Whole Foods Boycott: The Long View

Rick Watts, 49, protests outside a Whole Foods store in West Hollywood, Calif. last month. The protest took place after John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods Market, wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal about health care reform. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

GUEST BLOGGER: Lawrence Glickman

Whole Foods chief executive John Mackey wrote a piece in The Wall Street Journal last month advocating health care reform but arguing that new health-care entitlements were not the answer. He proposed ways to achieve reform without expanding the government and with greater emphasis on individual responsibility. Some consumers took issue with Mackey's views, creating a web site, Boycott Whole Foods, and arguing that his piece suggested "healthcare is a commodity that only the rich, like him, deserve." A boycott of Whole Foods has gained some momentum, with a Boycott Whole Foods Facebook page at last count numbering about 30,000 followers.

How effective are consumer boycotts?

We asked guest blogger Lawrence Glickman to weigh in. He is author of "Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America," just released by University of Chicago Press. A professor of history at the University of South Carolina, Glickman co-edited, "The Cultural Turn in U.S. History," a collection of essays providing a perspective on U.S. cultural history, which was released in February by University of Chicago Press.

The company's customers were famously progressive. They assumed that the company shared their values. But when the company's leader made clear his antipathy to one of their core beliefs, consumers were shocked, describing the situation as "utterly incredible" and "incongruous." Some quickly called for coordinated consumer action to weaken the company.

I'm not describing the boycott of the Whole Foods Company. Instead, I refer to a protest against Consumers' Research, a product-testing organization that attracted thousands of members when it was founded in the late 1920s. In 1935, however, workers staged a strike when the company refused to recognize their union. Many thousands of Consumers' Research members, feeling betrayed, cancelled their membership in solidarity. Many of them turned instead to a new organization formed by some of the organization's disgruntled workers: Consumers Union.

History, as the familiar saying goes, has a habit of repeating itself. In the past few months, this has been the case especially in the area of consumer politics.

We have seen a "tea party" craze, a movement that began with protests against taxes and evolved into demonstrations on issues from health care reform to the national debt. Boycott campaigns have also sprung up across the political spectrum. Right-wing commentators, contemptuous of the federal bailout of U.S. auto manufacturers, have called for a boycott of General Motors. The African-American political advocacy group Color of Change has called for an advertising boycott of the Glen Beck show on Fox television to protest his comment that he believes President Obama is a racist.

In the past several weeks, the Whole Foods protests have brought to mind the 1935 revolt at Consumers Research, which was dubbed the "Strike in the Temple of Consumption." As an organizer on the Boycott Whole Foods web site declared: "Whole Foods has built its brand with the dollars of deceived progressives." Aggrieved Consumers' Research members said virtually the same thing.

Boycotts are part of the fabric of American political culture. Although the word was not coined until 1880, they have been an American political tradition since colonial days when British settlers, breaking from royal domination, refused to consume English tea and other goods.

Most boycotters recognized the futility of pricking the conscience of the businesses they opposed, choosing instead to wield influence through what nineteenth century boycotters called the "pocket nerve." And, as a rule, protesters have sought to harm the bottom line of a business to force change -- change in the goods sold, change in how a company treats its workforce, change in how it interacts with the environment. As a chronicler wrote in 1886, boycotters aimed to force their opponents to "feel their shame in the only place they would be likely to experience such a sensation -- their pockets."

In the spirit of the American boycott tradition, Whole Foods nonconsumers are using their "buying power for justice," a notion popularized in a motto of the League of Women Shoppers, a depression-era activist organization.

Will they succeed?

Despite their frequency throughout U.S. history, boycotts have rarely achieved their intended goals. But two types of campaigns have won more success than others. Very local efforts, typically concentrated on a particular small business, with specific and concrete goals have brought some change. For example, the 1930s, African Americans refused to shop in stores that refused to employ black people in a "don't buy where you can't work" campaign. Often these demonstrations forced employers to integrate their workforces.

A very different type of boycott also has succeeded: national campaigns that seek to bring political or economic issues into the limelight. Perhaps the most widespread boycott in history was in support of the United Farm Workers who sought better pay and conditions. A poll in the early 1970s found that 17 million Americans had stopped buying table grapes in this nationwide boycott that ultimately brought growers to the bargaining table.

Even failed boycotts sometimes have surprising long-term consequences. In the early 1900's, African Americans in twenty-five Southern cities initiated boycotts of segregated streetcars. Most of these campaigns were short-lived, unsuccessful, and lost to history. Yet they marked an early step in the campaign against segregation, which culminated in large measure with another, successful effort -- the most famous boycott in the history of the United States: the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and 1956. That movement not only ended Jim Crow transportation in that city but brought the Civil Rights campaign to the forefront of the nation's political agenda and moral consciousness.

