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How Ethical is Trader Joe’s?

Trader Joe’s is a popular store in the US, and often viewed with fondness, like a quirky friend that brings you interesting things to eat. But, as with any company, we should be looking beyond that strategically nurtured image and focusing on the company’s impact on society and the planet. In other words, we should be asking: How ethical is Trader Joe’s?

Some background: Trader Joe’s is a US-based supermarket chain that’s owned by the German retail company, Aldi Nord. There are two versions of Aldi after the original Albrecht Diskont, owned by the Albrecht brothers, was split in two in 1960. Aldi Nord includes Trader Joe’s as well as Aldi stores in northern Germany, France, Spain and various other countries. Aldi Süd is a legally separate entity that operates Aldi stores in southern Germany, the US, Ireland, and the UK, among other countries. I hope to cover Aldi stores at a future point, but right now I’m focusing solely on Trader Joe’s.

It seems a bit overwhelming to score Trader Joe’s for ethics and we might be tempted to just fall back on the opinion that it’s friendly or fun. I’ll try to put together this ethical review in a short space of time to demonstrate that even complex businesses can be reviewed and scored fairly easily, if broken down into manageable parts. So let’s get started!

The big picture – Trader Joe’s inventory

Perhaps the easiest way to look at things is this: What is the store primarily selling? Well, personally, I don’t go there for fresh fruit and veg, for a number of reasons: most of it is unnecessarily packaged into plastic bags or containers; the selection isn’t very big (especially if you’re looking for organic produce) and it’s not the kind of place where you’ll find items sourced from a local farm. Trader Joe’s attracts most of its customers with processed items like frozen dinners and snacks. The prevalence of processed food in any supermarket raises questions of carbon footprints, excess packaging, and commodity ingredients that may not be ethically sourced. And since most of their processed items are own-brand, transparency of the company itself becomes a key factor. Although you can find some independent products there that you might trust (e.g., Miyoko’s vegan butter) the majority of shoppers fill their baskets with Trader Joe’s own-brand items. And how much do we really know about TJ’s own-brand items? I’ll get to transparency in a bit – first let’s take a look at some key items and ingredients that can act as ethical barometers.

How ethical are the eggs at Trader Joe’s?

Eggs span the full range on the ethics scale, from fairly benign (as far as animal products go) to horribly cruel. Aside from the most humane choice (eggs from rescue hens that live in your back garden) the best choice of eggs from a store are pasture-raised. There’s a world of difference (to the hens) between pasture-raised and all other types of egg. They are pretty common in stores these days so I was surprised to find that there were no pasture-raised eggs to be found at Trader Joe’s.  Because of lockdown, I’m trying to limit trips to stores to about once a week or less and decided to get the eggs that looked most ethical – organic free-range. I figured the organic certification may mean better standards for the hens than free-range alone. But I checked this afterwards and found that the hens are still only required to have 2 square feet each (compared to 108 square feet per hen for pasture-raised eggs). On their overall selection of eggs, I found this statement from TJ’s from Dec 2019:

Currently at Trader Joe’s, nearly 60% of the eggs we sell are cage-free.

So TJ’s does not stock any pasture-raised eggs and over 40% of their eggs come from hens raised in cages. These hens live their entire lives in a space equivalent to a letter-sized sheet of paper and have no ability to do normal things.

Illustrating the difference between pasture-raised eggs and every other kind (free-range, cage-free, and caged) – Huff Post.

Another compelling reason to avoid all eggs other than pasture-raised: Bird-flu. As I mentioned before, one of the primary sources of viruses that can cause pandemics is the intensive animal industry.

A lot of people are very worried about H5N1 becoming transmissible from human to human because it has a 60% mortality rate in humans (compare that to a mortality rate somewhere around 2% for our current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic) and Western nations are stockpiling vaccine.

The Cornucopia Institute has compiled a humane scorecard for eggs and Trader Joe’s eggs get their lowest rating: 1/5. So I’m never buying eggs from Trader Joe’s again, and that also includes their processed products that include eggs as an ingredient. There’s another ingredient that I avoid at TJ’s, further narrowing down the things that I might want to buy there: Palm oil.

Focus on one ingredient: Palm oil

Trader Joe’s has a sizeable collection of tempting-looking cookies, desserts, and other goodies, but a lot of their items do contain palm oil. Checking the packaging on several, I found no certifications or information to suggest that the palm oil is sustainably sourced (e.g., certified by Palm Done Right). On Trader Joe’s website, a search for Palm Oil returns 45 products from their Fearless Flyer but no statement on sourcing. A lack of transparency is never a good thing, especially for an entire store that’s dominated by its own brand.

One blogger has reported on correspondence with TJ’s on this topic, and here’s the final response that he received:

These farmers are sometimes certified by ProForest and/or are members of the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil). For an example, one of our suppliers who utilized Palm Oil in our products, has kept to their pledge to source 100% RSPO sustainably sourced Palm Oil since 2015. Still, though, while much of the palm oil our vendor’s source is as described above, it is impossible and disingenuous for us at this time to ensure that all of our palm oil is sourced this way, and some of it is definitely sourced as a commodity.

Palm oil is one of those ingredients that’s still firmly in the avoid category, unless there’s very clear information that it’s OK. And membership of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) does not qualify. The TJ’s customer service rep admitted that they source palm oil on commodity markets. Well, at least the rep was honest – transparency in general is not TJ’s strong suit.

