Earlier Posts, Environment, Popular Culture, Research
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The Identity-making Experience of Whole Foods

While browsing my social media feeds today during lunch I came across this story on New York Magazine’s GRUB STREET: “Whole Foods Under Investigation for ‘Routinely’ Overcharging Customers” by Alan Systma.

The expensive luxury grocer is a kind of joke in my mind because people actually flip out about the place… Like, flip. Out. There is certainly a cult following, though it is not singular because Trader Joe’s gives WF a run for its money.

In an era of greater awareness of the horrors of Monsanto and foods that will kill you, Whole Foods is banking on the fears of our people. Trader Joe’s is like crippled claw emerging under the cover of our blindness within the American culture of consumption. This might sound extreme (and I am only half-kidding) but the multilayeredness of Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and retail stores like Anthropologie and Terrain, not to mention a slew of organic and natural brands, are so widespread in contemporary culture that they require a thoughtful consideration. We must ask why we are so drawn to images and ideas of the natural world within our system of capitalist consumption. Yes, it is important to eat well and take care of our bodies, but to paraphrase the theorist Fredric Jameson, since the 1950’s American culture is more interested in the idea of things rather than the things themselves.

Whole Foods is taking our money (so argues the New York City officials) and we seem to not care too much about it.

WHY?

Well, for starters, purchasing from Whole Foods (the chain is an example, but certainly not the only perpetrator, as noted above) makes us feel good. The identity of the chain is rooted in urbanism, but a new kind of urbanism that is defined by post-postmodern gentrification – an urban personality that is drastically different than when the baby boomers came of age in suburbia. It also, of course, is synonymous with healthy living due to its merchandise base of organic, natural, and exotic foods. It seems as if one can purchase anything that Food Babe or Dr. Oz promotes as a cure for what ails you – or, rather, what might ail you if youdonotpickupthosegogiberriesrightnow.

This is all harmless, right? Shouldn’t our cities be clean and welcoming, you say? Shouldn’t I take care of my body?

Yes, of course. But like I said, there are multiple layers that the consumer should take into consideration (not the least being the global impact of our exotic food fetish) and of utmost importance to anyone’s daily routine should be awareness. Whether it be spirituality, personal relationships, work life, or health, an individual should think about what draws her to certain beliefs and actions.

So let’s question our interest in Whole Foods. The points I note above give us a good start. As one who regularly thinks about how the natural world seeps into our imaginations, I am drawn to the cultural desire to be “closer” to nature through the things we buy. Monsanto’s influence on American – and international – foodways is terrifying. Food lobbyists in Washington D.C. have more power than any of us care to recognize. But even without Cold War carry-overs of pesticides and big business, Americans are looking more and more to images of nature for personal fulfillment. Combine together the desire to connect with the natural world and the primary way we know how to express ourselves – through consumerism – and we have a new zeitgeist, everyone. Welcome to the post-postmodern. At once we feel centered, natural, healthy, and real and connected to the broad common culture promoted by American advertising and commercialism. We are whole, but also reassured that this is the right way to be – because everyone else is doing it. Or, perhaps you like to think that not everyone is doing it, particularly in Whole Foods’ case, because it is only available within a certain realm of society: the urban center, thus expressing uniqueness.

We never buy things just to buy things. We are well beyond that. The generation that battled through the changes of World War II and the 1950s are no longer the major influence on American culture. We are now immersed in a culture of consumption that morphed the way we see the world and express ourselves. Where we shop and what we purchase is a greater signifier of our beliefs than anything else we do.

So Whole Foods is charging too much. Surprised? I’m not. They give us exactly what we ask for: an identity.

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