Without the early failures, we might never have seen the later and celebrated successes.

By Steven E. Levingston |  September 2, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Steven Levingston
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Harris Teeter and Bloom are better anyway.

Posted by: bs2004 | September 2, 2009 10:58 AM

I don't understand the controversy. Who cares what the CEO thinks? I admit that the whole editorial was a pretty dumb PR move on his part, given that WF's typical customers tend to be affluent, progressives in urban areas. However, he's not the owner; it's a publicly held company! As long as WF is paying and treating its workers fairly---and providing the consumer with great products, then I really couldn't care less what Mr. Mackey personally believes. While I don't subscribe to all his beliefs (I'm one of those typical WF shoppers), he brings up some good points. And at least he advances the conversation by proposing a solution, rather than harping on the same old talking points.

Posted by: amhass2002 | September 2, 2009 11:32 AM

Thanks for your interesting piece on boycotts! I wrote a blog entry about the Whole Foods boycott as well, but I also examined the issue of free speech. You can read it here:

The Health Care Debate Part 2: Mad About Mackey http://blogs.america.gov/bythepeople/2009/09/01/the-health-care-debate-part-2-mad-about-mackey/

Posted by: pegysus | September 2, 2009 11:52 AM

I never shopped at whole foods before. But ever since his article, I do all of my food shopping there.

Especially since Giant/Ahold seems to hate it's customers.

I also buy at Food Lion when I get the chance as well.

Posted by: Skeptic1 | September 2, 2009 11:54 AM

Why are these people surprised? Were the unaware that WF is a corporation?

Yes, WF has a different corporate ethos when it comes to business -- tyring to be "green," buying from smaller growers, etc. Basically, all they did was put their finger to the wind, saw that people wanted "green" and "organic" and marketed themselves that way. At the same time, they have bought a gazillion stores around the country, making them as much of a corporate behomouth as any other entity.

At the end of the day, they are still a corporation with a CEO. And no one shold be surprised when they act like it.

As PT Barnum said,"There's a sucker born every minute." And it looks like these outraged boycotters are the suckers.

Oh well.

Posted by: njacobs | September 2, 2009 11:56 AM

WF nickname is Whole Paycheck. Wegman's has better quality, selection and prices.

I always felt out of place at WF if I wasn't wearing Birkenstocks and my gf had shaved her legs and underarms!

Posted by: omarthetentmaker | September 2, 2009 12:11 PM

The thunderstorm of negative publicity and core customer blowback that Mackey created by his WSJ op-ed have damaged his brand beyond anything yet realized by the stockholders.

Aside from the healthcare debate which spurred the boycott initially, Mackey has opened a can of non-organic worms that have allowed negative stories about Whole Foods' greenwashing and foul business practices to surface and gain a foothold.

"Whole Foods Took Advantage of Our Family Cattle Ranch"


Stories like this -and there are many - have staying power and will add to the negative perception of the Whole Foods brand in the public eye. These revelations give customers a reason to abandon Whole Foods above and beyond the current boycott and for current impassioned boycotters to stiffen their resolve in exposing a company that has deceived them with shiny PR.

Posted by: dmonte | September 2, 2009 12:20 PM

The word that comes to my mind is fascism. It applies to the boycotter not the CEO.

From everything I read Whole Foods provides excellent products...but because he doesn't think like the boycotters, Whole Foods CEO is evil? and the boycotters should buy inferior products and support inferior businesses? Isn't that how the hated good-old-boys networks work?

Sounds like freedom of speech isn't too important to these boycotters. Where is tolernace for intellectual diversity?

Posted by: stevenvaughn | September 2, 2009 12:20 PM

You know, it's too bad he went off on that tangent about whether health care is a right, because his actual suggestions are worth considering.

Posted by: CalBears1 | September 2, 2009 12:20 PM

We shop at Whole Foods every week and will continue to shop there. I may not agree with every idea held and publicly spoken by the CEO, but he has a right to his opinions, and in our beloved country is encouraged to share them. If he was abusing someone with his opinions, such as his employees, or if he had the power to cause harm to the public with his opinions, that would be a different matter for me. But I don't see where he is bringing harm to anyone.

Posted by: jdVA | September 2, 2009 12:39 PM

Trader Joe's is better!

Posted by: chrismc28 | September 2, 2009 1:00 PM

I used to think, absent of any moral consideration, that a libertarian philosophy had some merit in that it advocated for more personal freedom to act in one's own interest and, therefore, benefit the whole society by increasing the general wealth. However, seeing libertarians operate in this social environment, I have come to the conclusion that they have no soul and are basically predators who wish to end up at the top of the heap without any consideration for those who they hurt on their way up.

