Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Whole Paycheck, the Healthcare Debate, & What Michael Pollan Said

I've been following the Whole Foods dustup following CEO John Mackey's statements on his views on healthcare and the resulting boycotts.  Nice touch quoting Maggie Thatcher.  Here's what sustainable ag. advocate Michael Pollan {sister of Tracy Pollan, Michael J. Fox's wife} had to say in  The New Majority::
"John Mackey’s views on health care, much as I disagree with them, will not prevent me from shopping at Whole Foods. I can understand why people would want to boycott, but it’s important to play out the hypothetical consequences of a successful boycott. Whole Foods is not perfect, however if they were to disappear, the cause of improving Americans’ health by building an alternative food system, based on more fresh food, pastured and humanely raised meats and sustainable agriculture, would suffer...
So Mackey is wrong on health care, but Whole Foods is often right about food, and their support for the farmers matters more to me than the political views of their founder. I haven’t examined the political views of all the retailers who feed me, but I can imagine having a lot of eating problems if I make them a litmus test."
I wasn't the first to point out the flaw in Pollan's logic, in that the objective of the boycott is not to see Whole Foods go down in flames, but to exact change.  Pollan also comes dangerously close to reifying Whole Foods as a linchpin of the building of an alternative food system.

Boycotts tend to be conducted by those of higher socioeconomic status and tend to be influencers of others.  I see no problem with consumers exercising their voice in the marketplace.  While Pollan may be frustrated with the idea that CEO Mackey's views on healthcare might hurt farmers in sustainable food production, you cannot divorce the organization from the identity.  I don't make up the rules, but that how brands work.  Mackey's statements were "off code" to a segment of Whole Foods shoppers, creating cognitive dissonance...their values ≠ the brand identity of Whole Foods.  We don't like being in a state of dissonance, so Whole Foods shoppers in this state of being upset by Mackay's healthcare statements have two choices:: {1} change their values or {2} turn on the brand.  Values are hard to change...

Pollan's a bright guy, but I don't think he gets at all the idea that people in the Bay Area {he lives in Berkeley} often make choices based on values even when it inconveniences them.  I try to go to the Berkeley Bowl or a local chain, Andronico's, before hitting Safeway or Albertsons.  I must admit in Toronto where I usually have to carry groceries home, I tend to just go to the Rabba or Metro {Dominion}.

Consumers are not going to parse the statements by the CEO and the identity of the brand into two separate judgments.  Mackey's the face of the Whole Foods brand and he's out of touch with quite a few of the over 32,000 members of the Boycott Whole Foods Facebook group.  Arguably, some of those members may be trolling the group.

The problem is that Pollan is often one-note.  He analyzes things through a single lens and every so often gets hammered for elitism.  When news of higher food prices came out last year, Pollan quipped::
"Higher food prices level the playing field for sustainable food that doesn't rely on fossil fuels."
This is a gross oversimplification, something that Pollan sometimes falls prey to.  Food pricing is subject to market forces and volatile commodities markets {Anna Lappé, founder of the Small Planet Institute in NYT article}.  He also assumes that there won't be a reaction to this through cost-cutting efficiencies by large-scale conventional food producers and processors, given that the bulk of the food dollar spent by consumers goes towards various marketing and logistics functions.  Raising prices isn't the way to get the masses to adopt sustainable foods.  That is done by raising consciousness of its meaning.  What Mackey and Pollan are missing is that meaning matters...the meaning of Obama's healthcare and the meaning of sustainable food.

So, to come full circle, it's not surprising that Pollan doesn't see the point in a Whole Foods boycott.  He ignores the social relations of production and, frankly, he thinks too much like an economist.

Twitterversion::  #SustainableAg advocte #MichaelPollan chimes in: #WholeFoods boycott. CEO Mackey&Pollan don't undrstnd consumr behaviour. @Prof_K

Song:: Mouthing Off (Featuring 4-Ize) - Ludacris  "Entitled to your opini-um/Into the next millenium/So many major coins that I thought I had a millio-um" lyrics

1 comment:

Kenneth M. Kambara said...

"Waiting for Michael Pollan to write about fucking already." MGG

Amen, sister!