How Transparent is Trader Joe’s?

Trader Joe’s has built an image of a content curator of food from around the world, but who actually supplies it? TJ’s isn’t going to tell you because the company is notoriously secretive about product sourcing – it’s all part of the business plan. The Eater carried out an investigation into TJ’s own-brand products and found that when there’s a product recall, legally the name of the manufacturer must be revealed. Here are three of the products that have been revealed through recalls:

You’re probably familiar with the first two, here’s something about ConAgra:

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. ConAgra scored a total of 4 points, the lowest of any of the food companies rated. – Wikipedia.

So the product recalls reveal that Trader Joe’s sources are some of the largest food suppliers on the planet – it seems at odds with the company image, encapsulated by their cheerful Hawaiian shirts. Personally, I don’t want to buy products from ConAgra, PepsiCo and Nestlé and I would like TJ’s to become transparent on suppliers.

Trader Joe’s Pistachios

I randomly picked one of the other items on the product recall list from The Eaterpistachios – and took a closer look. It turns out that even a product as seemingly innocuous as TJ’s pistachios may not be so innocent – they were revealed by a product recall to be supplied by the Wonderful Company. The Wonderful Company is a $4 billion conglomerate owned by a Beverly Hills high-society couple, the Resnicks, which includes many brands including Fiji water. Trader Joe’s also stocked Fiji water at one point.

They’ve turned Fiji Water into a lifestyle brand, even though the water is shipped 5,500 miles from a Pacific island country with a history of repressive dictatorship and the lack of clean drinking water for much of its 900,000 population. – LA Times, referring to the Resnicks

Besides the social and environmental fiasco of Fiji water, profiled in this entertaining yet infuriating piece from Vox, the Wonderful Company has come under fire for monopolization of the California water supply for their pistachios and other crops. The same LA Times story attributes a quote to Mr. Resnick in response to a pistachio farmer who wanted to get out of a supply agreement with the Wonderful Company: “I am going to destroy you and make sure you fail”.  

So, I guess the Wonderful Company is doing well – their pistachios are big sellers at Costco too. But at least at Costco the nuts are sold in Wonderful Pistachios packaging – you know what you’re getting into if you’re familiar with the company – while at Trader Joe’s, their identity is hidden behind cheerful TJ’s packaging.

Impact on other brands

There are many online discussions on whether certain TJ’s own-brand products are “authentic” or knock-offs. It’s really difficult to know whether, for example, TJ’s oat milk is made by Oatly or just looks like it. That’s not a good dilemma for consumers who may want to support (or avoid) certain brands. It also raises concerns that TJ’s may be not only competing with smaller brands by mimicking them but also possibly tricking customers into thinking that a TJ’s brand is just as ethical as the original that it resembles.

When the CEOs of Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Google testified in front of US Congress in July, one of the recurring subjects was undercutting competition to gain market share – Jeff Bezos was questioned about doing this to Amazon’s own third-party sellers.

Now I’m starting to wonder how smaller, ethical brands feel about TJ’s. On the one hand it’s probably great to have a large-scale distributor for their product, even if it entails a thinner profit margin. But I wonder if any brands have ever said yes to a TJ’s deal because the alternative might be to be mimicked and undercut by TJ’s, just as Amazon allegedly did to some of its third-party sellers. Objection, your honor – supposition! OK – I’ll rest.

Positive aspects to Trader Joe’s

That all sounds rather harsh on poor TJ’s but I’m just being honest and facing the fact that I don’t want to go there much more, unless it changes. I feel that the company has promise but just requires the motivation to improve on some of its ethical standards. And, realistically, the only way I see Trader Joe’s making these changes soon is under pressure from consumers, i.e., in response to sales figures.

There are some positives about Trader Joe’s – they do a good job of donating their unsold items to food banks, for example. Employees scored Trader Joe’s an impressive 4.3 out of 5 on Glassdoor – benefits and friendly working environment were two of the most cited positives. I’m not sure about the company’s trajectory, however, as TJ’s has recently come under fire for suppression of unionization. There are a few items on Trader Joe’s shelves that give me hope for the company: the superfood burrito and the eco-friendly cellulose pop-up sponges, for example. I may go there occasionally for these few items, but I’m finding fewer and fewer reasons to pick up much more than that.

How Ethical is Trader Joe’s

OK, so this post took longer to write than expected! But that’s in large part because I’m dealing with Trader Joe’s – a store that most of my friends are quite fond of – and I wanted to be sure. I liked TJ’s too, so this was a good exercise for me as it corrected some of my assumptions that were probably fostered by the company’s jovial image. So here’s the distillation of everything into a brief Green Stars review:

I’m giving Trader Joe’s 2 out of 5 Green Stars for social and environmental impact for the following reasons:

Bottom line is that although Trader Joe’s is fun and cheerful, it doesn’t rate so well, ethically, in my opinion. Trader Joe’s lack of transparency benefits nobody other than the company and its suppliers. Please add your opinion below and, even better, post a Green Stars review of TJ’s (e.g., on Yelp or Google Maps) to let them and other shoppers know how you feel. I believe that the company will change in response to public pressure because image is central to the company’s success.

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