The Eco-Myth of Trader Joe’s

| 5/14/2010 12:40:08 PM

Tags: Environment, Trader Joe's, food, organics, private labels, Cornucopia Institute, Sustainable Industries, Danielle Maestretti,

Trader Joe's tomatoesTrader Joe’s is widely viewed as a “green” company, attracting droves of eco-minded consumers who view its cozy, Hawaiian-themed stores as a cheaper alternative to Whole Foods or the neighborhood co-op. But as Sustainable Industries points out, it’s difficult to know how sustainable its operations really are—the company is “notoriously tight-lipped” about where its store-brand products come from.

A report on organic dairies from the Cornucopia Institute, a sustainable-agriculture watchdog group, warns consumers to be vigilant about the explosive growth in these sorts of “organic” store brands. Private-label organics like those in Trader Joe’s “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 report states. The Trader Joe’s brand of milk, for example, claims to be organic—but it won’t disclose which dairies it buys from. Ditto for the soybeans it uses in its brands of soy milk, tofu, and other products. And a recent report found that its store brand of veggie burgers are made using hexane-extracted soy protein.

“It’s a delicate balance for Trader Joes’s,” notes Sustainable Industries, “because while its customers want low prices for ‘natural’ grub, typically part of the value customers get out of Trader Joe’s is not just that its prices are low, but that they’re low for products that are perceived to be of high value.”

On a few occasions, customers have demanded certain standards: Widespread requests for cage-free eggs and GMO-free foods have been met throughout the company’s stores—according to Trader Joe’s, at least. “Neither claim is backed by a third-party auditing mechanism,” according to Sustainable Industries.

The company did recently agree to revamp its seafood policies, after a lengthy campaign by Greenpeace to get red-list fish out of its stores (“Traitor Joe’s”). Trader Joe’s has already removed the highly endangered orange roughy and red snapper from its shelves, and promises to “phase out” other frowned-upon fish by the end of 2012.

That’s a solid sustainable step—but if Trader Joe’s is going to live up to its reputation, it’s got a lot of fancy frozen meals and bags of trail mix to account for. For now, “customers are accepting that ignorance is bliss,” writes Sustainable Industries. “After all, it’s what keeps the prices low and the Two-Buck Chuck flowing.”

8/3/2016 8:31:04 PM

jamfhall1, if you see this: Please get that chip off your shoulder ( ... TJ says we "do not have the demographics" they're looking for. ... I refuse to shop at TJ let alone drive 40 miles to ANY pretentious retailer.). ....... "Demographics" is a neutral term, not a judgmental one. NASCAR is hot in some areas but not others; likewise opera music; likewise water parks; likewise acupuncture; likewise ANYTHING. TJ is just saying, "Hmmm, looks like the folks here are not that interested in buying organic or international foods, so we won't make enough money to justify building here." That's it! That's how every business proceeds. ....... There used to be two high-end department stores (Lord and Taylor; Saks) not far from my parents' house, but there weren't enough interested consumers in the area, so both closed. Recently, Aldi -- a no-frills, low-cost grocery store (and the parent of TJ) -- opened a few miles from where the Saks was 20 years ago. Times change, the economy changes, and the DEMOGRAPHICS of every area change. That's life.

Andres Llano
4/9/2013 1:17:20 AM

Well, at least they give their employees a living wage and good benefits unlike Walmart, Papa John's, and all those other companies with greedy CEO's that spew "economics" BS to keep their hundreds of millions which they claim are "in danger". Please! gimme a break, if these CEO's really think we're that dumb they're gonna have it coming. And if Trader Joe's becomes a shitty company just like the ones above over the years, oh well, time to do research and move on. There will always be a young, green idealist who cares about employees that will start a new trend.

Donald Macleay
12/3/2012 3:50:18 AM

Are those fresh veggies grown locally?

