Boycotting Whole Foods

By Megan McArdle

I have to say, I basically agree with Radley Balko here:

Whole Foods is everything leftists talk about when they talk about "corporate responsibility."

And yet lefties want to boycott the company because CEO John Mackey wrote an op-ed that suggests alternatives to single payer health care? It wasn't even a nasty or mean-spirited op-ed. Mackey didn't spread misinformation about death panels, call anyone names, or use ad hominem attacks. He put forth actual ideas and policy proposals, many of them tested and proven during his own experience running a large company. Is this really the state of debate on the left, now? "Agree with us, or we'll crush you?"

These people don't want a dicussion. They don't want to hear ideas. They want you to shut up and do what they say, or they're going to punish you.

The CEO of Whole Foods is not allowed to have a different opinion from you on a national domestic policy issue?  Rilly?

Not that I'm exactly sweating for the fortunes of Whole Foods.  Quick:  name the last time a consumer boycott achieved a result of any signifigance.  (Getting American Airlines to stop using animals in its ads doesn't count.)  I have to go all the way back to the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Here's why boycotts don't work:  the vast majority of customers don't care.  And yes, that includes the vast majority of Whole Foods customers, a surprising number of whom drive SUVs and even--I swear!--occasionally vote Republican.  Now consider the demographic that cares enough about health care to actually boycott a company over it.  Most of them are a) wonks or b) political activists.  The latter group is disproportionately young and does not spend a great deal of money on groceries.  The former group is tiny.

You may get a large number of people who say they'll boycott Whole Foods.  But then when they're out of extra-virgin olive oil and the Safeway doesn't have organic, and the nearest Trader Joes is a twenty-five minute drive away through traffic--they'll shop at Whole Foods.  Three weeks later, they'll have managed to forget that they ever intended to stop shopping at Whole Foods.  The stores are successful because they dominate their market niche, putting together a collection of things in one store that you would ordinarily have to go to several stores for.  Shopping in mulitple places is a big pain in the butt.

Remember the boycott of the French?  Lasted about four weeks, until everyone figured out that this meant foregoing Dannon yogurt and Mephisto sandals, and spending hours looking for a decent American brie.  Effect on French foreign policy:  dubious.  Perhaps negative.

Then there's the problem of counter-boycotts.  Radley is one.  I myself do not particularly care for Whole Foods--I find them overpriced, and their prepared food isn't very good.  But as long as the progressive boycott lasts . . . well, Mr. Mackey, you've got another customer.  I doubt I'm the only conservative or libertarians who will make the same pledge.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2009/08/boycotting-whole-foods/23348/