Owned by the German retail company, Aldi Nord, Trader Joe’s is one of the most popular grocery chains in the United States, and it is often viewed with fondness, like a light-hearted, quirky neighborhood farmer that brings you interesting things to eat. But looking beyond that strategically nurtured image and focusing on the company’s impact on society and the planet, some chilling facts rise to the surface that beg us to think twice.
Trader Joe’s was created in the 60s after the founder (and original Trader Joe) Joe Coulombe saw the opportunity to bring exotic, specialty food to the masses. With his Stanford Business degree, he rewrote the recipe for running a successful grocery business. Coulombe’s recipe for success includes innovating products and store-style as well as competitive pricing.
In terms of product and store-style innovation, Trader Joe’s aims for a homey, lovable small business vibe unmatched by big grocery warehouses like Walmart or Sam’s, despite its 505 locations and billions of dollars in revenue. Every price tag at Trader Joes’s is hand-drawn by their artists, meaning there areover one million unique price tags all over the stores. You will find the name of the item and the price in big bubbly letters, but you will also get advice on how to consume it and/or a picture. Next to the products or on the packaging, you can also find words such as “organic,” “green” and “fresh.”
Trader Joe’s further avoids acting like a big corporate grocery conglomerate by creating zany names of the global products and categories — from Trader José (Mexican food) to Trader Jacque’s (French food), to Trader Joe-San (Japanese food), to Trader Ming’s (Chinese food), to Baker Josef’s (flour and bagels), the company doesn’t shy away from having fun with its labels. Trader Joe’s customer service contributes to its unique image, as it specifically hires down-to-earth, talkative and out-going workers who can always strike up a heartwarming conversation.
Surveying each Trader Joe’s store, one can see that most of the fresh fruit and vegetables are unnecessarily packaged into plastic bags or containers. The selection for organic produce is also small, and none of the signs or tags indicate the local farm linked to the product. Due to its lack of quality in the fresh produce section, Trader Joe’s attracts most of its customers with processed items like frozen dinners and snacks. The prevalence of processed food in any supermarket is usually linked to high carbon footprints, as excess packaging and commodity ingredients are often unethically sourced.
The public’s limited information on Trader Joe’s sourcing makes its environmental-friendliness even more dubious. The grocery chain is notoriously secretive about product sourcing. After some difficult digging, “The Eater” found three unethical product producers behind the Trader Joe’s eco-friendly curtains:
- Bottled smoothies were made by Naked, owned by PepsiCo.
- Hummus was made by Tribe Mediterranean Foods, owned by Nestlé.
- Canned corn was supplied by ConAgra.
To put this information in context, a 2006 report by Ceres, a non-profit organization that works to address global climate change and other sustainability issues, entitled “Corporate Governance and Climate Change: Making the Connection,” measures how 100 leading global companies are responding to global warming. Companies in the report were evaluated on a 0 to 100 scale. Nestlé scored a jarring 29 points, PepsiCo a total of nine points, and ConAgra scored a total of four points, the lowest of any of the food companies rated.
Moreover, Trader Joe’s refrigeration is leaking super-pollutant gasses that accelerate the climate crisis. It received the lowest score on the Environmental Investigation Agency’s Climate-Friendly Supermarket Scorecard. In 2016, Trader Joe’s settled with the US EPA and DOJ for violating the Clean Air Act by leaking refrigerants. It is important to note that refrigerants are a major source of climate-damaging emissions. Refrigerant leaks from US supermarkets alone emit 45 million tons of greenhouse gasses every year — the equivalent of 9.5 million cars on the road. But, there’s still no sign that Trader Joe’s has made progress to reduce leak rates or adopt sustainable, climate-friendly refrigerants.
On the labor front, Trader Joe’s received one of the worst scores on Green America’s retailer chocolate scorecard; the company shares very little about what it’s doing to address child labor in its supply chains or rampant deforestation that is caused by the chocolate it profits off. According to Green America, there are over one million children in West Africa experiencing child labor in cocoa growing; 24% of child laborers are exposed to harmful pesticides that jeopardize their health and the environment; cocoa farmers make less than $1 per day.
It is unacceptable for any company profiting off chocolate, including Trader Joe’s, to not have a publicly available plan to end child labor and injustices in the chocolate supply chain. Clearly, Trader Joe’s extremely unethical production, sourcing, maintenance and labor practices are at odds with the company’s eco-friendly, neighborhood market image, encapsulated by cheerful uniforms of Hawaiian shirts.
The evidence above points to a much overlooked fact: Trader Joe’s is a perpetrator of greenwashing. Greenwashing is the practice of using deceptive marketing techniques to persuade consumers that an organization’s products and vision are environmentally-friendly. As an analogy, greenwashing is to corporations as tree hugging is to individuals who say they care about the environment – it’s a symbolic reference that has little actual outcomes.
Whilst some greenwashing is unintentional and results from a lack of knowledge about what sustainability truly is, it is often intentionally carried out through a wide range of business and marketing efforts, as in the case of Trader Joe’s. The common denominator among all greenwashing is that it is not only misleading, but it’s also not helping to further sustainable design or circular economy initiatives. Thus, environmental problems stay the same or more likely, get even worse, as greenwashing often sucks up airtime and misdirects well-intentioned consumers down the wrong path. Wielding greenwashing,Trader Joe’s attracts sustainable-minded buyers, hoping to garner the feel-good mechanism by shopping at a seemingly local, earthy, friendly, environmentally conscious store. Yet, it is actively fooling its customers.
As sustainability-minded shoppers, it is crucial to become aware of Trader Joe’s greenwashed unethical practices, and take necessary action. Here is a list of easy-to-take actions:
- Shop from farmer’s markets, local grocery stores and support organic fresh produce coming directly from our earth.
- Sign and share this Green America petition telling Trader Joe’s to increase transparency and only use practices that are sustainable and just for people and the planet.
- Contact Trader Joe’s directly and ask them to be more transparent, address child labor in cocoa and cut their emissions.
- Investigate your local store‘s refrigerants in four quick steps.
- Shop from small, ethical chocolate brands prioritizing people and the planet.
- Tell the world’s largest chocolate companies to step it up on addressing child labor, deforestation, farmer poverty and rapidly reducing pesticide usages.
Protecting our planet starts with you.