Capitalism with a Conscience?: Whole Foods Market and the Complications of Caring

Whole Foods Market (commonly known as Whole Foods) emerged from the merger of two natural food stores in Austin, Texas, in 1980. It has since grown to become one of the largest organic and natural grocers in the United States. Whole Foods is considered to be on the leading edge of the “capitalism with a conscience” trend in business which has a somewhat nebulous definition; it considers stakeholders in the business to not just include investors but also employees, the locality, the environment, and customers as part of a holistic community that the business operates in. This has become a new buzzword in business strategy in the past few years; however, the notion, at least with the history of Whole Foods and the rise of organic grocers, is part of a much larger trend in U.S. history.

Whole Foods emerged out of the interests of the 1960s counterculture, which was increasingly seeking out natural alternatives to conventional food pathways. Whole Foods, seeking to differentiate itself in a highly competitive food retailing industry, has helped establish organic produce as the ideal, and has used social responsibility as a core component of its business, particularly by refusing to sell foods with unhealthy and unnecessary additives, like food coloring or artificial sweeteners. Whole Foods is seen as a premium retailer because their unique offerings typically come with a higher price tag, but consumers often justify the cost because the food is seen as healthier, the item supports a local industry, or because of fair trade initiatives, for example.