The WF CEO is an example of this predatory practice and I, for one, will not support any action that promotes hurting the whole for the benefit of the few.

Posted by: queenofromania | September 2, 2009 1:05 PM

I will not shop at Whole Foods anymore. Trader Joe's will get business.

Posted by: LeftCoastNative | September 2, 2009 1:08 PM

for those of you who like a first hand accounting of whole food's practices...
it won't disappoint ...

Posted by: bogdonkey | September 2, 2009 1:09 PM

Whole Foods does not have "excellent products". Whole Foods has overpriced mediocrity targeted at those who don't know any better and think if its twice as expensive it must be better. Fruits that rot before they ripen, mushy, mealy, tasteless tomatoes imported from California at the height of the East Coast growing season, prepared foods drowning in canola oil, geegaws, booze, these are the Whole Foods inventory.

Safeway and Giant are better then Whole Foods. Wegmans leaves Whole Foods completely in a pile of dust. In Logan Circle I miss the old IGA more then I would miss Whole Foods.

I also question if Whole Foods is so good to their employess why in the 10 years Logan Circle has been opened one never sees the same checkout cashier twice? Whole Foods is being exposed as the scam it has become.

Posted by: SoCali | September 2, 2009 1:44 PM

Oh please. The real progressives haven't shopped at WF in over a decade due to their predatory business practices.

And the "after the expansion" progressives gave up after the Wild Oats/New Seasons debacle (which only could have happened with good old Texas clout during a particular presidency).

The folks who are jumping on this bandwagon are those who have chosen to shop at WF in spite of some really evil business practices. I suspect that a good many will continue to shop there because they want to. Maybe they are just looking for a reason to stop paying so much for their food?

Posted by: JustGoAway | September 2, 2009 1:47 PM

I love the idea of all the right wingers flocking into WF to support the anti-"socialist" WF CEO. I hope they wear their "God, Guts and Guns made America great" buttons.

I won't be there. Embracing the N'Obama! crowd is dangerous and I can't support that.

Posted by: thebobbob | September 2, 2009 1:52 PM

"The company's customers were famously progressive. They assumed that the company shared their values. But when the company's leader made clear his antipathy to one of their core beliefs, consumers were shocked, describing the situation as "utterly incredible" and "incongruous." Some quickly called for coordinated consumer action to weaken the company."

The funny thing is, if companies in general didnt believe and participate in the Capitalist System (Versus Socialist or Marxist) these liberal Kool-Aid drinkers wouldnt even had a Whole Foods to shop at...

Very amusing ;)

Posted by: indep2 | September 2, 2009 1:56 PM

Ha! I'm glad to see there are others who call it Whole Paycheck.

Posted by: JoshHamilton | September 2, 2009 2:00 PM

I shop at WF, but only if I can't find what I need at the local FARMERS' MARKETS and the local, employee-owned FOOD CO-OP.

Posted by: CellBioProf | September 2, 2009 2:16 PM

Be careful CellBioProf, your local food co-op could be WF next target. It wouldn't be the first time WF deliberately put a successful beloved local business under.

CSA, co-ops, and Farmers Markets really are the way to go, but takes a lot more thought and effort than most people want to put into food.

Posted by: JustGoAway | September 2, 2009 3:07 PM

stevenvaughn wrote:
"The word that comes to my mind is fascism. It applies to the boycotter not the CEO.

From everything I read Whole Foods provides excellent products...but because he doesn't think like the boycotters, Whole Foods CEO is evil? and the boycotters should buy inferior products and support inferior businesses? Isn't that how the hated good-old-boys networks work?

Sounds like freedom of speech isn't too important to these boycotters. Where is tolernace for intellectual diversity?"

Oh please; there's no freedom of speech issue here. The CEO of Whole Foods is entirely entitled to say and write anything he wants. I don't know of any customer who argues that he doesn't have that right. But Whole Foods' customers also have the freedom to choose where they want to shop and spend their money. They can choose to shop elsewhere because they think there are better values to be found, or for any reasons at all, including that they don't like the color of the logo, or they don't like the political opinions of the CEO, or of the cashier on aisle 3.
Do you suggest that consumers be forced to patronize establishments for any reason, whether ones they agree with or ones they don't agree with?

Posted by: yrral | September 2, 2009 3:11 PM

The type of healthcare recommended by the CEO of WF was what I had when I first started in business in the late 60s. You had an initial $100 to $200 deductible before any coverage kicked in. Then it was 80% up to $1000 max out of pocket, and 100% coverage after that. And remember, we are talking 1968 dollars here!!!
That resulted in coverage that was low cost for the employer and did not encourage overuse of services (the "all you can eat" effect). It would never cause anyone to file bankruptcy because they got sick, but they also forced you to put some skin in the game if you wanted to use your health care.
Today, "everything for free" is still not enough for some people. That is, of course, as long as you are using someone else's money.
Democrats are very big on spending other peoples money. And why not - after all, being a Democrat means never having to actually pay your taxes!!
I am proud of the WF BUYCOTTS springing up nationwide, but I know that Pravda here will never cover that story!!

