Down on the ‘Socially Responsible’ Farm

"Think Green," says Whole Foods' CEO John Mackey. But if the issue is labor rights or how many Fair Trade coffee companies mostly still profit from exploiting farmers, he may not want you to think too much.


Is your coffee fair to farmers? That's the question shoppers at some Whole Foods Market stores are asked in flyers that at times adorn the chain's coffee aisles. The question leads quickly to an explanation that this is why Whole Foods sells Fair Trade coffee, which pays struggling Third World coffee farmers a higher per-pound payment than they would normally earn.


Like many "green lifestyle"-branded corporations, Whole Foods understands that marketing to educated, middle-class shoppers with disposable income is more effective when it is framed less as a sales pitch than as consumer education for a worthy cause (e.g., support for organic farmers; G.E.-free foods; your health). But the trouble is even the most informative marketing remains ultimately still, well ... a sales pitch. In other words, driven by profit. And sometimes, duplicity.


What consumers may not know is that some retailers have used the Fair Trade label as an opportunity to charge "huge mark-ups" on such products, as The Wall Street Journal reported last summer (June 8, 2004). And so Fair Trade for poor coffee growers can become Even Fairer Trade for retailers.


In suburban Boston, Journal reporters Steve Stecklow and Erin White found Whole Foods promising as part of a Fair Trade promotion to donate 5 percent of sales to growers. But what the customers could not know was that the 5 percent donation was not based on the advertised price, but a lower price Whole Foods pays its coffee unit.


Among retailers Whole Foods may not be the worst to exploit the Fair Trade label (The Journal cited British grocer Sainsbury's and bookstore chain Borders for especially egregious profiteering of Fair Trade coffee.) Not all retailers exploit the label to extra advantage, but duplicitous advertising and outright profiteering do suggest that the motor force for corporate involvement in Fair Trade often has more to do with marketing than addressing the structural roots of a global trade system that exploits poor farmers.


Unfortunately, Fair Trade, while it puts more money in some growers’ pockets, is at best a palliative for a world capitalist economy that inherently favors wealth over justice.


It is also unfortunate that TransFair USA, the trade organization that oversees Fair Trade commerce, takes the stance that member companies are only allowed to say positive things about Fair Trade.


In 2003, they accused Dean's Beans, a small, Massachusetts-based Fair Trade coffee roaster, of violating its agreement with them when owner Dean Cycon ran an ad in the Village Voice urging Newman's Own Organics, which like Dean's Beans sells 100% Fair Trade coffee, to either press its roaster, Green Mountain, to buy all of its coffee at Fair Trade prices, or find another roaster. (Green Mountain was buying roughly 12% Fair Trade coffee at the time.) Why not pay all farmers fair prices?


TransFairUSA thought Cycon should not publicly criticize the business practices of other Fair Trade companies. But the ad was less a jab at competitors than it was an attempt to make a larger political point: most companies promoting Fair Trade coffee are still overwhelmingly in the business of selling non-Fair Trade coffee.


And considering the global descent of coffee prices to record lows in recent years, to devastating human effect as many small farmers find themselves unable to recoup even basic production costs, non-Fair Trade coffee has become more accurately a matter of grotesquely unfair traded coffee.


"Socially responsible" companies like Starbucks, Green Mountain, and Seattle's Best purchase roughly only 1 percent to 12 percent of their coffee at Fair Trade prices. That's what had the founder of Dean's Beans in a snit, because many of the companies who are profiting from disaster circumstances for Third World coffee farmers are the very same companies who are using Fair Trade labeling for self-promotion as "good corporate citizens."


So why don't they just pay a decent price to all farmers? Considering that Fair Trade prices have recently been lower than the average world market price of a few years back, that's not a bad question. But posing such a simple question to the socially responsible investment community will likely earn the questioner his or her own label as a purveyor of idealistic silliness and naively socialistic sentiment (everyone knows what bad businesspersons socialists make!)


However minor the Dean's Beans brouhaha over Fair Trade coffee may have been, it does also illustrate how the theme of "conscious commerce" has evolved into a major marketing strategy for many businesses, complete with eco-upbeat advertising that allows "shop your values" consumers to at least have the impression they're participating in a "delightfully innovative" new form of corporate activism.


Unfortunately, maintaining a sense of delightfulness about all this sometimes requires suspending critical judgment, especially when the issue is one of social responsibility and labor and union rights. Jonathan Tasiai, president of the Economic Future Group, made this point in a column last September for, noting the impossibility of separating a company's stance on environmental issues from its labor policies.