Shari Peterson
10/25/2012 2:58:44 PM

If older employees can handle the work they can work there. TJs doesn't fire you the minute you turn 50, it fires you if you can't handle the work (stocking is grunt work and it can be hell on your back and that is why it is geared toward younger people who are in better shape). People have back injuries usually because they are not fit - they do not build muscle to protect their tendons and joints and whatnot and then when they lift something heavy they pull something as there is no protection there. Unions are just another Goliath machine here to chew us up and demand their pound of flesh. Don't think people don't care about you - we do, it's just an objectivity that is key. Be more personable and move up to cashier or some other position where you are not lifting if you are not physically cut out for that role (you can't expect a company to adjust to you when you can't do the job - it's illogical, you are hired to do a job, do it). Just don't make excuses, please, it doesn't help your case.

Iskie Myers
10/23/2012 7:12:01 AM

Work at Trader Joe's is heavy manual labor, as Ms. Wisehart (pseudonym?) does not appreciate. There is an unacceptably high of serious injuries, especially back injuries, among employees and management blames the employee whenever anything happens. There's a reason that TJ's workers (with our obligatory smiles) are mostly so young -- TJ's wears us out before we reach middle age or retirement age, and does its best to push older employees out. But customers like Ms. Wisehart wouldn't care about that. If I had the chance, I would sign up for a union at my store, but won't have the chance. Four years ago when Obama was running for president the first time, TJ's had the captains of of all of its store read a sternly worded antiunion letter to the employees.

9/18/2012 3:37:49 PM This says Amy's does not use hexane...

Mark Gardiner
5/31/2012 2:02:44 PM

In my book "Build a Brand Like Trader Joe's" I explore the disconnect between Trader Joe's own stated value of 'integrity' and the way it handles environmental and supply-chain responsibility -- I also explain how it is that the stores devoted fans (yes, you could almost call it a cult) overlook those issues. There's a lot to learn from Trader Joe's, which is a company that is doing a lot right. Unfortunately, one lesson corporate America can take from it is, you can build a great brand while doing a lot wrong, too... More at my web site, TraderJoesSecrets

1/4/2012 7:01:12 PM

"Trader Joe's (and Whole Foods) tend to get a free pass for their anti-labor practices." Meaning what? that they are not unionized? You don't have to be in a union to get good pay and benefits from an employer. It is not like you need to be in a union or you will get shafted or exploited, we have labor laws in this country that apply to non-union labor as well as union labor. And it's a grocery store - it is not like you are asking people to risk their lives as a non union employee. If this is what allows them to be competitive and get me the products I want for affordable prices then I say way to go! The big chain stores are unionized and they don't sell anything that I want to put in my body, much less my 2 year old, so tell me how the union is a good thing for grocery stores? Seems like the big chains have to offer cheap crappy food in order to pay for their expensive union employees. Unions are important in industries where the work is risky, or people can be easily exploited, but a grocery store?? I love Trader Joe's I get 98% of my groceries from there with the remaining occasional 2% from WFs. It may not be perfect, but I am not rich enough to have the luxury of buying "perfect" food, I have to make due with better than big chain GMO chemical ridden meats and produce and dairy.

3/3/2011 12:23:07 AM

I grew up with TJ's in So Cal. Many years later I live in SF and still occasionally shop there. They have this supposed local kind of vibe but in fact a good portion of their goods come from Malaysia, Thailand, Canada, India, Europe. And I'm not talking about those ethnic foods from those countries. How is that eco friendly when you import almonds, cashews, walnuts, etc. from Thailand when CA is one of the largest growers of all of these? I sent a letter to the headquarters of TJ and got a scripted reply about "how we search the world for great value and quality"...they seriously said that..It used to be kind of quaint to shop there because they were this funky import company. Now to fill their mega growth they outsource their goods just like any other growing corporation. Kinda sad.

2/25/2011 4:42:51 PM

Yes, when it comes to produce, TJ is not the way to go.

