Whole Foods and green-washing

Quack, quack

Whole Foods is one of my favourite shops. Has been since the first time I met one, about ten years ago.

This isn’t to say they’re my absolute favourite: here in Vancouver, that’s assorted markets and grocers aplenty for fruit ‘n’ veg and yoghurt (see: Young Bros.); the Parthenon and several cheese shops for dairy; chocolate, tea, coffee all over; we’re spoiled for bakeries–nearly as nerdy as San Fran. Larder basics, household cleaning stuff and supplies, skincare, hair, and cosmetics I can get cheaper online. Better, way better, in the case of cosmetics. Shopping around feels more fun–more exercise, see more people, and less of the silly pretentious yoga-bunnies in WF, with more money than sense. (I’ve often wondered how many of them are on MUA… must restrain myself from breaking The First Rule… ).

But there’s still a few things for which I absolutely have to go to WF. My favourite chocolate ice-cream (Salt Spring Gelato in Chocolate Bliss). Decent pesto, for most of the year, outside that narrow window when you can buy bushels of the stuff for next to nothing and make jars of the lovely stuff yourself, which will still only last for a few months anyway. (If you haven’t made pesto, I recommend it: you’ll need a food processor, and I’d suggest roasting the garlic not using it raw–otherwise it goes off fast–and I’m always impressed at how much greenery compacts down into the concentrated saucy goodness.) Stonewall Maple Chipotle grille sauce. Pacifica scents. Really good tamari almonds and apple-sweetened dried cranberries. OK, I admit that “absolutely have to go” is a bit strong–none of these things are exactly essentials.

I always the enjoy the whole experience of going in and wandering around there, though. Product and market research. People-watching. Trend-spotting. Talking to the lovely staff. Apart from some of the ones in the Whole Body section: the usual MUAer issue with ignorant, ill-informed people spouting official marketing propaganda. Exacerbated at an eco-/health-food store by religious fervour. Just. Don’t. Ask. Them. About. Supplements. Ever. Do not make eye contact in that neck of the wholesome woods.

At Whole Foods, there’s the extra complicating factor of WF’s own marketing. A few months ago, I was looking at dishwashing detergents, the kind for washing dishes by hand at the kitchen sink. My looking was mainly to see if anything new had appeared on the market; had it done so, I’d then scout around more online and, ahem, buy it there instead. Probably. And I noticed that some new labels had appeared next to some products, giving them some new WF official Seal Of Approval. Some had labels next to them specifying that they hadn’t yet been approved. Retracing my steps to the skin/hair/body/etc.-care section where I usually start out, I found similar Official Approvals there too.

Back in the houseold-detergents aisle, I observed that two products I’d used previously were “status uncertain”; Ecover’s washing-up liquid and some of their other stuff ditto–yet one of the oldest “green” household brands in the world ever. But several washers-uppers I’d used and didn’t use any longer for allergic and eczema reasons bore a proud stamp of acceptance.

I was perplexed. So I looked at ingredients. In household detergents, I’d always avoided fragrance and most essential oils (tea tree, chamomile, calendula being exceptions). And sodium lauryl sulfate: the thing that eczematics have been told to avoid for at least 30 years; that wrecks my skin in higher concentration; and of which the highest concentrations are to be found in household cleaning products. Not to be confused with sodium LAURETH sulfate.

Guess what: lots of products with every essential oil that irritate my skin? They’d been OKed. Well, you might say, that’s fair enough–they’re going by the majority, not by freaks like the Ginger. But: the essential oils here are ones that are standard skin irritants. That is: having been directly responsible for irritation on large experimental populations in the past, and thus being statistically more likely to be associated with irritation. So we’re not just talking freaky minority-of-one me. Lemon, lavender, all the usual suspects.

Sodium lauryl sulfate? Also “OK.”

Those few washers-uppers that are fragrance free AND based on olefins, s. laureth s., cocamides, anything other that SLS? Not OK. Indeed, there were no SLES detergents that had been OK’ed.

So I though “whatev” and went on with my business, taking a sharp left back towards the ice-cream. Which is always reliable and, being technically a “food,” not subject to this new kind of body-fascism.

After all, this is a shop: I go in there, shop around, might get something, might not; might get some things from there, might not; would be quite happy to buy my ice-cream elsewhere, especially if closer to home and/or cheaper.

