Sustainability Ethics and Whole Foods

Whole Foods Market has been a trailblazer in the food industry since its creation in 1981. Over the years Whole Foods has evolved and adapted to the changing landscape, but the one constant has been its steadfast commitment to giving their customers high quality organic and natural food. Whole Food’s standards for animal welfare, animal health and food security have typically far exceeded the standards of the FDA. Throughout the entire history of Whole Foods their policies have adhered closely to most definitions of sustainable ethics. Although there are many definitions of sustainability ethics, Whole Foods meets the criteria for the main points in the majority of them. One estimate found that there were over 40 different definitions for sustainability ethics. Although this ethical viewpoint may not bee the most clear cut in the ethical world, the Whole Foods case brings up some important questions of how a company should properly go about practicing sustainability ethics in their policies. Most definitions of sustainability ethics typically state that a company, person or entity should choose their actions based on their impact on ecology, society and the economy, while considering the impact of our actions on future generations. Although some critics mention that Whole Foods relies too heavily on “ethical consumerism” as their main positive impact, it is narrow minded to ignore the many other ways Whole Foods has moved the food industry forward to a better place. Whole Foods has benefited our society, environment and economy as it has sent ripple effects through the food industry to make it a better place for the world and its consumers.


In order to begin unpacking Whole Foods through the context of sustainability ethics, a working definition of sustainability ethics needs to be established. As mentioned above, there are many ways to define this, but I have chosen one that I felt was most suitable in getting the main point across. An excerpt from “The Ethics of Sustainability” defines sustainable ethics well in the following sentence. “Sustainability is commonly understood to require the balanced pursuit of three goods: ecological health, social equity, and economic welfare. It is grounded on the ethical commitment to the well-being not only of contemporary populations but also the well- being and enhanced opportunities of future generation” (Kiber, Charles). This definition is helps define the general set of guidelines companies should adhere too if they choose to make sustainability part of their goal. Ecological health refers to keeping our environment safe, including the wildlife within it. Social equity relates to having considerations for how your actions will impact society at large. Finally, economic welfare simply refers to how decisions have an impact on our economy and the people in it. Founder and CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey found the inspiration to create Whole Foods based on his “radical hippie” lifestyle. Now, thanks to his original vision and Whole Foods, those radical hippie ideals are now becoming more mainstream each year. Mackey firmly believes that Whole Foods has a responsibility to sell only high quality food that adheres to their strict standards. Ultimately, the goal is too push the entire industry to strive for better than the average FDA standards. Mackey’s beliefs are all reflected in each aspect of the company, thus, it’s easy to understand why Whole Foods has such sustainable practices throughout their business. His long-term stakeholder approach to business allows him to think about the impact his decisions have on the bigger picture.

Whole Foods has numerous policies that reflect sustainable ethics across their business. One of their most notable practices is their belief in animal welfare. It all starts with the 5-step animal welfare rating. Each producer or farmer that supplies Whole Foods must be evaluated based on the way they treat their animals (Appendix A). This initiative was launched in 2011 and has great success. Starting at step one, a farmer or supplier must have no cages crates or crowding for their animals to help ensure basic health. Each step up to 5+ makes the standard even higher for the suppliers. By step 5 the animal must spend its entire life on the same farm with a pasture and “enhanced outdoor access”. This ties into the definition of sustainability ethics mostly through the lens of environmental impact. In terms of ecology, this practice ensures that the animals are treated well and don’t have to endure lives of pain and suffering before they are slaughtered. In addition, the quality of the food that comes out of these practices serves our society and economy. In 2003 Mackey took criticism from animal rights activist Lauren Ornelas and eventually heeded her advice to improve their animal welfare practices even further (Koehn, Fowler). This demonstrated the ability of Whole Foods to adapt to changing times and new ideas. In addition to the 5-step rating, Whole Foods has also banned the use of antibiotics for their animals since the very beginning. They also do not promote the use of growth hormones. This standard was far ahead of its time and predated any official regulations for antibiotics by several years. FDA standards do not mandate criteria nearly as extensive as these. Secondly, in terms of social equity and economic welfare, these practices help create a society of people who are eating food that is better for them and for the environment. Farmers who do things the right way are rewarded for their work by getting contracts with stores like Whole Foods and are able to continue their business. These farm and meat quality standards have been in place in some way since 1981. As the years went on Whole Foods only raised the bar. Interestingly enough, Whole Foods has been concerned about animal welfare and sustainable practices longer than the FDA has. Although there were some small strides made for the organic movement over the years, it wasn’t until 1992 that the FDA created its first board of standards for organic foods (Koehn, Fowler). The Whole Foods animal welfare and meat quality practices are a strong testament to their sustainable and ethical approach to their business.

In addition to their well-known animal welfare practices, Whole Foods has a host of other policies that further reflect their commitment to sustainability ethics. One of the cornerstones of Whole Foods is their commitment to organic farming. Whole Foods only works with farmers who elect to farm without pesticides. In addition, Whole Foods does not use GMO products in their stores. Their meat, egg and dairy products must have non-GMO feed. Therefore, Whole Foods doesn’t even allow their animals to eat GMO products. This would be an easy way for Whole Foods to cut corners and cut costs by allowing their animals to eat GMO products, but Whole Foods firmly believes that they should not contribute to the problem of GMO’s in any way. This practice is ethically sound through the lens of sustainability ethics because even at the most basic level, Whole Foods sticks to their guns. Despite the advantages of GMO’s in creating longer shelf life and greater store profitability, Mackey and Whole Foods resist the urge to have short-term financial gain at the expense of future generations and our environment. Sustainability ethics revolves around making decisions that “meet(s) the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED). In the eyes of many, GMO’s and pesticides could be a major threat to the future ecological health of the planet. There could be many unforeseen consequences for using GMO’s and Whole Foods doesn’t want to take the risk and find out what those consequences may be. Not to mention, their practices of low executive pay, as well as environmental stewardship through numerous environmental projects and practices in their stores. Once again, Whole Foods demonstrates the ability to take into account ecological, societal and economic considerations in each of their decisions.

