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Whole Foods/Wild Oats Merger May Benefit Kroger And Other Chains

As soon as the announcement was made, we ran a piece entitled Whole Foods To Acquire Wild Oats: Circling The Wagons As Others Sell Organics. The piece brought a complimentary note from one of America’s most esteemed specialty food retailers:

Just a note to say how much I enjoyed your “take” on the merger between Whole Foods/Wild Oats. As a WFM stockholder, I will be closely watching this developing story.

— Russ Vernon
West Point Market
Akron, Ohio

You can learn more about Russ here. You can also hear a speech Russ gave to The Entrepreneurship Institute on the subject of “Would you do business with YOU?”

Whether anyone is going to be doing business with Wild Oats is still in question. In the article that Russ responded to, we pointed out the issue:

Probably the most common question the Pundit has been asked is whether anti-trust authorities will allow the acquisition.

They should, but much depends on how you define “the competition.” If you believe there is a separate category of, say, “health food supermarkets,” then the FTC would be hesitant to approve. Wild Oats is the best shot at being a true competitor to Whole Foods, and allowing them to merge would be seen as anti-competitive.

A more reasonable view of the market, though, is that Whole Foods is part of a larger food retailing industry and in that industry it has an insignificant market share.

Then, as we said might happen, even though the FTC would be incorrectly analyzing the market, an announcement by the FTC was made — and we published a piece entitled, FTC May Block Whole Foods From Buying Wild Oats, pointing out the FTC’s lack of understanding of food retailing:

The flaw in the government’s reasoning is that it thinks there is an “organic supermarket business,” when, in fact, this is better understood as a marketing emphasis.

The products sold at a Whole Foods or a Wild Oats are sold in supermarkets, supercenters, warehouse clubs, via the Internet and many other outlets.

And in any case, the barriers to entry in opening these types of stores are quite low — Publix is going to do it with its Greenwise concept, Supervalu did it with Sunflower, and if the demand is there others will do it as well.

In the end we expected reason would triumph and the deal would be approved. Then, however, came word that the Founder and CEO of Whole Foods had been blasting Wild Oats under a pseudonym on stock boards on the Internet — a story we chronicled in Whole Foods Suffers From CEO’s Bizarre Behavior. Although the CEOs behavior technically shouldn’t really affect the case, we thought it probably would:

This will give the FTC an opportunity to kill the deal because it makes Whole Foods seem obsessive about Wild Oats. He didn’t post secretly about Kroger or Safeway — it was Wild Oats.

Yet U.S. District Court Judge Paul Friedman did come out against the FTC and allowed the merger, although the FTC has appealed that ruling.

The District Court Judge also denied the FTC’s request for stay, preventing the merger until the appeal is heard, though Whole Foods did agree to the FTC’s request that it not close the transaction before Aug 20th. This gave the FTC time to request a stay from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which is under consideration, but in the meantime the Court has blocked Whole Foods from consummating the merger. The court did emphasize that it was making no judgment on the merits of the case but put the deal on hold as it needed more time to review the matter.

John Mackey, Whole Foods CEO, has made statements that probably don’t help the Whole Foods cause. Forbes quotes him this way:

Whole Foods’ outspoken chief executive John Mackey said July 31 the company would act quickly at the first opportunity to close the deal.

"If we’re allowed to go through and close this transaction, we’re going to do so," he said then. "We’ll start closing stores and integrating the companies … Once the eggs get scrambled, they’re kind of hard to unscramble."

It makes it seem as if he has a plan to close stores — which Whole Foods has denied — and that his goal is to seize an opportunity to make it difficult for the Court to undo a merger, which won’t endear him to the Court and will make the Court more hesitant to allow a merger to go through until the Court has made a definitive judgment. Even if John Mackey does plan all this, it is hard to see the upside from talking about it.

Although Judge Friedman’s decision was issued under seal because it contains confidential information, he apparently did not buy the FTC’s claim that there was a separate industry of “organic/natural supermarkets” and thus did not see a monopoly being formed.

One thing clear is that Kroger wasn’t worried about the Whole Foods/Wild Oats combo. On August 8, 2007, Kroger gave Whole Foods a present by announcing a major expansion of its organic commitment:


More Than 60 Additional Items Will Be Added
To Retailer’s Exclusive Private Selection Organic Line

CINCINNATI, Ohio, August 8, 2007 — The Kroger Co. (NYSE: KR), one of the nation’s largest retail grocery chains, is expanding its line of organic foods this month, making it easier and more convenient for customers to find organic products they want at their neighborhood store.