It’s not a church, or a cult. I don’t have to buy everything there or buy into everything there. But it feels like I ought to treat WF more like a religion: loyalty, belief, embracing all statements of faith and doctrine, treat as authoritative.

Now, I have a bit of a problem with authority. And with blind belief. I’ll certainly stick notes on their board fairly regularly, but haven’t had much success on emailing HQ (see “physical sunscreens: some amusing correspondence“). This new doctrine seems to qualify for every cultish, irrational, quackish label in the book. Hence my own Official Stamp at the top of this present post–off a toy-store on Ebay, it’s a classic bath-toy rubber duckie of the sort that’s emblematic for Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science.

But quackery aside, you’ll see in the attached bits and pieces further down, I hope, why this Great New Gold Green Standard is a bad and dangerous thing. Not like guns, or running across desert in the middle of the day if you’re a ginger, or running a Hummer; and not like entire nations’ energy and education policies. Dangerous and bad, though, for the same reason that certain places’ education policies are: encouraging idiocracy.

Sure, the FDA is slow, corrupt (by non-American standards anyway, and American critics use the c-word without any apparent fear of anti-slander lawsuits), in Big Pharma’s pocket. But at least they do some research, and are part of the whole NSF/NIH setup that funds (more-or-less-)independent research. And on that slowness: proper research, and proper longitudinal studies, take a long time.

The EWG was set up (partly) in protest, as an NGO lobby-group. Fair enough; it has many failings and follies. Then again, so do the EWG themselves.

I don’t know if WF is trying to go a step further; or trying to supplant the EWG; or at least just setting up another set of standards. The claim is that this is independent: sure, independent of government, but not “independent” in the same sense as unfettered pure academic research that’s free of all restraints and vested interests; especially commercial ones. What really worries me here is the vagueness of any slight hint at there being any science behind the New Standards. What’s stressed much more heavily: New Age whole-body silliness, and You The Consumer.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll doubtless say it again:

1. Truth is truth, facts are facts, evidence is evidence, and knowledge is its own thing. None of these are subject to popular vote or “liking.” Voting on truth isn’t democracy. And democracy isn’t mob rule: be that Greek, or Classical Liberal: that “polis” is always pre-selected, as those deemed to be probably endowed with good sense. Might just be landed free men over a certain age. Eventually including women. And all literate people. Alas, we’re now in an age when good sense doesn’t necessarily accompany the increasingly-minimal prerequisites for having a political/public voice: brains; common sense; senses of justice and fairness and conscience; an awareness of others, tolerance and respect for them, and human empathy; and wisdom.

2. There is a crucial difference between an “opinion” and “expert knowledge.” The latter may be formulated as expert advice. It includes intimate familiarity with the subject-matter, having studied and read up and, most critically, though about it. Cognizance with all the facts, evidence, and arguments (by which, as ever, I mean “reasoning”–not “fighting”). It is unfortunate that having any sort of public/political voice leads some people into the erroneous belief that their voice carries the exact same weight as anyone else’s. Yes, it should certainly be judged the same as anyone else’s: but that means being judged by the same standards, weighed up, and found wanting.

So. As far as I can see–and as ever, I’m open to discussion, further information, and so forth–Whole Foods have kow-towed to that wild beast, Public Opinion. And this is the result. With a few carefully-selected excerpts for your greater titillation:

Our search for quality is a never-ending process involving the careful judgment of buyers throughout the company.

Whole Foods Market’s Quality Standards team maintains an extensive list of unacceptable ingredients. However, creating a product with no unacceptable ingredients does not guarantee that Whole Foods Market will sell it. Our buyers are passionate about seeking out the freshest, most healthful, minimally processed products available.

Whole Body, and Whole Foods Market for that matter, steps way out ahead of the pack. It’s all about quality and safety with a strong emphasis on natural. For example, the difference between supplements we sell and those you get at other places is not necessarily what’s in them, but what’s not in them. Lower-quality supplements add things like starch, extra gelatin, artificial colors, sweeteners and preservatives, lactose, unnecessary fillers and hydrogenated fats — none of which you will find in anything Whole Body sells.

The same high standards are applied to our personal care products. […]

In addition, we’ve created a set of Premium Body Care Standards that raises the bar still further. We’re hopeful that this will encourage the body care industry as a whole to formulate products with higher standards. All products that meet our Premium standard are clearly marked for easy selection. So, when it comes to insisting on quality, we don’t settle for second best.


