Whole Foods Market had a rough year in 2015, with slowing same-store sales and a faltering stock price. Co-CEO John Mackey said media coverage—including widespread mockery over a jar of “asparagus water” priced at $5.99—didn’t help.

Anyone who’s every shopped at the store knows that it’s not cheap and doesn’t pretend to be. Signs around the store point to what’s being promised for your money—not just high-quality products but ethically produced ones. In a 2008 paper for Theory and Society, sociologist Josée Johnston examined this “citizen-consumer” model that encourages us to vote with our dollars for a better world.

Johnston wrote that ethical consumption became a matter of concern for many people starting in the 1980s, tying together worries about the environment, animal welfare, local farms, and workers’ rights. The notion has often gone along with an anti-corporate ethos, but corporations have responded by trying to incorporate this sentiment into their brands. Most supermarkets now offer organic products and shade-grown coffee, but Whole Foods may be the most prominent example of this effort.

In some ways, being a citizen-consumer is more attractive than being a citizen of a democracy. Johnston quoted Milton and Rose Friedman making this case in 1980: “When you vote daily in the supermarket you get precisely what you voted for, and so does everyone else. The ballot box produces conformity without unanimity; the marketplace, unanimity without conformity.”

But Johnston argued that this emphasis on choice—always central to consumerism—is in tension with the concept of citizenship, which, by definition, involves the responsibility to behave in socially desirable ways. For Whole Foods, offering a wide variety of choices means that many products on the shelves don’t live up to the ethical standards the store’s marketing promises. It’s easy to buy products that are non-organic, produced with no particular concern for farm workers, and, in some cases, almost comically wasteful. Johnston noticed at Whole Foods Market raspberries flown in from Chile, heavily packaged pre-made meals, and ready-to-freeze spring water cubes in plastic packaging. And while she found better information about the products’ origins than in most supermarkets, she also noticed confusing displays that prominently declared support for local growers even though no local produce was actually available.

Aside from any hypocrisy or flaws in Whole Foods’ model of ethical consumption, Johnston wrote that the citizen-consumer model is simply not up to some tasks. For example, shoppers can avoid farmed salmon, which spreads fish lice and depletes wild fishing stocks, if they’re willing to pay double for wild fish. But only a regulator can prevent over-fishing.

There’s no doubt that shoppers can find food that is more environmentally friendly and otherwise “ethical” at Whole Foods in comparison to other supermarkets. But Johnston suggests the notion of voting with our dollars may also have a harmful side, particularly if we see it as an alternative to voting with our ballots.

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Theory and Society, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Jun., 2008), pp. 229-270
Springer