Frisky Rant: On Whole Foods & Conspicuous Consumption Masquerading As Politics

When a Whole Foods opened at the end of my block, I couldn’t have been more excited. For months, I watched in anticipation as they converted what was once an old hospital into the superfoods superstore. I was excited—and then I was irritated, when I posted a status on Facebook celebrating opening day and the snarky comments started pouring in.

Initially, I could only assume that those not appreciating a Whole Foods opening on the Upper East Side had never lived in a neighborhood seriously lacking a grocery store. Maybe they didn’t cook, eat healthfully, or live on a budget.

“Live on a budget and Whole Foods in the same sentence? Why, that’s rich. Pun intended,” one acquaintance joked.

But the idea that Whole Foods sucks up your “Whole Paycheck” is a fallacy. Sure, there’s plenty of stuff that you want but don’t need, expensive items that some people feel duped into buying. If you stick with store brand products, shopping at Whole Foods is a lot cheaper than the “specialty” stuff you find elsewhere. Don’t just take my word for it: According to Bloomberg News, Whole Foods is actually one of the cheaper grocery stores in Manhattan.

Google “Poor people costs” and you will find article after article explaining the expense of not having a decent grocery store in one’s area. Money, time, hassle, exhaustion, menace. For the past six years I’ve lived in my apartment, it has cost more in all those things for me to run four blocks to the closest bodega to pick up a vegetable.

“But isn’t Whole Foods an anti-union corporation?” someone else piped in.

In fairness, yes. In 2013, Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey compared unions to herpes and claimed the chain didn’t need them. Less than a year later, a group of employees began an as-of-yet unsuccessful movement to unionize at least one San Franciscan store. But the fact that workers are pushing to unionize doesn’t mean workers are treated poorly. In fact, Whole Foods has appeared on FORTUNE’s ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ list for the past 17 years.

Among the haters, I saw no logical argument against Whole Foods. Instead, I saw a bunch of well-off, educated progressives snarking at a brand whose image and sensibility resembles their own.

The term “conspicuous consumption” was first introduced by a Norwegian-American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class. It refers to the act of buying expensive items to display wealth and income rather than to cover one’s real needs. It’s when what you purchase is not only and at times less about what you need as it is about the message your purchase sends to others.

Conspicuous consumption is the anxiety that what we buy — including what we buy to eat — signifies who we are. I’d argue that the items people buy to increase their status aren’t necessarily expensive (think of the cultural capital behind a “thrift store find”). I’d argue also that what we don’t buy or where we refuse to shop can be a form of conspicuous consumption, too.

For lots of complicated reasons, the idea of abundant, healthy, relatively inexpensive food available right on my corner means a lot to me. I grew up and at times still experience food scarcity. It wasn’t until college that I learned that vegetables didn’t have to come frozen or out of a can. Before that, I was raised on a poor person’s diet of Ramen and Rice-a-Roni, canned spaghetti and microwavable pot pies. In college, I developed the habit of eating “clean,” a term loaded with connotations. Though the benefits have been more than psychological—in college, instead of gain, I lost the freshman fifteen—I understand my rejection of processed foods is, in large part, a rejection of my working poor, Midwestern upbringing.

It reminds me of an article published recently on the Guardian—“Your gluten-free detox cleanse is nothing more than conspicuous consumption”—wherein Sarah Hagi describes what she calls “the phenomenon of consumerism marked as ethical eating.” In that essay, Hagi disputes the dubious benefits of gluten free diets, organic or “handcrafted” foods while tracing her own complicated relationship to juice fasts. We don’t just consume, says Ann Helen Peterson in another essay highly relevant to this conversation, “Basic is just another word for class anxiety” —we consume visibly.

Whereas my consumptive habits, and related anxieties, are well described by Hagi and Peterson, among my progressive friends I often see conspicuous consumption masquerading as politics. While it may be fair to criticize Whole Foods for being anti-union when workers are asking for one, I’d venture that the push by Whole Foods workers to unionize has less to do with making drastically necessary improvements to one’s working conditions as it has to do with more closely aligning the company rhetoric with its practices.

Yes, Whole Foods is hypocritical, absolutely— just like my friends are when they act like they’re saving the world by buying the compassionately cultivated organic fair trade toilet paper instead of the Charmin. The thread on Facebook ended with a friend of a friend suggesting I join a community garden and grow my own kale, reminding me of a misguided movement at my college for students to clean up our own campus, which ultimately threatened to put unionized maintenance workers out of jobs. As a consumer, I have no evidence that the Whole Foods on my corner treats its workers any less ethically than the bodega four blocks down (which is also surely not unionized). But Whole Foods sells the dinosaur kale. And the quinoa is cheaper.

Some may take it for granted that what we consume is our choice, and signifiers of our identity. But choice, may I always remember, is a privilege. Attitudes like those revealed by my friends used to be shocking to me. Before college— where it seemed half the campus was either vegetarian or vegan— I had never met anyone who, for political reasons, would refuse food.