I remember when a Whole Foods Market opened up in my neighborhood in Atlanta. I was 17 or 18 and beginning to contemplate the impact of our food systems on the environment and our health. I couldn’t believe that there was a whole store dedicated to clean, humane, environmentally sound foods and products. It was my first glimpse of what Whole Foods CEO John Mackey eventually called “conscious capitalism.”

Years later, I became a member of the marketing team at Whole Foods and saw first-hand what it meant to be a part of a mission-driven, values-oriented retail business. I am now the community engagement coordinator at Portland Food Co-op, a company with similar values and a completely different business model.

In the wake of the Amazon buyout, I have been reflecting on what this will mean to the people on the value chain of Whole Foods – from farmers to vendors to employees to shoppers to communities. We don’t know all the changes that are afoot, but here are a few:

1. Prices are dropping.

2. Most decisions about product mix will now be made at the national Austin, Texas, headquarters instead of on the store and regional levels.

3. Vendors will no longer be allowed to directly promote their products to stores or regions or check to see if their products are being stocked and merchandised appropriately.


When I think about this short list, many questions come to mind:

While customers enjoy lower prices, will producers and workers be paid fairly?

Will local producers get the exposure they need to sell their products and connect with the community?

Will store employees get product education that they can share in a meaningful way with customers?

Will the current company culture be missed?

Will Whole Foods retain its core values, or has the brand been reduced to a feel-good facade?


Is this merger what people really want?

If not, could a cooperative business model have prevented it from happening?

Until the story unfolds, I can only speculate on answers to these questions – except for one. Could a cooperative business model have stopped the Amazon buyout? Absolutely. In fact, the reason Portland Food Co-op was formed by the community was that Whole Foods bought out Portland’s only locally owned natural foods retailer, the Whole Grocer.

Cooperatives are owned and controlled by the people who use them, not distant investors. All members have equal voting power. It is patronage that determines return on investment, not number of shares. In other words, serving the needs of the community is written into the DNA of a co-op.

For some time, Whole Foods had the lion’s share of the organic industry. Because of its tremendous success educating the public on the importance of cleaner food, household products and body care, consumers caught on, demand grew, and with it Whole Foods. This growth ultimately inspired lookalikes. Larger retailers began to carry the same products for less, and Whole Foods lost its monopoly. Now, the largest organic retailer in North America is Wal-Mart.

Amazon is no different from Wal-Mart. Its mission is not to bolster local economies, divest from child labor, improve workplace conditions or protect communities. Its mission is simply to spread into as many markets as possible, now including the brick-and-mortar grocery business. Although plenty of consumers love Wal-Mart’s massive selection and low prices, communities all over the country have fought, often successfully, to keep it and other big-box stores out of their sacred sites, landmarks, mountain views, forests and neighborhoods. With co-ops, this is a non-issue. When a community owns a business together, care for treasured spaces is built into the business plan.

If Portland Food Co-op didn’t exist, and if Amazon hadn’t taken over, I would still be a core Whole Foods customer. I jibe with the mission, I love the knowledgeable, attentive staff and grocery shopping there feels more like an outing than a chore. It’s not perfect, but up until this acquisition, Whole Foods has generally opted for quality over price slashing. I can get behind that. It is unclear the extent to which things will change with the buyout. Too bad I don’t have a vote.


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