Posted by: SkiMan | September 2, 2009 4:05 PM

Shop at Jewel, Dominicks, or any other chain that has a UNION. WF only cares about the bottom line. It's about as socially conscious as DICK CHENEY.

Posted by: longwalksinparis | September 2, 2009 4:23 PM

Guys like Mackey and the CEOs on Wall Street go torch this economy and the middle class... then whine like babies when Obama gets them wet putting out the fire.

Posted by: longwalksinparis | September 2, 2009 4:35 PM

Boycotts have nothing to do with free speech. The people who are angry with the WF CEO have every reason to boycott, whether it was silly of them to believe that the CEO agreed with them in the first place. The purpose of a boycott is to bend a service provider to the will of the customers, whatever that will may be.

Eh, Americans can't pull off a boycott properly anyway. Boycott was a British absentee Irish landowner whose tenants boycotted him (refused to work or do any business with). The Irish are excellent boycotters. Very tenacious. However, as Mr. Glickman said, boycotts tend to only work when they are local.

Posted by: em15 | September 2, 2009 4:38 PM

Progressive dollars built Mackey’s Whole Food brand and made him very wealthy and very powerful, which gives him a very big soapbox to voice his opinion, which he has every right to do.

However, I also have the right to decide not to put my hard earned dollars into a company that uses them against healthcare reform and to share with others why. How else can average citizens be heard, especially when we are fighting a huge lobby with billions of profit at stake?

A lot of twisted misinformation floating around and this is derailing the debate and the possibility of meaningful reform. We need an honest discussion devoid of propaganda and rooted in facts. And what Mackey has done is essentially help add fuel to the rumor fires and merely given all the same old talking points from the insurance industry. His extreme market based proposals are not new and if you consider how the current private insurance system is failing us it’s absurd that he suggests we go farther in the the direction that has already failed us.

I can't get the soapbox Mackey has. So, I'm boycotting with others for the chance to have my voice heard.

Posted by: 729zoom | September 2, 2009 5:52 PM

I am going to Whole Foods more often now. I look forward to having fewer smelly hippies in the stores. Good riddance to Ted Kennedy and the hippie trash.

Posted by: bug45 | September 3, 2009 2:01 AM

"The word that comes to my mind is fascism. It applies to the boycotter not the CEO."

Can we get beyond calling people who have opposing views Nazis or Fascist? It is so over the top and not even close to reality. Does this guy even know what a facist is?

Also the "boycotter is against free speech" argument doesn't hold any water. Macke has a right to say what he wants, but when he writes the opinion as founder of Whole Foods in the WSJ then he also has to be responsible for its effect. With rights come responsibilities. In this case he is responsible to WFMI shareholders. If he offends a loyal customer base and that has a negative effect on same store sales he should go.

If the CEO of Walmart published an op-ed peice in a national newspaper about how the government should fully fund abortions and that more people need to have them, would that not offend Walmarts customer base? Would that not cause protests? Would you consider those pro-life protesters facist? Shouldn't that have an effect on the CEO status with Walmart?

Posted by: PatrickNonTeabagger | September 3, 2009 2:34 PM

"The word that comes to my mind is fascism. It applies to the boycotter not the CEO."

That is because you don't know what fascism means. Fascism is the total, systematic control of a society by a government, usually one with a nationalistic, militaristic ideology.

Citizens boycotting a company — no matter who they are or what it is — have nothing (Nothing!) to do with fascism.

At least for people who believe that words are supposed to convey actual meaning and are not just dolled up expletives that can be used to salt weak arguments.

Posted by: alexismadrigal | September 3, 2009 4:49 PM

I can buy products I'm ashamed of privately; but publicly buying products from corps that devalue me and my community? I can leave off and exchange tips with foodie friends on how to make our food better and less costly, down the street, round the bend, at the farmer's markets.

When we go into Whole Paycheck, we read the crazy prices aloud to each other and whoever else listens. If there is any single piece of produce you buy that is not quite perfect. Just take it back for a refund. Oh, and we always read our receipts, since they used to nearly always have errors-- always in WF's favor, never in ours.

Posted by: falasifa | September 3, 2009 10:37 PM

Don't shop at Whole Fraud. You can do better!

Posted by: tmaffolter | September 4, 2009 1:17 AM

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