seen to perpetuate the “harmful binaries” endemic to the West’s view of Africa (Leissle, 2012). The Schoolhouse ad directly plays on consumers’ sense of social duty, and by buying a bar of chocolate it can make them feel as if they’ve done concrete good in a poverty-stricken country. While this isn’t necessarily bad, it could blind consumers from considering how much Whole Foods actually helps. Then again, the framing of education as supported by chocolate bars casts significant shame on the efforts of Tanzanians themselves. In considering the civilized/primitive binary, the idea that an American, simply in purchasing a chocolate bar, accomplishes what Tanzanians could not do for themselves raises flags regarding stereotyping of “traditional” cultures.
Pushing further with the concept of the data driven ad, and assuming that Whole Foods does indeed pay significant premiums to producers as Taza does, I would suggest a more radical design. While this probably would not be a successful ad, I believe it would be very thought provoking to the consumer.
The impact of this ad lies in forcing the consumer to realize still how little local producers and farmers are paid for their products. Even significant percentage premiums paid by companies practicing equitable trade practices do not result in that much more money being paid to producers. While it can be argued that such small increases have greater bearing in Africa or other poor nations where cost of living is cheaper, I still feel that actually including numerical values for what portions of profit go to producers should startle consumers into realizing the inequity inherent in international trade of agricultural products with developing nations (Sylla, 2014).
My purpose in critiquing the Whole Foods ad is not to accuse Whole Foods of false advertising practice, but rather to examine the way information regarding fair trade practices travels to the consumer. I very much admire, for example, the Taza Transparency Report. Thus, I feel that an ad that emphasizes numbers rather than proposals, such as the Tanzania Schoolhouse project, would both hold companies accountable and cause consumers to consider the inequities still inherent in retailer-producer relations.
First image: Whole Foods. (2012). “Company News: Chocolate Choices Matter.” Digital Image. http://media.wholefoodsmarket.com/news/chocolate-choices-matter.
Second and Third Images: Produced by Carlo Bocconcelli from the first image.
Hyperlink: Hsia, Winnie. (2012). “What is the Whole Trade Guarantee?”
Healy, K. (2001). Llamas, weavings, and organic chocolate: Multicultural grassroots development in the Andes and Amazon of Bolivia. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.