Many of you are smart about taking supplements. After all, nutrition surveys consistently show that a substantial portion of people in the U.S. fail to consume the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) of various nutrients. But are you smart about which kind you buy? When you make that investment in your health, also make sure you’re getting what you paid for — the actual nutrients you need, not unnecessary additives. The good news is, at Whole Body™, you can trust that we’ve done the homework for you.

Our Quality Standards for Supplements

  • We carefully evaluate each and every product we sell.
  • We feature products that are free of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and hydrogenated oils.
  • We are committed to offering research-driven dietary supplements that have a proven track record.
  • We provide nutritional products that support the health and well-being of our customers and the environment.
  • Products on our shelves are reviewed for compliance with applicable regulations.

Our Body Care Quality Standards

We carry the finest facial, skin and body care products available because we believe the quality of the items and ingredients people apply to their bodies topically is as important as the foods and nutritional supplements they ingest.

We sell the highest quality personal care products available at the most competitive prices possible. We evaluate quality in terms of ingredients, pleasurable experience, and efficacy. Our search for quality is a never-ending process involving the careful judgment of buyers throughout the company.

  • We carefully evaluate each and every product we sell.
  • We are passionate about aromatic, luxurious, effective personal care products and the pleasure of sharing them with others.
  • We encourage our vendor partners to use plant-based and naturally-derived ingredients, pure essential oil fragrances, gentle preservatives and non-petroleum ingredients.
  • We are committed to high-quality body care products that have a proven track record.
  • We only sell personal care products that have not been tested on animals.
  • We provide personal care products that support health and well-being.

Whole Foods Market’s Quality Standards team maintains an extensive list of unacceptable ingredients. However, creating a product with no unacceptable ingredients does not guarantee that Whole Foods Market will sell it. Our buyers are passionate about seeking out the freshest, most healthful, minimally processed products available.

Our stores carry hundreds of brands of products (in addition to our own Private Label brands) and the selection from store to store may vary. If you have a question about a particular product, please ask for assistance at the store where you shop.


  • as elsewhere: who is doing all this evaluating? What are their qualifications, and/or what makes them experts? I don’t mean “do they have a PhD in cosmetic chemistry”: this is about more than bits of paper. What do they know? Why should I “trust” these people? Or–trust, faith, belief aside–accept a single word they say as being true?
    Remembering, though, that technically having an MA/MSc means that one has “mastered” a certain area of knowledge, and a doctorate means that one knows one’s stuff well enough to be entitled and licensed to teach it to others. That is, to transmit that  knowledge, responsibly and honestly.
  • use of “trust” and “we believe”: this should be about evidence and proof. There’s plenty facty stuff out there about what people apply to their bodies being important, for instance.
  • use of the passive: who is performing this action, actively, and taking responsibility for it? combined with “proven track record”: someone else is doing the actual science, collecting data, producing reports.
  • woolly verbiage on supplements: not actually promising anything, as (see Ben Goldacre) you can’t
  • “evaluate,” “careful judgment,” “quality”: value-judgement? what are the criteria? Vague, again. Goes along with “passionate,” “encourage,” “committed,” “support” (not promising, also, again): touchy-feely and irrelevant. This is supposed to be about quality control, for crying out quietly.
  • those “unacceptable ingredients”? See list further down.
  • that last bit about asking for “assistance”? If what you actually need is to talk to another human being, have a chat, and feel connected with community and humanity: yes. The body dept. SA’s are great at that. Sometimes this means some other poor sod won’t get to talk to them for 20 minutes–been there, been that sod–but the SAs are usually really lovely; caring passionately about what they do; unlike most other retail experience.
    But if by “assistance” you mean “information” or “advice”? No. The best you’ll get is being forced to drag your sorry arse slowly around the body dept. behind someone who’s reading all the labels you just read, but at 1/20 of the speed. And because they’re lovely, you can’t be mean or get grumpy, as that would be, to quote a friend, “like stamping on bunny-rabbits.”
    At the worst, you’ll have to suffer lunatic proselytizing.
  • Premium Body Care booklet
  • Ingredients unacceptable for Premium Body Care: Nowhere on that document is there any indication as to why they were deemed “unacceptable.” Some I recognize from the EWG’s Cosmetics Database and their hysterical misreading of actual scientific evidence–hysterical both as it’s funny and it’s demented. Other ingredients look like someone was playing Scrabble while they were writing the list (by hand, as computers wouldn’t be granola enough) and got the lists mixed up, before sending them on to the techy wizards.


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