Vol. 13, No. 2, May 2012

Do Natural Foods Stores Encourage Consumer Politics? A Research Note

Michael A. Haedicke

Drake University

During the past decade, a number of food activists have framed grocery shopping as a form of political participation and voice (Pollan 2006; Schlosser 2001). Consumers, they say, can “vote with their dollars” for a food system that protects the environment and the livelihoods of small-scale farmers by buying organic, local and ethically-produced foods. As places where shoppers practice “political consumerism” (Micheletti, Føllesdal, and Stolle 2004), natural foods grocery stores play an important, if ambiguous, role in this contemporary critical food culture. Some scholars argue that these stores serve as an organizational base for food activism through their advocacy about genetic engineering, soil and water pollution, and the failure of family farms (Allen and Kovach 2000; Goodman and DuPuis 2002). However, others contend that these stores promote a commercialized critique that suggests that social and environmental problems can be solved through individual purchases (Johnston 2008; Johnston, Biro, and MacKendrick 2009).

In order to explore the role of organic food stores in alternative food movements, I conducted a series of interviews with managers of twenty independent organic food stores in California, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, New Mexico and New York. Although the “activist” and the “commercialization” accounts both capture realities of managers’ work, the most important findings had to do with the complex negotiations that managers engaged in as they worked to balance the diverse expectations of their consumers with their own political convictions and with the economic welfare of their stores. Drawing from the social movements literature about “free spaces” and from research in consumer studies about the meanings of consumption, I outline these findings and their significance below. I argue that that the role of stores in either promoting or undermining alternative food movements is more variable than previously suggested.

From Free Spaces to Negotiated Spaces

Sociologists of social movements have argued that activists learn skills of political participation and develop “oppositional consciousness” in free spaces – social settings that are insulated and protected from structures of dominance in the surrounding society (Evans and Boyte 1986; Morris and Braine 2001). As I have explained, some scholars argue that natural food stores provide these sorts of free spaces for food activists, while others are more dubious. This debate stems in part from the concept’s binary nature. In typical formulations, spaces are conceived as either free or unfree, either completely separate from mainstream society or entirely subject to its influence. There has been little progress in analyzing the negotiation of meaning or multiple forms of action in settings that generate or sustain social protest.

In an important critique of the free spaces concept, Francesca Polletta advocated “conceptualizing structures as cultural” as a way to move beyond the free/unfree binary (Polletta 1999:2). She called for inductive investigations of the norms and expectations that influence the interactions that take place between people within free spaces, as well as explorations of shared beliefs about legitimate goals and activities. These investigations may reveal how particular social settings provoke and sustain activism. Polletta’s approach provides one way to conceptualize the relationship between natural and organic food stores and alternative food movements. These stores participate in competitive retail markets as well as in social and political critique and they contain contrasting belief systems that are tied to these different arenas of activity. This means that when shoppers and store staff interact, they often must negotiate compromises between different sets of relationship expectations and norms.

For example, consider Josée Johnston’s analysis of the natural foods retailer Whole Foods Market. Johnston argued that the company’s marketing material promotes an ideology of consumerism that celebrates shopping as one way to create “a modern self who makes autonomous choices expressing a unique identity,” but that it also embraces an ideology of citizenship that emphasizes “a more equitable and sustainable provisioning of human needs” (Johnston 2008:242-3). Since Whole Foods is a leader in natural foods retailing, her analysis offers a useful heuristic for thinking about beliefs and expectations that exist in similar natural foods stores. The consumerist ideology that she describes carries the expectation that store staff will defer to shoppers and that the appropriate staff role is to provide shoppers with the goods that they want to buy. According to this ideology, shoppers are free to take their business elsewhere if the staff of a particular store fail to accomplish this role. The citizenship ideology defines the consumer-staff relationship in a different, and more complex, way. While staff are still expected to provide merchandise of quality to shoppers, shoppers also look to staff for information about larger issues of collective welfare. They expect staff to critique unethical activities in the food industry and to exclude products that harm farmers, farmworkers and the environment. The staff’s role is less one of servitude than one of ethical guidance, and shoppers play the role of partners who balance their own perceived needs with the ethical judgments of staff.

These considerations suggest that notion of “negotiated spaces” is more appropriate than that of “free spaces” for understanding the role of natural foods stores in critical food movements. Different shoppers enter stores with different expectations, and staff members try to negotiate compromises that more or less work for everyone. While some people buy organic and natural foods because they are deeply committed to letting the values of “citizenship” (in Johnston’s sense) guide their purchasing behavior, others buy organic foods primarily for individualistic reasons, including health concerns, status display, or pleasure (Hartman and Wright 1999). As I describe below, staff negotiate compromise roles though advertising, merchandise selection, and store policy. These negotiations, in turn, influence the ability of stores to produce the outcomes attributed to social movement free spaces.

Negotiating Identities and Relationships in Organic Foods Stores

Nearly all of the store managers and owners that I interviewed were aware that a wide variety of factors motivated consumers to shop at their stores. Without conducting formal market research, many were able to offer descriptions of the relative size of consumer “segments.” For example, the owner of one small chain of natural foods stores explained:

Maybe fifteen to twenty percent of our customers shop at our store because of their concerns about the environment. Then there is probably another fifty to sixty percent – these are just wild guesses – that care about the environment but more so they care about themselves and that is why they choose to shop in our stores. And then there is that remaining twenty to thirty percent that basically it’s all about themselves and not about the environment.