Mark A. Kastel_2
8/20/2010 1:04:02 PM

When we first did the research and produced the organic dairy scorecard, rating all organic dairy brands in the US, (available at: ) we had a 90% participation rate from all name brands …. and 0% from private-label supermarket marketers. However, a couple of years ago Whole Foods was the first retailer to contact Cornucopia and tell us that they were now willing to release confidential business information enabling us to verify the sourcing of their milk (exclusively from family-scale organic farmers -- not factory farms!. There now are a number of other major grocers, from California to North Carolina, who have shared this information and obtained good ratings in the study. We believe that transparency is the hallmark of the organic movement. For that reason, in general, private label organic products are an oxymoron. We applaud the retailers who have stepped out of that paradigm. We hope readers will consult the scorecard and vote in the marketplace for the brands that support protecting the environment, fair treatment for family farmers and the humane treatment of their dairy cows. Mark A. Kastel Senior Farm Policy Analyst The Cornucopia Institute Cornucopia, Wisconsin

6/30/2010 12:49:31 PM

I live 40 miles from the 3 nearest Trader's Joes here in NorCal. Here, TJ is the place to "see and be seen" like Chili's and Applebees. Many locals have petitioned TJ in one form or another build here but TJ says we "do not have the demographics" they're looking for. This was in the local newspaper. So, people drive the 40 miles just to say "Hey, I shop at TJ too." I refuse to shop at TJ let alone drive 40 miles to ANY pretentious retailer. I prefer to keep my unwanted demographics where they're wanted. The City Council keeps begging us to shop local and I do. TJ doesn't want to build here but they'll keep taking the money from the people who drive from here to there!

Karen Curl
6/9/2010 5:23:27 PM

I was informed by a local store owner in my area, that his son brushed death. He lives in CA. and become very ill. At the hospital the professionals could not find anything physically wrong. The determination was a gross cases of food poisoning. It will be months on the road to recovery for this 20 something young man. His only place of grocery shopping is at Trader Joe's.

5/24/2010 9:34:17 PM

@Steve Thorngate: Can you explain to me precisely what anti-labor and green-washing practices Whole Foods is involved with? I'm sorry, but that sounds like the typical tar that the OCA deceptively throws at them.

5/23/2010 11:58:12 PM

I worked for Trader Joe's for a long time and I have a couple of comments to pick up on. 1st- yes, the signs are handmade. Trader Joe's is cool if for no other reason than that it employs otherwise unemployeable art majors to sit around and do nothing but draw all day in the back of all TJ's stores. 2nd- There is no way you can accuse Trader Joe's of sinister anti-labour mischief. It is consistently ranked among the best companies to work for, and for good reason. Full benefit coverage including vision and dental for employees working just 20 hours a week (and it's dirt cheap too) raises every six months, and just generally a structure of hiring awesome people, so that you have the rare experience of actually liking all of your managers. On top of that they stuff you full of food like every day. They definitely know how to keep employees happy. That said, to the actual point of the article. I was excited to read the headline because I've watched the products in the store change and move more toward weird shelf-stable lasagnas and spaghetti o's and I started wondering how eco or granola would this store actually look if all the cute private labels were swapped for the actual labels of the manufacturers. I imagine it would lose a great deal of it's glamour, when the Joe's O's turned out to simply be a box of Cheerios. But this article kind of just opened questions without answering them, and wags a finger without any concrete crimes. More research and this could be interesting

Sorrel Stielstra
5/21/2010 11:56:31 AM

You can look up where your milke comes from here:

5/21/2010 10:31:52 AM

We shop almost exclusively at Trader Joes. I have friends that work there and I know farmers/producers (family that works for an organic dairy that they buy from) that deal with them. First off, if you've ever taken the time to notice, almost all of the "plastic" trays they use for their produce (they use recycled cardboard here in CA for most stuff) are actually compostable PLA. Sure the shrink wrap isn't good, but neither are the plastic bags that you would put the produce in anyways. Those that I know that deal with them say they are one of the best companies to sell to. Whole Foods is actually the worst. The people I know that work there love it and they get compensated well. Even in this recession they were still receiving raises every 6 months or so. The reason their prices are so low compared to other chains is because they keep their stores small and don't have 2 dozen brands for one item, therefore keeping their overhead small. This also helps them reduce the amount of wasted food that goes unsold. I can understand why they are tightlipped about where they get their food. As mentioned before, it would hurt their suppliers if it's known that TJs sells their stuff so much cheaper than other stores.

