A popular SumOfUs.org petition is calling on concerned citizens to "Tell Trader Joe's parent company to stop killing whales with plastic waste!"
I love Trader Joe's, and I love whales. So when a link to the petition popped up in my newsfeed, of course I clicked. But after reading just its first sentence—
A sperm whale that washed up in Spain died after swallowing almost 60 different pieces of plastic dumped by the greenhouses that supply Trader Joe's parent company, Aldi.
—it was apparent that the connection between this dead whale and the grocery store was rather tenuous. Neither Trader Joe's nor its parent company appeared to have been directly involved in any ocean pollution. And after speaking with the activists at SumOfUs, I think it's safe to say that the hundreds of thousands of people who have purportedly signed this petition may be misplacing their outrage.
Trader Joe's has been scrutinized by consumer advocates before. In 2009, Greenpeace attacked the chain for its "ocean-unfriendly" seafood sales, and a 2010 Fortune article brought attention to the company's disturbing lack of transparency regarding product sourcing: "Trader Joe's wants neither its shoppers nor its competitors to know who's making its products," wrote reporter Beth Kowitt. Things have turned around somewhat over the past two years, and now Trader Joe's earns high marks from environmental watchdogs like Greenpeace—though transparency is still an issue.
So how did this particular advocacy campaign start? Petitioners and angry shoppers are citing a March 2013 article in The Guardian that said:
A dead sperm whale that washed up on Spain's south coast had swallowed 17kg of plastic waste dumped into the sea by farmers tending greenhouses that produce tomatoes and other vegetables for British supermarkets.
Scientists were amazed to find the 4.5 tonne whale had swallowed 59 different bits of plastic—most of it thick transparent sheeting used to build greenhouses in southern Almeria and Granada. A clothes hanger, an ice-cream tub and bits of mattress were also found.
According to The Guardian, UK supermarkets Tesco, Waitrose and Sainsbury all receive produce from these greenhouses, which, as The Atlantic's Rob Meyer wrote recently, occupy such a vast expanse of land that they can be seen from space. But there's no mention of Aldi, the sprawling and notoriously tight-lipped German company that operates supermarkets all over Europe and the U.S., including Trader Joe's.
SumOfUs bills itself as "a global grassroots movement for corporate accountability." In an interview, SumOfUs Campaigner Martin Caldwell told me that Aldi's association with the greenhouses is practically a given, since "all the large European supermarkets source from Southern Spain."
"The Guardian article is written for a British audience, so that's why they mentioned British supermarkets," he said. "But all the European chains source from Southern Spain, and Tesco, Aldi, and Carrefour are the number one supermarkets in the UK, Germany, and France, respectively... [that makes them] the number one customers of [the greenhouse growers in] Southern Spain, if you like, so they have an acute responsibility to make sure that their suppliers are disposing of this plastic properly."
Caldwell said that SumOfUs was naming Trader Joe's in order to attract the interest of consumers in the U.S., and the fact that "its parent company Aldi is involved in sourcing this material" legitimizes the association.
But Aldi's connection to Trader Joe's isn't straightforward. As Rebecca Schuman recently explained at Slate, Aldi was split into two branches by brothers Karl and Theo Albrecht in 1960: Aldi Nord and Aldi Süd. The companies are completely independent from one another. Trader Joe's is a subsidiary of Aldi Nord, which also operates stores in Belgium, Denmark, France, Portugal, and Spain. The Aldi markets that are ubiquitous throughout Germany and the rest of Europe—and are also present in 32 states here in the U.S.—are owned by Aldi Süd.
In short, Trader Joe's doesn't have any connection to the giant chain that actually operates in Germany. And while it's possible that the grocer's corporate cousins elsewhere in Europe source from Spain's environmentally troublesome greenhouses (some of the stores are in Spain, after all), we don't know for sure.
"I hear what you're saying about Trader Joe's and Aldi," Caldwell said, after I suggested the link between the two might be somewhat weak. "For us, the connection is very strong. If the U.S., which is one of Aldi's biggest markets—if Trader Joe's was sending the message back to Aldi's headquarters in Germany saying, 'We're coming under a lot of pressure from our consumers to make sure that we as a whole group are doing something about this issue,' then they will respond very quickly."
419,000 people had signed the petition as of last Sunday, when Caldwell and I spoke, and it's soon to be the most popular petition on SumOfUs.org since the site's launch two years ago.
I asked Caldwell if there was any other way to put pressure on the greenhouse growers directly, instead of the grocers. "It would essentially be through governmental action," he said. "And with such an important industry like there is in Southern Spain, the government, particularly given their economic issues at the moment, they're unlikely to be intruding very heavily with extra regulation.
"One of the things that makes SumOfUs so unique," he continued, "is that we can mobilize that global consumer opinion that sometimes is lacking. Where governments are played against each other by corporations, we can come in and pressure the bottom line."
Perhaps. But it still seems a bit disingenuous to single out a mostly tangential player in the supply chain, like Trader Joe's, in order to drum up publicity on this issue.
A whale that died from eating plastic is a symbol of devastating ocean pollution—and that's an issue that truly deserves more attention from everyone—but it's surprising that this is provoking more ire than the other dirty secret of the Spanish greenhouse growers: the illegal and exploitative use of labor from African immigrants. Australian journalist Eric Ellis has compared the working conditions in the "sea of plastic," as the greenhouse network is known, to the cotton plantations in America's Deep South in the era of slavery.* Guardian reporter Felicity Lawrence authored a scathing investigative report in 2011, which described workers relying on Red Cross food parcel deliveries and living among the "hothouses" without reliable sources of drinking water.
"We haven't looked at that specific issue," Caldwell said, when I asked if there might be a future petition on behalf of the exploited workers, "but it goes to such a wider problem in terms of industrialized agriculture on this kind of scale. Not only in terms of its environmental impact... but also on human beings who are sucked into this hard, hard labor to supply Western European consumers with... you know, year-round lettuce."
Indeed. But for now, SumOfUs is busy prodding a grocery store that may or may not be connected to the death of a single whale.
*An earlier version of this article identified Eric Ellis as a British journalist. He is, in fact, Australian.