This presentation will offer a historical analysis of Whole Foods Market’s involvement in the GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) crisis to show that an obligatory ethical decision concerning the crisis was very likely and perhaps even predictable. It will also be proposed that Whole Food Market’s decision in response to the crisis was an ethical one. Last, it will be suggested that a more efficient means to ethical decision making could have been attained if marketers at Whole Foods Market would have employed a virtue-based ethical theory.
This article is a reproduction of a graduate ethics project completed by the author for a degree requirement at Southern New Hampshire University.
An Analysis of Whole Foods Market’s Ethical Response to the GMO Crisis
During the first month of 2011, a Forbes’ contributor likened Whole Foods Market’s involvement in the GMO (genetically modified organism) crisis to that of the convicted parties in the Watergate scandal. The journalist postulated that the grocer had defected “from the organic movement to join forces with Big Ag” (James, para. 1). This article contained only circumstantial evidence that WFM (Whole Foods Market) had accepted “hush money” (para. 3) from one of the most despicable corporate citizens, Monsanto. However, leaders in the organic industry, as well as informed consumers, demanded that the company respond to the allegations by taking a hard stance against food products containing GMO ingredients. Below, Whole Foods Market’s history of involvement in and decisions pertaining to the GMO movement will be outlined. It will be concluded that Whole Foods Market’s eventual response to the GMO crisis established them as a corporate leader in ethical decision making. Last, an alternative method of handling the ethical decision will be explored.
The GMO crisis is almost as old as Whole Foods Market itself. In fact, it was only six years after the opening of the first Whole Foods Market that “a few major agrochemical-biotechnology companies, led by Monsanto, approached senior policy makers in the Reagan administration and requested more-restrictive regulation” on genetically modified seeds (Miller, 1998; Eichenwald, Kolata, & Petersen, 2001). According to Henry I. Miller, a Robert Wesson Fellow at Stanford, Monsanto’s intentions in requesting an increase in regulations was to use it “as a market-entry barrier to competitors – in particular, seed companies and biotech startups – that were less able to bear the high costs of unnecessary regulation” (1998, para. 3). This was the first of many meetings with Monsanto and leaders in the White House during the last decade of the twentieth century, wherein the country’s leaders would repeatedly give the biotechnology industry curious preferential treatment (Eichenwald, Kolata, & Petersen, 2001).
Meanwhile, the founders of Whole Foods Market spent the final years of the twentieth century establishing itself as the largest and most influential authority in the natural and organic food industry and a promoter of ethics in agriculture. By 2012, the grocer had grown from one store and a staff of nineteen (Whole Foods Market official site, Whole Foods Market History section, para. 4, 2013) to more than three hundred stores and 25,000 full-time employees (Chanil & Nielsen TDLinx, 2012). Moreover, the company stated on its official website that its mission was to “seek out the finest natural and organic foods available, maintain the strictest quality standards in the industry, and have an unshakeable commitment to sustainable agriculture” (Whole Foods Market, Company Info section, para. 1). Considering Whole Foods Market’s massive growth and its stated commitment to maintaining strict standards in the natural and organic food category, perhaps it could have been predicted that the grocery chain would find itself at the center of the GMO crisis. In other words, as the self-indentified leader in providing ‘the finest natural and organic foods,’ Whole Foods Market was naturally expected, by consumers and organic activists, to take a hard stand against food products containing genetically engineered ingredients.
Although Whole Foods Market’s response to the pressure from consumer activists was strong at first, there were signs that the company had irresolute moments. In 1998 Whole Foods Market “publicly stated its opposition to GMOs and promised that its ‘365’ house brand would be GMO-free” (Cummins, 2009). And, in 2009, the company claimed it had been working for more than five years to “come up with a way to truly verify our efforts to avoid Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in our private label products,” which culminated in Whole Foods Market’s commitment to the Non-GMO Project (Dickson). However, a year later, the company’s relationship with organic consumer groups became strained. Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association claimed that Whole Foods Market strong armed two of its major donors into dropping their support in retaliation for publicly questioning the grocer about its commitment to the non-GMO movement (OCA, 2010). Furthermore, as mentioned in the introduction of this presentation, in 2011 Whole Foods Market was criticized in the media for its public “support for the so-called ‘coexistence’ of organics with genetically modified (GM) crops” (Mercola, 2011).
