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.