It seems that everyone aspires to be a Whole Foods Market shopper, based on all the excitement at Amazon’s decision to lower prices.
I’m not in the habit of defining “affordable” or “healthy”. I believe that people have to come to those definitions on their own, choosing what makes the most sense economically and ecologically.
That said, I’m cautious about jumping on the Amazon/Whole Foods Market train. As a previous Whole Foods Market employee, reluctant customer, and longtime good food advocate, I invite you to consider the cost to those whose jobs it is to get food to the supermarket.
Full Disclosure: I’m an Amazon Prime member as well as an Amazon affiliate. I may make a commission on any sales made through the links you click on from this site. I also shop at Whole Foods Market. No company (or person) is above scrutiny, even myself. As a citizen, as a human being, you reserve the right to be critical of the spaces you occupy and the places you spend your money.
Food producers and foodworkers at every link in the food chain are underpaid and undervalued. They work really long hours, often in unsafe working conditions, with pay that barely covers basic needs, especially those with children.
Food producers, especially small-scale food producers, are consistently required to lower their unit costs just to get shelf space at grocers such as Whole Foods Markets. It can be challenging to maintain sourcing and product integrity when you want to create a high quality product but also make money.
While food costs may seem to high to you, USAmericans actually pay the LEAST of their income on groceries.
You can shop wherever you please, obviously, but where and how you shop is not just a reflection of your budget, but about your values as well. Lower costs to you the consumer may mean slashes in pay, hours, and cutting corners. It remains to be seen how Amazon’s takeover will affect the customer experience and standards that Whole Foods Market has prided itself in maintaining.
[Amazon’s] incredible ability to hoover up consumer loyalty and market share is why markets reacted the way they did to the news of its acquisition of Whole Foods. Stocks for other grocery stores and businesses that have moved into the space dropped dramatically on the expectation that they would soon face intense pressure to drop prices in order to lure customers. So did stocks for food suppliers themselves on the assumption that they, too, would have to cut prices to appease Amazon and get on Whole Foods’ shelves. Stocks fell again after news broke that Amazon would indeed slash food prices on Monday.
Yet Amazon has thus far mostly avoided antitrust scrutiny for one crucial reason: It undercuts prices. Rather than use its position of influence to drive up profit through higher consumer costs, its business model has emphasized scale and market share over larger returns, and part of how it got there was by forcing prices as low as it could.
It is this very feature of Amazon’s business model, however, that makes it such a predatory actor for everyone else around it. It uses its influence in online shopping to pressure suppliers to dramatically drop their prices, wringing as much discount from their margins as it can. It pushes for practices in supplier warehouses that have become notorious for the ill treatment of workers—but that model helps it deliver cheap goods incredibly quickly, and few suppliers can refuse to participate.
These practices could spell danger for a variety of American workers. Amazon’s ownership could pose a risk to the smaller local farms that have thus far supplied food to Whole Foods if they can’t deliver at cutthroat rates. One place they and other food producers may look to cut: wages for workers. As David Dayen has pointed out, thanks in large part to decent wages and benefits Whole Foods employees aren’t unionized in an industry where most are. That, too, is put at risk by an owner that’s focused exclusively on low prices and quick service, both within Whole Foods’ walls and at other grocery store workplaces that now have to compete with it.
If we’re going to make food more affordable, whatever that means, we’re going to have to have some difficult conversations with ourselves about what food is and what it costs not just just for us (eaters) but the people who make it all possible to visit a supermarket and choose from over 100,000 options, year-round, regardless of the season.
We’re going to have to reimagine a food system that prioritizes people over profits. In the meantime, don’t forget that you actually have choices that are just as convenient and possible even more budget-friendly than it Amazon/Whole Foods Market. I invite you to check out these options for yourself.