And, perhaps the most concerning to consumers was Whole Foods Market’s noticeable absence in a August 2012 list of endorsers of the California Right to Know bill, Proposition 37. Proposition 37 would have required that foods containing genetically modified ingredients be clearly labeled, so that California consumers could make informed decisions (Mercola, 2012).
Despite these setbacks in Whole Foods Market’s involvement in the GMO crisis, the day before the state-wide election, Co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, Walter Robb, posted a short video and blog post proclaiming that, while the California Proposition 37 was not perfect, he was going to vote for its passage into law (Robb, 2012). Additionally, Whole Foods Market joined forces with other socially minded organizations and donated funds to promote bill, which eventually failed at the ballot box. Nevertheless, Robb’s public support for a bill that was opposed by the very food producers that Whole Foods Market sells in its stores was foreshadowing of the company’s impending ethical response to the GMO crisis. In March of 2013, Whole Foods Market announced that all products being sold in its stores that contain genetically modified organisms would be required to have a GMO label by 2018 (Polis, 2013). Six months after this commitment, the company released a video that discussed Whole Foods Market’s labeling initiative and offered “strategies that shoppers can use right now in our stores if they want to avoid purchasing products that contain GMOs” (Brady, 2013).
Whole Foods Market’s decision to be the first of all major grocery chains to require its suppliers to implement GMO labels is a very bold and ethical decision. On one hand, this groundbreaking response to the GMO crisis clearly helps establish the company as a leader in corporate ethical decision making.
Nevertheless, critics have argued that the decision took over a decade to make, and the company only made the decision after polls indicated that 82% of Americans were in favor of GMO labeling (Polis, 2013). In Ethical Marketing (2005), the authors suggested that this reactive approach to decision making should not be used as an ethical guidepost (p. 31). So, as ethical as Whole Foods Market’s eventual decision was, it is worth exploring an alternative approach to analyzing the GMO crisis, as suggested by the authors of Ethical Marketing.
While it would be inappropriate to assume what lengths were taken internally at Whole Foods Market to analyze whether or not it should require mandatory labeling of all GMO-containing products, it does certainly appear, from an outsiders perspective, that this decision was finally made only after there was a public out-cry for it. The authors of Ethical Marketing recommended an alternative to this approach wherein marketers employ a virtue-based standard for decision making.
This comprehensive theory of ethics would have required the marketers at Whole Foods Market to focus less on its consumers and suppliers and more on the question, “What kind of organization should we be?” (p. 31). Proponents of this ethical theory stated that because there is a “great diversity of virtues” that exists in society, corporate ethical decisions should be explored within the corporation as a self-contained organization. This principle is not to be confused with the concept of making decisions based solely on the needs of the organization. Point of fact, a virtue-based ethical approach requires that decisions be made “for the good of the community” and ultimately be, as the philosopher Aristotle suggested, “other-directed” (p. 34). Ergo, as the self-proclaimed leader in the natural and organic food industry, Whole Foods Market could have accurately predicted that an ethical decision concerning the GMO crisis was inevitable. Accepting this fact quickly could have driven marketers at Whole Foods Market to implement a virtue-based theory to efficiently analyze the decision based on the organization’s corporate vision and its passion for the betterment of the communities it serves.
An in-depth historical analysis of Whole Foods Market’s involvement in the GMO crisis was offered above to show that a necessary ethical decision concerning the crisis was very likely and perhaps even predictable. It was also proposed that Whole Food Market’s decision to require mandatory GMO labeling was an ethical one. Last, it was suggested that a more efficient means to ethical decision making could have been attained if marketers at Whole Foods Market would have employed a virtue-based ethical standard.
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