When Did Big Companies Turn Into Big Companies?

20070228wholefoods.jpg

Photo: Getty Images


As a natural and somewhat hilarious result of the sixties values trickling up to the boardroom, our leading goody-goody megabrands are suddenly, and seemingly all at once, beset by crises of conscience. JetBlue is spraying mea culpas and defying its own industry's lobbyists by hastily jerry-rigging a customer bill of rights. The weekend brought a soul-searching memo from Starbucks chairman Howard Schulz, bemoaning, of all things, the "commoditization" of his brainchild. (As we already noted, wasn't that the whole point?) Today, to complete the trifecta, the Times is ringing the alarm over the perceived "straying" of Whole Foods.

As the organic empire sealed its hegemony last week by swallowing up its only serious rival — the 110-store Wild Oats chain — it also seems to have forsaken its original mission. Writes the Times with a dash of indignation, "many of today’s Whole Foods shoppers are more interested in prepared foods than in whether the eggs are organic." On the opposite end, the hard-core natural-food shoppers have moved beyond, going out of their way to patronize small farmers; Whole Foods' newer stores resort to "in-store restaurants, spas, concierge shopping services, gelato stands, chocolate fountains and pizza counters." Remember when it was all about the music, man?

Whether Whole Foods regains its mojo or not (the WFMI stock has dropped 40 percent in the last year, incidentally), it's certainly telling how freely we bandy about moral terms when talking about a supermarket or a coffee chain. Seems like, since Washington is otherwise engaged at the moment, the myth of the Good Corporation has taken over as a public-good compass. But that's the thing: It shouldn't. Remember, kids, that corporations are here to make money; goodness is the prerogative of an individual. Now, have you heard about Al Gore's electric bill?

Is Whole Foods Straying From Its Roots? [NYT]
Earlier: Watered-Down Starbucks? Say It Ain't So!