Whole Foods, Whole Planet, but Half Hearts?


The goal for an employee is to work at a great place, where they are respected and can grow their career. On another level, many people want to work for a company that contributes to society in a positive way. But do those two circumstances happen together? And is a company that respects their employees and builds their community always ethical? There isn’t an exact formula to this question, because it’s complex and circumstantial.

Whole Foods Market has been a highly respected since its start. It prizes itself on being focused on a healthy diet and lifestyle. All employees are benefited with 20% off store purchases, and 30%, if they enroll in a healthy lifestyles program. In addition, employees are given memberships to a gym! They hire a range of employees, with 44% being minorities. In addition, Whole Foods was #55 on Forbes’ List of ‘100 Companies to Work for.” Not only do its employees enjoy working at World Foods, many environmentalists praise it for selling mostly local, sustainable, and humane food. On the whole, most people would agree that Whole Foods respects its employees and also betters the community.

Recently however, it was discovered that Whole Food’s Tilapia is prison –raised in Colorado Correctional Industry’s fish farm. The ethical problem surrounding the prison workers is the lack of labor rights and they are paid a meager $1.50 an hour. the question raised by many stakeholders is this socially responsible of Whole Foods? Also, does this one act make it unethical? In my opinion, Whole Foods is still socially responsible. But this incident definitely shows the true colors of Whole Foods, if they can earn more profit (the tilapia is cheaper to buy) then they will, even if it means they are cutting some ethical corners.

But the real question is how many times can a company cut ethical corners, until it is unethical? Whole Foods never openly stated where the tilapia was from because of loose federal regulation on prison farm products. So the company figured that customers would never hear of the true origins of their tilapia. In addition the company responded to the tilapia issue by stating, “no other national grocery store or fish market has standards like these.” Therefore justifying their actions by showing that although there practices aren’t ethical, they are more ethical than all the other markets. This is similar to Apple stating that although they had labor rights issues, they are better than most other technology companies. Just because one company is ethically better than rest in it’s industry, does that automatically make it an ethical company?

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6 thoughts on “Whole Foods, Whole Planet, but Half Hearts?”

  1. I think sometimes we are very concentrated on thinking that businesses are evil that we don’t see both sides of the argument, so I would give Whole Foods the benefit of the doubt regarding the tilapia issue, since maybe Whole Foods itself didn’t know where exactly the tilapia came from. If they certainly didn’t know, then it becomes less of an ethical issue and more of a regulation of suppliers issue that won’t affect the ethics of Whole Foods overall. But, if they knew where the tilapia was coming from and the labor conditions that went into its production, then this becomes an issue of ethics, not just oversight. I don’t think you can measure ethics in terms of its severity or add up several different unethical acts until you decide that the overall package is unethical. I think that one unethical act that is performed knowingly just makes the overall company unethical.

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  2. Sasha, I think most of what Whole Foods does is great, particularly for employees in roles that don’t require a lot of education and training. Couldn’t you argue Whole Foods is actually helping the Colorado Prison System by purchasing fish from them, and enabling prisoners to positively contribute to society instead of wasting away behind bars?

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  3. I would argue that Whole Foods could be seen as socially responsible for their actions with the Colorado Correctional Industry because they are taking advantage of the people there. I do not think it is fair for the workers to be paid $1.50 because that would be seen as exploiting the workers in Third World countries. If Whole Foods wants to be socially responsible then they should do it 100%.

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  4. I don’t think a company built on an ethical image and strategy has to be 100% ethical or else loose its claim to ethical identity.

    He fish farming is troubling. Is that farm undercutting real producers?

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    1. Yes it is a farm undercutting real producers. It allows Whole Foods to buy it really cheaply and sell it a normal price, so the profit margin is huge.

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  5. Generally, I think the overall picture is more important than small ethical mishaps. However, in this case, Whole Foods could be seen as helping the corrections industry. I wonder if there are other instances of Whole Foods lack of social responsibility.

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