The Eco-Myth of Trader Joe’s

Trader Joe's produce

Shrink-wrapped produce at Trader Joe's

Stephanie Glaros

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It’s easy to get a green vibe from Trader Joe’s: Organic and “natural” products pepper the shelves of its cozy, Hawaiian-themed stores, as chalkboard signs enthuse about bargains on tempeh, arugula, and the like. But as Sustainable Industries (May 2010) points out, it’s difficult to know how sustainable Joe’s really is, since the company is “notoriously tight-lipped” about the sources of its house products.

There’s a fair reason to keep mum: The chain, owned by German mega-grocer Aldi, is protecting its edge. Yet private-label organic goods “seem to contradict what many thought the organic movement was all about: consumers understanding where their food comes from and how it is produced,” the Cornucopia Institute observes. Trader Joe’s sells organic milk, for example, but the chain won’t disclose its suppliers. Ditto for the soybeans used in its soy milk, tofu, and other products.

Customer requests for eggs from cage-free chickens and non-genetically-modified foods have been met, although neither the cage-free nor the non-GMO claim has been verified through a third-party audit, Sustainable Industries notes. The chain also has promised—after being dubbed “Traitor Joe’s” by Greenpeace—to phase out red-listed seafood by 2012.

For now, “customers are accepting that ignorance is bliss,” Sustainable Industries writes. “After all, it’s what keeps the prices low and the Two-Buck Chuck flowing.”