Teach Us, Trader Joe: Demanding Socially Responsible Food

Conscientious consumers have held the boutique grocery to high standards, and we've seen progress that speaks to the efficacy of our continued vigilance across food markets.

The latter half of the 20th century witnessed a change in the concept of food: American consumers have come to expect a great deal more from their food system -- from nutrition and taste to the water in which it once swam. Orange roughy, for instance, is currently an endangered species and also on the Greenpeace Red List for seafood to avoid consuming due to overfishing. Until recently, though, one could buy it for a modest price in any Trader Joe's grocery store.

In 2010, after taking heat from Greenpeace, Trader Joe's pledged to sell only seafood products that had been harvested using sustainable practices by December 2012. Since then, it has been on a steady mission to eradicate all non-sustainable products from its shelves, including genetically modified items. This, combined with its boutique-like items and Hawaiian shirt-clad staff, make it one of the most innovative grocery stores around. It offers exceptional products at an affordable rate. That said, though "green-friendly," its efforts fall short of being categorically "green."

Factoring in that Trader Joe's is wildly more affordable when compared to luxury grocery stores such as Whole Foods or Andronico's, the balance strikes a chord with a new generation of shoppers that expects a lot out of their grocers. But what, exactly -- besides environmental activism -- contributed to this shift in message? And what do Trader Joe's recent efforts reveal about the future of food access and consumption in this country?

***

Founded as a small chain of convenience stores in 1958, the brand that we now know as Trader Joe's wasn't angled towards "healthy" or "sustainable" products. The name was changed in 1967, and the original Joe -- Joe Coulomb -- made the stores bigger, adorning them with the nautical decor and cedar planks that we've come to associate with the brand. He stocked them with convenience-store items and good alcohol, and at one time the store boasted the largest assortment of California wine, according toFortune. Trader Joe's would later become renowned with college-aged kids everywhere for carrying the $1.99 Charles Shaw label, affectionately known as "Two-Buck Chuck."

Now owned by the ultra-private Albrecht family in Germany, the store boasts over 365 locations and has estimated annual sales of $8 billion (roughly the same as Whole Foods). It boasts one-of-a-kind items ranging from white cheese popcorn and Thai lime and chili cashews to raw blue agave sweetener. Though not considered a "health food" chain, it does offer an array of gourmet and organic products.

As Stew Leonard Jr., CEO of grocer Stew Leonard, told Fortune, "It takes customers out of the purchasing process and into a decision-making process."

Unlike Whole Foods, which has built its brand on healthy and natural foods, Trader Joe's stocks some healthy items, but is primarily known for their tasty and affordable products. Their friendly customer service also fosters a unique sense of trust among customers. According to Apix Partners, millennials (persons born between 1982 and 2001) are 23 percent less likely to value food brands in their purchasingdecisions and 18 percent less likely to shop at traditional grocers than their baby boomer parents. Whereas Whole Foods sells a luxury shopping experience and local farmers markets provide the opportunity to truly "know your food," Trader Joe's marries cult appeal with scale. It demonstrates that healthy does not have to mean all or none.

Having a Trader Joe's in your neighborhood is something of an affirmation that you belong to a cultured, informed community of shoppers. But who is left out of this cultural experience?

Trader Joe's describes their mission as a simple one: Great food + great prices = value. And they have stayed ahead in the grocery market by catering to Americans' increasingly curious palettes by bargaining down items and purchasing products that people can buy in bulk.

***

Amid all this success, the store's commitment to eco-friendly practices has received criticism beyond sustainable seafood. In 2012, environmental advocacy group Greenpeace created a mock website, TraitorJoe's, which called for the immediate end to the sale of endangered species including Chilean sea bass, red snapper, and orange roughy. The Atlantic also covered the controversy over Trader Joe's reluctance to sign the Fair Food Agreement to address allegations of mistreatment of migrant tomato pickers. The store eventually relented this past February and signed the agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a labor rights group made up mainly of Latino, Haitian, and Mayan Indian workers employed in low-wage migrant jobs in Florida. The agreement requires Trader Joe's to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes and to ensure better working conditions for laborers.

The exact figure for the number of organic and/or sustainable products sold in a standard Trader Joe's is unknown. It is against employee policy to give these figures to the public, and representatives of its corporate headquarters are equally (if not more) tight-lipped.

Trader Joe's has since pulled all red-listed items from its shelves, and its public commitment to stocking more sustainable and non-GMO items indicates a positive step for a branch that has heavy cult influence. Even Wal-Mart, which serves a lower-income demographic than Trader Joe's, is following suit: The store has generated a lot of publicity since drafting a corporate policy to buy seven percent of all its fresh food from within 150 miles of its regional warehouses. But these "boutique" efforts raise important concerns about those individuals for whom "healthy and natural'' is not an option.

While the principles of the local and organic food movement represent the ultimate goal for many consumers, that goal remains largely out of reach for low-income households. One of the main barriers to access to nutritious food continues to be transportation, which has been historically linked to the marginalization of poor communities from access to healthy, locally grown food at affordable prices: Many of the poor neighborhoods in this country are simply too far from fresh food markets, and many don't have a grocery store at all.

As Jonna McKone of the City Fix writes, this basic lack of access stems from a lack of integration between land use, transportation, and housing policy, as well as issues like redlining on the part of the supermarket industry. For many of America's poor citizens, it is far easier to get to a fast-food restaurant than it is to get to a grocery store, an issue that is directly linked to minority and disability status.

Societal changes -- in our family structure, workforce, globalization of markets and culture, and advances in clean technology -- make it a particularly challenging task to ensure that the complex food and farm system works to all Americans' satisfaction. And Trader Joe's philosophy appears to reflect changes in the food movement, chiefly because of its emphasis on quality and affordability. But the store still caters to a small (and, for the most part, privileged) demographic. It has succumbed to requests to alter its "farming" and sustainability practices, and has pledged to dedicate itself to sustainable alternatives, after a vocal component of its consumer population demanded that it do so. Its decision to become one of the first stores to sign the Fair Food Agreement signals an awareness to better the lives of workers and consumers alike. This shift in thinking epitomizes the global trend in matching quality with affordability for the masses.

The gradual improvements at Trader Joe's, though promising, only represent one out of many grocery chains. Numerous access issues need to be part of the dialogue, issues that will only be addressed when more people are included in the process. It took years of advocacy from a high-income, conscientious customer base to get Trader Joe's to comply with this generation's fair food values. It is going to require an even greater effort on behalf of those less fortunate to provide access to nutrition at an affordable price. In grocer mission-speak: More people + more high-quality food = A better grocery store.