Hunting for food that's nutritious, affordable, sustainable, and tasty takes some pluck, especially when those values compete. Fortunately, the increasing cachet of the environmental movement has driven eco-consciousness into more businesses than ever.
Most people at least have an opinion of Whole Foods, which is pretty impressive for what's purportedly just the eighth-largest food-and-drug store in the country. While having close to 350 stores in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. is nothing to sneeze at, consider that the nation’s largest grocer, Walmart, has more than 10,000 stores in 27 countries. (More on Walmart later this week.)
For all the “whole paycheck” jokes and link-baiting kerfuffle over co-CEO John Mackey’s recent capitalism/fascism comments during his book tour, Whole Foods has a pretty sterling green rep.
It’s hard to discuss the rise of organic foods' popularity without including Whole Foods.
As Lee Kane, Eco Czar and Regional Forager (actual title) for Whole Foods Market, puts it: “That’s who we are and what we’re best known for.”
The company’s other eco-driven initiatives include screening out products with GMOs, shooting for a minimum of 15 percent locally sourced products across all departments, and implanting an aggressive cull program that uses edible but not shelf-worthy perishables as ingredients in the prepared foods department.
But Whole Foods shoppers, Kane admits, mostly have an impact with just their dollars.
“There’s very little in terms of the environment that our customers control,” Kane said. “They don’t control the temperature in the stores, or the lighting in the stores. To some extent they control the music.”
So what can you do?
Kane says to buy from the bulk section to use less packaging and to have control over how much food you take home.
Getting just what you need can add up. Reconsider buy-one, get-one offers, for instance.
“Most people think, ‘I’m gonna get a bargain.’” Kane said. “They often don’t use the second one because they don’t need it. They don’t freeze it or do something to extend the life of it.”
Next up: Read the signs.
Journalist Michael Pollan of The Omnivore’s Dilemma has called shopping at Whole Foods a “literary experience.” While many of the grocery's packaged goods do wax bucolic on the labels, the store itself has a lot of in-aisle reading that can be useful.
Kane says to look for signage indicating local products. Signs mark individual items as well as whole sections, like, “There are 200 local items in this aisle.”
Whole Foods also posts the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI) scores for foods in every department. ANDI scores rate foods from 0 to 1000, with 1000 being most nutrient-dense. Healthier foods likely come with less packaging — consider the oft-trotted “Shop the perimeter” diet advice — likely just one aspect of healthful eating’s impact. Continuing its nutritional bent, the company also labels products that are part of its Health Starts Here program, which focuses on low-fat plant foods.
Whole Foods’s big signage success has come from its Eco-Scale system of rating cleaning products. The label rates items from green to yellow to orange, with red items not making the cut into stores. The very best, green-rated products have ingredients with no phosphates, chlorine, or synthetic colors, along with no petroleum-derived ingredients.
“The Eco-Scale has been a huge innovation, and it’s increased our sales pretty significantly,” Kane said.
For Whole Foods, “green” clearly has dual significance, but it’s not alone. Tomorrow, we’ll look into shopping green at a larger, regional grocer: Publix.
Mackenzie Mount is an editorial intern at Sierra. She's cleaned toilets at Yellowstone National Park and studied sustainable cooking at The Natural Epicurean Academy of Culinary Arts in Austin, Texas.