These mixed motivations posed a dilemma when it came to selecting products to stock store shelves. All of the stores in my sample were merchandise gatekeepers in the sense that they had general criteria that they used to include and exclude products for sale (i.e. “Natural and organic only,” “No high fructose corn syrup,” “Local foods are given priority”). However, these criteria allowed many gray areas to exist. Some consumers for whom shopping was “all about themselves” demanded that stores carry products that environmentally-motivated shoppers found offensive or that violated managers’ own ethical commitments. In the case of products that met the criteria but raised red flags for environmentally-motivated shoppers, store managers had to reflect on whether they wished to relate to shoppers as consumers by offering products that met the needs of the majority of shoppers or as citizens by challenging shoppers to reflect on ethical convictions and civic responsibilities while shopping.

Store owners and managers responded to this puzzle through various forms of negotiation. In some cases, they identified “ethical flagship” products. The owner quoted above, who lived near the fruit-farming Salinas Valley in California, pointed to strawberries as one such product in his stores. While he stocked organic and non-organic varieties of most fresh produce, he would only allow organic strawberries to pass through the store’s loading dock “because of the methyl bromide issue” (methyl bromide is a highly toxic soil fumigant used in non-organic strawberry cultivation, which has caused many farmworker injuries in the Salinas Valley).

In other cases, managers mediated between different consumer segments. In one example, the manager of one natural foods co-operative store recounted an effort by a “vocal minority” of the store’s members to remove Odwalla brand juices from the shelves after Coca-Cola purchased the company. These “citizen-consumers” noted that Coca-Cola had been implicated in human rights abuses in various parts of the world and argued that the Odwalla brand was contaminated by association. While the manager continued to provide Odwalla products to customers, he agreed to add a sign to the juice display that explained, “Odwalla is a fine product of the Coca-Cola Company” (information which did not, incidentally, appear on the labels of the Odwalla juices themselves). Providing this information, he explained, was a compromise that enabled shoppers to make informed decisions about the product on the basis of their own tastes and ethical criteria.

Product selection was not the only area in which owners and managers had to negotiate between different models of relating to their shoppers. As the leaders of “alternative” retail organizations, many explained that they had been approached by various political activists who wanted to distribute information and recruit supporters among the store’s shoppers. Several managers told me that these requests were difficult to handle because they often resonated with managers’ own political convictions. These managers saw their work in organic foods as part of a broader movement for environmental and social change – one manager, in fact, compared herself to Rosa Parks and explained, “I just know every day when I come to work I’m thinking, ok, I’m making my contribution and hopefully if enough of us see the importance of it, something will shift.” However they also felt compelled to distinguish between their professional roles and their personal convictions. A second store manager put it this way:

We don’t want to alienate people. That’s really what it is. We want Republicans who voted for Bush to think that they can come in here and buy organic food just like anyone else. Although in my heart I don’t believe that they can be voting for Bush and believe in organics! I mean, that is my personal opinion and I have board members who would not agree with me. So we do have people that are on both sides of the fence and we have customers who are different probably from most of us that work here.

Owners and managers often responded to this dilemma by separating core food-related political issues from broader concerns related to poverty, industrialism and corporate political influence. While they acknowledged, in private, that connections existed between food production, environmental quality, social stratification and corporate power, they restricted in-store political organizing to issues such as the spread of genetically engineered food and the decline of family-owned farms. Of course, some variation existed within this pattern, as in the case of one store that came out against a plan to build a power line through a local wilderness area. However, all owners and managers perceived a need to tread carefully in areas of political activism and engagement.

Finally, in relation to merchandise and political issues, owners and managers favored a non-confrontational approach that emphasized customer education rather than protest or debate. I encountered many examples of this tendency, but one in which a natural foods co-op manager contrasted her store’s early approach to selling controversial products to its current practices is especially vivid. The product in question was canned tuna.

Apparently there was this interesting vibe going on where the tuna was kept behind the counter, like on this little shelf, and you had to ask the cashier for the tuna. And then when you were given the tuna you were also given a bit of attitude about buying the tuna … We’re not here to dictate what’s good food and what’s evil food and so forth. That’s not what we’re here to do. We can certainly provide information and say, like in the case of tuna, what we could have said is, hey, did you know that a percentage of fish that aren’t tuna get caught in these nets and sea turtles are dying and things like that. Just letting you know that when you choose to eat this product you may be contributing to this kind of activity in the world.

Educational approaches can be understood as yet another form of negotiation between relationships based on the ideology of consumerism and ones based on the ideology of citizenship. They do not question the tenet of consumer sovereignty, but they recontextualize consumers’ decisions in a broader framework of interests and consequences. Incidentally, several managers also noted that product education helped to maintain a stable base of customers in competitive retail markets by building store loyalty. In other words, civic education blended easily into stores’ marketing strategies.

Negotiated Spaces and the Critical Food Movement

This brief sketch has suggested that the negotiation of roles and relationships in organic food stores is complex and, in some ways, contingent on the market dynamics that specific stores encounter. I am currently working on a more comprehensive analysis of these negotiations, which develops the idea that commitments to civic engagement in organic food stores are limited and tempered by common expectations that staff will relate to shoppers as consumers rather than as partners in a movement for social change. Organic stores are not free spaces in a pure sense; that is, they are not completely buffered from mainstream cultural and economic forces. In important ways, however, they do encourage consumers to develop critical consciousness and provide certain opportunities for political engagement.

More broadly, the case of organic foods stores can offer insight into the intersection of consumption and political activism, which has attracted a great deal of interest in consumer research (Cole 2011; Miller 2006; Sassatelli and Davolio 2010). As organizations that are “in” the market but not completely “of” it (Taylor 2005), other businesses that encourage consumption as a form of political engagement will likely experience a similar imperative to negotiate contradictions between beliefs about how consumers and store staff should act. The potential of political consumerism hinges on these sorts of negotiations.


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