Kroger’s expanded organics line is being sold under its exclusive Private Selection® brand and includes more than 60 products such as pasta, waffles, tea, peanut butter, snacks and milk. Most products will be available in Kroger’s family of stores by the end of September. Private Selection Organic™ items can be found throughout the stores including refrigerated cases, produce, cereal, canned vegetables, baking and juice aisles.

“This is an easy way for customers who want to try organic foods to do so at their own pace,” said Linda Severin, vice president of Corporate Brands at Kroger. “Our customers tell us they are interested in trying more organic foods and this expanded assortment is designed to help them do that during their regular shopping visits with us.”

Kroger’s Private Selection Organic products always carry the USDA Organic Certified seal, assuring at least 95% of the ingredients used are organic. The seal means the products are free from antibiotics and growth hormones and have no added artificial preservatives or chemicals

Kroger’s expanded Private Selection Organic line is offered in addition to the Company’s Naturally Preferred® natural and organic foods line, first introduced five years ago. Kroger and its family of stores offer over 300 Naturally Preferred brand items, including baby food, cereal, snacks and soy products. These products are minimally processed and use all natural and organic ingredients. They contain no artificial colors, preservatives or flavors. Many of these products are also organic and contain ingredients that are certified organically grown and free of herbicides and pesticides.

This release was the best possible news for Whole Foods: The nation’s largest conventional grocer announces an expansion of its organic efforts and thus confirms the Whole Foods argument that despite a cultural predilection internally to focus on Wild Oats, the competitive arena for organics and natural foods is vast.

Now the interesting question is why Kroger issued this release just as this decision was being considered by the judge.

Very possibly, it is pure coincidence. Kroger was ready to announce it, and Wild Oats is so small compared to Kroger, it didn’t even register that this announcement could have impact on the judge’s decision. Kroger is a very big company, after all, and its CEO certainly isn’t involved in every press release; so, perhaps, the announcement just happened.

Yet, maybe, just maybe, Kroger likes the idea of the merger. In markets such as Boulder, Colorado, Whole Foods and Wild Oats compete, and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey used that point to sell the merger to the Whole Foods board:

Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods and Wild Oats, the two largest natural-food chains in the U.S., have tussled in Boulder since 1998. That’s when Whole Foods built a 39,000-square-foot store in its rival’s backyard. The competition was poised to intensify when Wild Oats planned to open a new 40,000-square-foot flagship store in the Twenty Ninth Street mall, barely a mile from Whole Foods’ outpost.

Wild Oats originally planned to open the store in March but has since postponed it because of design and construction problems.

Whole Foods executives worried that Wild Oats’ new store would result in $150,000 in lost revenue per week for their company and planned to respond with a major store renovation, according to the Federal Trade Commission’s complaint. Whole Foods also contemplated special deals, such as a 10 percent discount for customers who brought in a Wild Oats bag to recycle, according to e-mails cited by the FTC.

By buying Wild Oats, Whole Foods will “avoid nasty price wars in Portland (both Oregon and Maine), Boulder, Nashville (Tenn.) and several other cities,” Whole Foods CEO John Mackey said in an e-mail to his board. The FTC cites the e-mail in the first page of its lawsuit seeking to block the deal.

Obviously Whole Foods would benefit from avoiding a price war with Wild Oats, but the real winner might be other retailers. After all, if Whole Foods maintains high prices on organics, it provides a kind of umbrella protecting the whole market. A high price level at Whole Foods allows mainstream supermarkets — such as the King Soopers, the Kroger division in Colorado — and Wal-Mart to slip in underneath.

So if the FTC is right and the merger will reduce competition, it is companies such as Kroger that will benefit.

This whole merger, though reminiscent of the way they built Whole Foods, may actually be yesterday’s strategy anyway. Whole Foods is now building large stores with lots of foodservice and spas. Integrating the many smaller Wild Oats stores is likely to distract Whole Foods’ management from that transition.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has set an accelerated schedule, giving Whole Foods only until Wednesday, August 22, 2007 to respond to the FTC’s request for a stay. The FTC must respond the next day with its counter-arguments. This is a rapid schedule in what often is a glacial process, so gives a clue that the court intends to move fast on this one.

Which means that if the Court rules with Whole Foods, we could have the acquisition completed this week. Whether that is really good for Whole Foods is another question entirely.

Costco Recalls Mexican Grown, U.S. Packed Baby Carrots From Canadian Stores

Late in the afternoon on Monday, we received news of some food safety issues with carrots labeled as being from Mexico, packed in Los Angeles and distributed by Costco in Canada:

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is warning the public not to consume Los Angeles Salad Company Baby Carrots described below because the product may be contaminated with Shigella.