5/21/2010 10:19:06 AM

skath, I have a friend that is an artist for one of Trader Joes' stores. I can assure you that all of those labels are hand drawn, as are their chalkboard drawings.

Steve Thorngate_21
5/18/2010 11:23:48 PM

Along with the greenwashing, Trader Joe's (and Whole Foods) tend to get a free pass for their anti-labor practices. Meanwhile, most of the conventional grocery chains are unionized--along with offering numerous products just as eco-conscious as much of what Trader Joe's and Whole Foods have to offer.

Shannon _2
5/18/2010 1:04:59 PM

My initial reaction was what the writer intended: I can't believe Trader Joe's would be so sneaky! But really, no store will release info on it's private label, as it is considered competitive information. Try getting that info from Whole Foods or even PCC. I have a problem with Trader Joe's excess packaging as well, but they don't make claims about that. And generally speaking, they seem to try to continue to move in the direction of carrying more organic options, encourage reuse of grocery bags, etc. I imagine competitors of Trader Joe's are frustrated that they are able to price so effectively. In repeated analysis, they by far beat prices, even on identical organic items, from other sources in town. Several foodies have commented that their generic chocolate is higher quality than big names like Godiva. I'm all for good quality at low prices, especially when it seems to me that there are increasing numbers of organic options available. I'd suggest as consumers we make suggestions around the packaging and for some reason I feel like we might see a response. Trader Joe's is our favorite place to shop taking our health- as well as wallets- into consdieration. Not for everything. But for what they do well.

5/18/2010 12:00:05 PM

Yes TJ's should reveal more about the origins of its food, and it should also try harder to cut down on the excessive plastic packaging used for many products. However, revealing the origins of products can damage some producers' sales in other markets. Many products are sold under brand names in other stores for significantly higher prices. They must go through a series of distributors who mark them up along the way, and then they compete with other companies' similar products on the same shelf when they finally arrive at the store. Also, Ms. Maestretti, please investigate your hexane-slinging a bit more. MANY food products are processed with chemicals which do not remain in the food. The "Cornucopia Institute" sounds far more shadowy than Trader Joe's, in spite of its self-labeling as "a sustainable-agriculture watchdog group." @1, Randa Kayyali: countries of origin are clearly stated, so you should know when you're buying Israeli cheese.

5/18/2010 11:57:08 AM

Regarding this post: Randa Kayyali 5/18/2010 9:30:17 AM I am concerned with TJ's use of Israeli dairy products, especially their feta cheeses. Many European countries have banned Israeli goods for production under un-fair trade terms, and for the apartheid conditions that separate Israelis and Palestinians. ******************************** May I remind Randa and other readers that Israel developed Copaxone, perhaps the most effective drug to stave off Multiple Sclerosis symptoms used by millions internationally, including those who disagree with Israel's politics. Israel has developed numerous heart-saving procedures that have kept both Jew and Arab alive. So go ahead and concern yourself with Israeli feta cheese, but the reality is that all mankind is benefiting from Israeli medical innovation.

Randa Kayyali_2
5/18/2010 9:30:17 AM

I am concerned with TJ's use of Israeli dairy products, especially their feta cheeses. Many European countries have banned Israeli goods for production under un-fair trade terms, and for the apartheid conditions that separate Israelis and Palestinians. This cheese may be produced in illegally occupied land (i.e. East Jerusalem, the West Bank or Gaza), but it does not have to included in the labeling. US consumers and companies should be considering these issues when selling and buying Israeli products. TJs does not.

