The Eco-Myth of Trader Joe’s

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Trader 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.”

Source: Sustainable Industries

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