The affected product, Los Angeles Salad Company Genuine Sweet Baby Carrots, is labeled as product of Mexico and imported by Los Angeles Salad Company. It is sold in 672 g/1.5 lb plastic bags bearing ITM 50325, UPC 8 31129 00137 7 and Sell By dates up to and including 8 /13 /07.

This product was sold in Costco stores in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland.

There have been four confirmed illnesses associated with the consumption of this product.

Food contaminated with Shigella may not look or smell spoiled. Shigella infection can cause diarrhea (which may be bloody), fever, nausea, and vomiting. Illness usually lasts from 4 to 14 days. In some persons, especially very young, and very old people and people with compromised immune systems, the diarrhea can be more severe. Infection can occur after eating and drinking food and water that is contaminated with Shigella and can be passed from person to person.

Costco Wholesale, Ottawa, Ontario, is voluntarily recalling the affected product from the marketplace. The CFIA is monitoring the effectiveness of the recall.

You can learn about Shigella here.

With all the talk about problems in food safety, one wonders if food safety is really the top priority in procurement. If you go to the Grimmway Farms web site, it says this about food safety:

Grimmway Farms knows that it’s important for you and your f October 1998. Food and Drug Administration 21 CFR Part 110.amily to be confident in the safety of the produce you consume. Our safety standards are among the highest in the industry. Awarded Shield #002 for participation and acceptance in the USDA Qualified Through Verification (QTV) program.

Third party auditors include USDA, AIB, Siliker Labs, Scientific Certification Systems, Davis Fresh Technologies and many of our customers have excellent in-house audit programs as well.

Food Safety Standards and Fruits and VegetaGuidelines: Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh bles —

Good Agricultural Practices include monthly self-audits, quarterly third party program audits, and an annual intensive 3 day third party audit. Each field is audited prior to harvest. All new contracted growers must complete a self-audit as part of the contract. Audit reports may be reviewed by an additional third party.

Mock recalls are completed and documented often, with one of five most probable scenarios.

A new isolated Pathogen Laboratory for environmental testing provides us with results in 24 to 48 hours.

Perhaps the Mexican grower of these carrots had all these certifications. Perhaps not. Now anyone could have a problem and, in fact, we have no information that anyone has done anything wrong.

Still, it is hard to believe that Costco, which is the company pushing everyone in Salinas to test everything day and night, selected this roundabout pattern of having Mexican carrots, packed in Los Angeles and then distributed in Canada because it made the determination this was the route most likely to enhance food safety.

One bright spot — if we are going to have recalls a warehouse club is the best place to have them. Because one can’t purchase from Costco without a Costco membership card, every purchase is easily traceable. So Costco can quickly notify every consumer who bought the recalled product.

This creates a powerful argument for the use of loyalty cards at food retailers.

It’s OK To Play With Food

We have always thought the marketers behind Arm & Hammer Baking Soda to be the greatest marketers of all time.

We suppose baking soda is used in some way for baking but we confess that the Pundit household has bought hundreds of boxes of Arm & Hammer Baking Soda and never used it in any baking.

Instead we have been persuaded by the marketing people who promote Arm & Hammer that it is a good idea for us to buy boxes of their product, leave them open in our refrigerator, then throw them in the garbage.

Not only that but to do it continuously, every three months, forever.

That is brilliant.

Well, a U.K.-based organization called The Fresh Prepared Salads Producer Group has struck upon a similar concept, encouraging children to play with their food:


British salad producers are taking up the challenge to get children to eat their greens by launching a Salad Bag Art competition, an idea developed after new research showed that 46% of parents play games at meal times to encourage their children to eat more healthily.

The GfK research, commissioned by The Fresh Prepared Salads Producer Group, shows that children continue to be resistant to eating their greens: 34% of parents said their children don’t like salad and 29% dislike vegetables. Other turn offs for kids are: meat (24%), fruit (20%) and milk (19%); the survey also reports that nearly a quarter (23%) of under 16s rarely or never try new foods. But the solution to getting children to eat healthily may not require millions of pounds of government funding. Instead, by allowing children to become familiar with food through play, they are more likely to try new and different ingredients.

The study revealed that 38% of parents said they found making a picture with food really helps their children eat at meal times, so British salad growers are launching a competition to find the UK’s best Salad Bag Artist. Youngsters are being invited to create a work of art from salad bag leaves and other salad vegetables with the chance of winning a place on a fabulous cookery course and a weekend in London for all the family.

To get the ball rolling and inspire youngsters to give Salad Bag Art a go, children’s TV presenter Mark Speight has created a self-portrait out of bagged salad leaves and other vegetables, while Carola Weymouth, founder of children’s cookery school Cookie Crumbles, designed a healthy handbag and a ship.