Tasiai’s target specifically was an Eddie Bauer marketing campaign in conjunction with the Environmental Media Association, an entertainment industry group that seeks to promote environmental awareness within its industry. As such, the Eddie Bauer chain had run a six-page, full color "Fashion Planet-Think Green" insert in such Conde Nast publications as The New Yorker and Wired, featuring celebrities doing outdoorsy things while wearing the brand's fashions. The images were accompanied by generic environmental messages about recycling and saving the earth.


But the call to "Think Green" was not to be mistaken for thinking too much about the true cost of these clothes, Tasiai charged. Because to do so might lead to unpleasant thoughts about textile workers in unregulated, polluted sweatshops in Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and China.


When Whole Foods found Cesar was up to no good As for Whole Foods, which is a sponsor of the Environmental Media Association, the company's posturing concern for farmers becomes hypocrisy squared in light of its failure to support more humane conditions for those who work for some of its suppliers. Consider Whole Foods private-label water, for example, sourced in Roseville, Calif., by California Bottling Company Inc., a company that pays minimum wages and scant benefits to its largely Hispanic workforce.


Or consider the now rather notorious chapter from Whole Foods history when in 1998 the grocer was asked by the United Farm Workers (UFW) to endorse a simple pledge to support humane working conditions and improved wages for California's 20,000 strawberry farm workers. In the Chicago area, where I lived at the time, the area's two largest supermarket chains, Jewel and Dominick's, both signed the pledge, as nationally did hundreds of other grocers. Not so Whole Foods.  The company was adamant in its refusal to endorse the pledge, a response that initially caught many of the chain's liberal-minded shoppers by surprise. "I'm shocked," one female shopper in Durham, North Carolina, told Eric Bates of the North Carolina Independent. "You would think they would be at the top of the list of stores signing the pledge."


You would think. But you would be wrong.


What was particularly revealing at the time was the reason the company gave for refusing to endorse the UFW pledge. It was not only their initial response to defend the industry outright against charges of appalling work conditions, exposure to pesticides, and poverty wages (at that time less than $9000 a year) earned by farm workers (a response one ex-company president later admitted was overstated).


Even more incredible was the company's explanation that it refused because it was a union (any union!) that was doing the asking. "We are not signing a pledge that supports the union," admitted one Whole Foods Regional president. "If you say we don't support the farm workers union because we don't support unions in general, I'd say that's true."


Welcome to labor relations, circa 1880!


Later, Whole Foods tried to spin their extremist position by claiming the UFW did not support "sustainable agriculture," an obnoxious claim in light of the union's history as a leading pioneer in opposing pesticides in food production (Has CEO and founder John Mackey ever gone on a hunger strike to protest pesticide poisoning of agricultural workers, as Cesar Chavez did?).


But the evident hypocrisy soon segued into a less evident duplicity. Confronted with UFW pickets in front of stores and dismayed customers, Whole Foods suddenly announced "National Five Percent Day," promising to donate five percent of a day's profits to farm worker charities (just not the UFW!).


In one Chicago-area Whole Foods store where I shopped at the time, I remember being surprised by the large sandwich board signs proclaiming the charity promotion. If you happened to be a customer who hadn't received one of the UFW leaflets, you might have thought it was just more evidence of the company's liberal sensitivities on social issues.


But I can still recall my own reaction: If Whole Foods really cares about farm workers, why don't they just sign the damn UFW pledge, as have so many other grocers? Why the subterfuge?


Of course, familiarity with founder Mackey's right-wing politics, his guttural hatred of collective bargaining and efforts in 2002-03 to destroy the UFCW local at the chain's Madison, Wis., store, makes the answer to this question more than obvious. The UFW represents at its core the kind of workforce empowerment that cannot be stage-managed by the front office. The union of Cesar Chavez historically represents activism and advocacy, not just charity.


Despite "environmentalist" Mackey's rhetorical compost about how he has created a company guided by a "shared fate" corporate culture, one in which the hourly worker and the top executive walk hand-in-hand toward the bountiful sunrise of a sustainable future, the vision of a genuinely empowered  workforce, organized in a grassroots unionization drive as they did in Madison, represents more a dreaded vision than a democratic dream.


Is your coffee fair to Third World farmers? It's a good question. But so is asking whether your "socially responsible" grocer is fair to its own low-paid employees or those who work on the farms and in the factories that supply many of the high-priced foods and other products enjoyed by "green" shoppers.    

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