Whole Foods Market Whole Trade Guarantee: Behind the Label

whole trade

ColumnWhole Foods Market has been compared to heaven on earth. It’s not far off the mark. But what do all those labels and symbols mean? This edition of Behind the Label goes on a journey into Whole Foods’ Whole Trade certification.

The Good

If you haven’t yet set foot in a Whole Foods Market—even if eating healthy isn’t a priority for you—it’s worth a visit. For first timers, it’s kind of like strolling around the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria hotel even if you won’t be staying the night. Eventually though, most shoppers realize there are plenty of affordable products—products with quality ingredients and missions built on integrity.

That’s the core foundation of Whole Foods Market as co-founder John Mackey recently explained on an episode of Oprah Winfrey’s “Super Soul Sunday.” And the “Whole Trade” label is the distillation of his vision.

The Whole Trade certification is a proprietary label established and vetted by Whole Foods Market. According to the company’s website, the Whole Trade guarantee means products meet 5 requirements:

  • Meet our strict product Quality Standards
  • Provide more money to producers
  • Ensure better wages and working conditions for workers
  • Care for the environment
  • Donate 1% of sales to Whole Planet Foundation®

Because Whole Foods’ standards are extremely high, in places like Ecuador and Mexico, Whole Trade partners pay their employees higher than average wages and provide a quality work experience.

Whole Trade products help to support community development by building in funding models that go directly to the communities to decide how to utilize the money. Examples include vaccinations and other health care needs, education, computer centers, child care and food programs and many more programs decided upon by the communities.

This gives the workers incentives above and beyond their regular earnings and because the community gets to decide how to spend the funding, they’re motivated to ensure the business thrives.

Like all products sold in Whole Foods Markets, the Whole Trade guarantee means products are free from artificial ingredients, preservatives and other undesirable ingredients. These products may be certified organic, certified Fair Trade, or Non-GMO verified, but it’s not a requirement. These products must also use “sound environmental practices that encourage biodiversity and healthy soils,” the company says on its website. “While some Whole Trade products are organic; others respect our planet Earth using a variety of conservation methods or respectful wild harvesting. Third-party certifiers confirm specific criteria is met.”

To bear the Whole Trade guarantee on a product, there must also be a donation to the Whole Planet Foundation—the chain’s microlending program, which has already committed nearly $50 million in loans to more than 3 million people in 59 countries.

The Bad

The Whole Trade guarantee, as well-rounded as it is in its mission, is also reliant on imported products—peppers from Mexico, flowers from Ecuador, chocolate and coffees from all around the world, to name a few. While these products may be grown or produced in conditions that are creating stronger communities in the developing world, there’s the impact of transporting these products to the U.S. This means lots of fossil fuels to fly, ship or truck products into the country.

As a leader in working with producers around the world, could the Whole Trade guarantee also become a label for alternate fossil fuels? Could the brand look at how to make its importing process use a smaller carbon footprint? If Elon Musk can put rockets into space, surely Whole Foods can bring flowers to the U.S. without it being an oil-intensive operation. Wouldn’t it be something to see a partnership with Tesla Motors on all transportation needs for Whole Foods? That may be way off into the future, but hopefully it’s a goal the chain is already considering.

Virgin Atlantic is also working on the fossil fuel issue, and even won an award for its development of biofuel options, which would be quite useful in flying in fresh cut flowers and other commodities requiring air transport. “This is an exciting innovation and a great step forward for Virgin Atlantic’s ‘Change in the Air’ sustainability programme,” the company said on its website. “It’s also another good example of how carbon emissions can be seen as a business opportunity, not just a business problem.” If the developed nations of the world are keen on supporting growth in the developing nations, we’ve also got to look at solving this problem of fossil fuel dependence. It would take the sting out of importing and help to create a truly sustainable global economy.

Another issue is that many of the Whole Trade products are fruits and vegetables—produce that’s not in season locally (or never in the contiguous U.S., like pineapple). This means that local farmers have a harder time selling their seasonal foods. Many American farmers are struggling in today’s climate and economy. So, seeing pineapples from Costa Rica on sale when it’s plum season isn’t exactly the best case scenario for local foods. Creating a year-round season for foods that have specific growing seasons, like asparagus, peppers and melons, also doesn’t help consumers to understand their local produce season. Whole Foods is often the first step to a healthy diet for customers and teaching them that peppers are a year-round commodity is not dishonest, but it’s not necessarily the most forthcoming approach either, even if there are signs that indicate country of origin. Still, making high quality, fresh produce available year-round is a very good thing, and empowering developing world communities in the process is inspiring.

Some Whole Trade products are also processed—even if minimally so. A chocolate bar, cookie or popcorn are certainly not Oreos, Doritos or Snickers, but these products can include high levels of added sugars and salts. So buyer beware when pulling a Whole Trade item off the shelf, particularly if you have dietary restrictions. While it may be an indicator of a healthier supply chain, it’s not always an indicator of a healthier snack choice.

The Questionable

Whole Foods is a cut above the rest of the nation’s supermarkets. It offers more transparency than any other chain of its size, and commitments like the Whole Trade guarantee are certainly good things. But we do have to ask ourselves whether we need some of the products in our lives. Cut flowers make beautiful birthday or Mother’s Day gifts, but so do wild-picked ones. Do we really need to be flying in flowers from high up in the Ecuadorian mountains?

While the Whole Trade guarantee does work with third-party certifiers such as organic and Fair Trade certifying bodies, there is no party verifying Whole Foods’ Whole Trade stamp. Consumers have to just trust that the logo is a guarantee they can feel good about.

Often, but not always, Whole Trade products are sold as premiums—meaning they cost more even though there may be products sold for less that rival the quality and mission behind the Whole Trade guarantee. Those premiums are usually sent back to the communities to support the programs that make the Whole Trade label desirable, but for the budget-conscious shopper they may not be the best choice.

Still, when most other supermarkets are filled with unhealthy foods and products that rely on deceptive marketing campaigns, working towards a Whole Trade guarantee is huge step towards healthier economies and consumers.

Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Related on EcoSalon

Welcome to the United States of Whole Foods Markets: Is Organic Food Saving America?

Whole Foods Market, Trendy Vegetables and Food Gentrification: Foodie Underground

Whole Foods Market Goes Retro: Vinyl LPs for Sale (But are They Organic?)

Image via Whole Foods Market

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.