5/17/2010 3:25:13 PM

Trader Joe's is a straw man, a red herring. It's set up to look kind of like a coop, smell like a coop, BUT. It's owned by the biggest food retailer in the world, the Wal-Mart of food, Aldi. I'm convinced it's a calculated, deliberate attempt to drain the momentum out of the coop movement (because people will shop there for cheaper prices if nothing else), once the coop movement is weakened, they will pull the plug on TJ and we'll just be back to corporate food and food deserts. I'm a graphic artist and I've examined their cute little tags that look handwritten. They are preprinted. They probably set up the background at the home office and then imprint the prices every week on an inkjet printer. Easy to do with a hand-lettering type of font. I have several food intolerances and was told soy was a big offender for my illnesses; I hoped I could use organic soy milk since I'm cow milk intolerant. I had both Organic Valley soy milk and Trader Joe's "organic" soy milk tested, and Organic Valley passed and TJs failed. Trader Joe's is evil, don't let its plastic, faux caribe look fool you.

Heather in WA_1
5/17/2010 2:14:52 PM

Trader Joe's is not a health food store per se, nor a truly green business, that's for sure. But they do some things very well that other stores don't even bother with. I don't like all the shrink-wrapped styrofoam trays of meat and poultry, so I choose not to buy those items at TJs. (I get it from a local butcher who can tell me exactly which nearby farm my chicken came from). But here's what I like at Trader Joe's: they encourage you to bring your own bag, and I'd say more than half the shoppers at my local store do. Our local store donates generously, on a daily basis, to the local food bank. They require their employees to perform community service. Many of their "prepared" foods and meals contain minimal ingredients, especially compared to name brands. You won't find a lot of chemicals, preservatives, artificial colors, corn syrup, or fillers in their foods. I love Trader Joe's, but I do realize they have flaws, just like everyone. They are a niche market appealing to a broad spectrum. The stores are small in scale and offerings, but numerous in locations. Environmentalists can find things there that are good, and Junk Food Junkies can feel welcomed, as well. As in any consumer experience, it's important to take your values with you and continually evaluate your choices.

Gary Ashcraft
5/17/2010 1:49:08 PM

Harry Trueman said "the only things new is the history we've forgotten" Until we re-read our history books and rediscover the Populist Movement things will only go from bad to worse. Form CO-OP's cooperative ventures of every stripe is the only way to have any confidence or control over any aspect of your lives. Credit Unions are nothing more than CO-OP's in a business suit. Go to and see how you are being played for chumps with your own money by the guys that took us down. They even used your money to buy the politicians (republican & democrat) that helped them do it. Money is the drug and you keep giving it to them (all THEM to sound like a conspiracy theorist). Vote with your feet and change your world. Till then stop complaining you are part of the problem.

JH in CA
5/17/2010 1:13:32 PM

Trader Joe's is also know for pushing supplier margins so low that farmers can make little profit. This is so the consumer will get a "fair" price. Food prices can never be "fair" when the growers, who do all the most important work, are making the lowest profit margin along the food supply chain.

Carol in MA
5/17/2010 11:30:20 AM

I like a lot of what Trader Joe's does but I agree that Green is not an obvious objective. My experience here in Massachusetts is no double-bagging and incentives to bring your own bags, but the packaging of Trader Joe products reflects no attention to sustainability.

Nicole _3
5/17/2010 9:32:49 AM

I've always questioned Trader Joe's perceived environmental image versus its reality. Tomatoes in plastic containers that more typically hold pastry? All of the single serving pre-portioned carrots, nuts, etc. But the most obvious red flag is how their clerks automatically double paper bag. Ever been there during high traffic times? It looks like a massacre of forests, as oblivious shoppers roll shopping carts overflowing with double bagged paper bags to their cars, feeling good about all the yummy healthy "meals" and snacks they just bought. The reality is, most of the people who shop at Trader Joe's know nothing about the supply chain issues that create the arguments for "organic" and healthy food. They're looking for a healthy quick meal, snacks that will make them feel "guilt free" in relation to weight, or have only heard the headline arguments and are concerned about their personal health. Whether it's Trader Joe's or Whole Foods, the majority of these shoppers are interested in these issues only as far as it pertains to their own personal health, not the impacts on the community and greater world. If they knew better or really cared about the issues this chain would have been accused of greenwashing ages ago, and I wouldn't be the only one on line at rush hour who brought their own bags.