Although all of the practices listed above seem like plenty to get the seal of sustainability ethics approval, some critics see Whole Foods in a slightly more critical lens. A few critics claim that despite Whole Foods having many sustainable practices, their main function is simply as an aid for ethical consumerism for elite customers. Josee Johnston mentions in her article something called the “citizen-consumer hybrid”. In her article she asserts that consumerism is inherently a self-interested practice, and that ethical consumerism is not as noble as it is made out to be by some. Johnston notes her confusion while checking out of a Whole Foods by wondering, “Am I acting as a consumer looking our for my own self interest in artisanal cheese and slow-rise bread, or am I a citizen supporting local agriculture and the “whole planet” through my shopping?” (Johnston, Joseé). Although I do not agree with Johnston’s main claim, she has a solid point. She later mentions Bill Pollan’s opposition to Whole Foods on the grounds that Whole Foods is “contributing to the rapid corporatization of an increasingly unsustainable organics industry” (Johnston, Joseé). Sadly, it seems that in our society corporatization is an inevitable evil that will be created when any industry becomes the norm. Despite strong arguments from Pollan and Johnston, I believe that Whole Foods and the organic industry have made our society better for future generations.

Despite some opposition to Whole Foods and the organic movement, Whole Foods has been an instrumental part in moving organic and sustainable food forward. Whole Foods has its fair share of critics, but Whole Foods and their practices have helped allow organic foods and sustainable food practices to grow and evolve into our society. In 2003 Mackey took criticism from animal rights activist Lauren Ornelas and eventually heeded her advice to improve Whole Food’s animal welfare practices even further. This attitude of constantly looking for ways to improve has been a constant in the history of Whole Foods, as their standards have become better and better each year. Whole Foods simply started off in a niche market because so few consumers felt the need to buy food that was more expensive simply because it was organic. As time passed, people began to realize the positive impact of buying sustainable organic food. Although not all present day customers of Whole Foods shop solely because of the impact it may have, their dollars truly help move the cause forward, regardless of a customer’s intention. Whole Foods found a way to, “attract(ed) mainstream consumers, many of whom would not have set foot in natural food co-ops” (Koehn, Fowler). I believe that the Whole Foods model works in the present day because of Mackey’s belief that, “a bigger market for Whole Foods meant a bigger impact for organic, regardless of who the customers were” (Koehn, Fowler). From 2004 to 2014, organic foods sales went from $10 billion to 40 billion annually (Appendix B). Sure, there are certainly issues to be fixed within an industry that has grown so rapidly. It’s hard to maintain excellence and adherence to sustainable ethics as growth is occurring at such a rapid rate. As John Mackey showed with his reaction to Lauren Ornelas’ critique in 2003, it wouldn’t be surprising if Whole Foods took this minor criticism and used it to improve the company going forward. Despite these concerns, the overall net result of what has happened is surely a positive one. The light has been shone on the dark underbelly of the past of the food industry and many companies and consumers are striving for better standards. Whole Foods is built on the idea that the traditional food system did things the wrong way. If the system kept on going without any action, we would all pay the price. Although the organic food industry has a newer “big business” look, overall, we are better off for what has happened.

Sustainability ethics is obviously a bit blurry because there are so many ways to view it, but Whole Foods demonstrates multiple facets of this ethical viewpoint in their actions as well as the impact they have made in the grand scheme of the food industry . By not only meeting standards but also continually exceeding them, Whole Foods has helped raise the bar and created more popularity for organic food held to higher standards. Whole Foods now sees more competition in their realm than ever. Although this may be a sign of trouble for a typical company, this is merely evidence that Whole foods has been one of the driving forces in the movement to make our food safer and healthier for our people. In 2006 the largest retailer in the world, Wal-Mart, decided to launch its first ever-organic food initiative. When Wal-Mart decides to take a page out of your book, you know you must have done something right. In todays new age of more conscious consumption, organic foods are beginning to become more accessible to people with a variety of budgets. Although buyers with tight budgets may not be able to consistently shop directly at Whole Foods, their ability to now shop more affordably at other locations can be traced back to the humble beginnings of Whole Foods and the visions of people like John Mackey who believe that sustainability ethics aren’t an option, but rather a requirement in our way of thinking. As the organic food industry continues to grow and evolve, we can only hope people remember that the roots of this movement are based firmly under the umbrella of sustainability ethics.




Appendix A:


Appendix B:

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                                                                      Works Cited

Kibert, Charles J., et al. “The ethics of sustainability.” (2011).



Van Der Smissen, Liesbet. “The Value of Corporate Social Responsibility for Consumers.” Thesis. Hogeschool – Universiteit Brussel Faculteit Economie & Management, 2012. Print.


Koehn, Nancy Fowler, and Katherine Miller. John Mackey and whole foods market. Harvard Business School Pub., 2007.



World Commission on Environment and Development [WCED], 1987, article 27


Johnston, Josée. “The citizen-consumer hybrid: ideological tensions and the case of Whole Foods Market.” Theory and Society 37.3 (2008): 229-270.




Appendix A:


“Welcome to Global Animal Partnership.” Improving The Lives of Farm Animals Step By Step™. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2016.



Appendix B:


“OTA Launches 2015 Organic Industry Survey.” N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2016.




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