Mark commented: “I had so much fun creating my self-portrait but perhaps the best bit about Salad Art is that you can eat your picture after you’ve made it. So why don’t you get creative with salad and see what you can pull out of the bag!”

Mark and Carola’s creations plus all the details of the competition can be found at www.bringonthesalads.com.

Carola, who has taught over 10,000 children to cook, commented: “It’s clear that parents still struggle to get their children to eat their greens but parents are reporting that familiarizing techniques such as creating pictures and getting children involved in food preparation really do help conquer their resistance to trying new or previously disliked foods. This competition gives parents and children an ideal opportunity to familiarize themselves with salad ingredients and using a bagged salad will provide a variety of shapes, textures and flavours for children to enjoy.”

This group is composed of six large fresh-cut salad producers:

Pundit readers will recall that we did a piece on Florette here.

What’s interesting about this particular contest is that it is justified with consumer research in the U.K. finding many parents report that by playing with their children by, for example, making a smiley face out of the food, parents can get children to eat.

We confess that the Pundit once tried to make an airplane with the baby food to feed the eldest Junior Pundit but was harshly criticized by Momma Pundit, with a warning that if we got the Junior Pundit Primo accustomed to such play, he would never eat without a performance.

Be that as it may, we found the research interesting, noting that parents with children as old as 14 to 16 reported that 30% of the children did not enjoy salad, 29% did not enjoy vegetables and 19% do not even enjoy fruit!

We also noted an interesting “gender gap” in produce with the parents of 14 to 16 year olds reporting that 35% of boys do not like salads while only 25% of girls do not enjoy salads. 38% of boys do not like vegetables, whereas only 18% of girls of that age don’t like vegetables. Even with fruit, the survey reports that 23% of boys do not enjoy fruit, but only 15% of girls do not enjoy fruit.

We wonder if this pattern has been confirmed in other research. It might give us an idea of a focus that could be helpful in boosting consumption.

In any case, the contest at hand is designed to get children to make artwork with their food. Whether it will actually get children to eat more is an unanswered question. But if everyone makes designs with their foods and does it in accordance with the contest rulesthe main ingredient of your salad art must be salad leaves taken from a salad bag — they will certainly buy many more bags of salad. With a tip of the hat to Arm & Hammer, it is shear marketing genius.

New Zealand’s Garlic Growers Almost Extinct

Not sure it will make them feel better, but America’s garlic growers are not alone in their struggles. In New Zealand, there are only four growers left:

New Zealand’s garlic industry is on the verge of collapse, say growers.

Marlborough is recognized as one of the best places in the world to grow garlic, but the four remaining growers are under severe pressure from wine grapes, cheap Chinese imports and bureaucracy.

The growers met Green MP Sue Kedgley near Blenheim yesterday to plead for an industry lifeline.

Grower Pat Murphy said the number of Marlborough growers had dropped from 16 to just four over the past 10 years because it was too difficult to import seed stock.

Less than 100ha of garlic was now grown commercially.

Any imported garlic-seed stock had to go into quarantine before planting to avoid spreading a virus that affected other plants in the alliums family, such as onions.

It took three years from importation to plantation.

Using the same strain over and over again caused virus problems and reduced the size of garlic.

Meanwhile, cheap Chinese product could simply be imported, purchased at the supermarket and planted by home gardeners.

“It is the height of arrogance for Biosecurity New Zealand to require what they require of the Argentine (seed) suppliers. No-one will ever guarantee that allium species are virus-free,” Murphy said.

The virus was probably established in New Zealand.

New Zealand garlic is four times the price of Chinese imports but is three times more potent.

Marlborough Mayor Alistair Sowman, who owns a garlic marketing company, said customers both in New Zealand and overseas were crying out for the quality New Zealand product.

Kedgley said it was a classic example of the risk to New Zealand produce from imports.

It seems like the Kiwis are fighting their own bureaucracy as much as the Chinese. We wonder if there is a marketing opportunity in a more potent garlic — from New Zealand or California — sort of like those laundry detergents that have been promoted as requiring smaller quantities.

Maybe some signage pointing out consumers can save money by using less of this stronger garlic?

Pundit’s Mailbag — Naturipe And Sunkist

Our piece, Bruce Peterson Lands At Naturipe As Its New President/CEO, brought lots of fan mail for Bruce and a knowledgeable comment regarding a point we made in the article:

I would like to comment on the connection between Bruce Peterson joining Naturipe Farms and “Jeff Garguilo’s difficulty in moving another co-op, Sunkist, to realize its full potential”.

I led Sunkist’s juice business for four years under Jeff’s leadership at Sunkist and am very familiar with the strategic challenges of moving Sunkist in new directions. I am currently MBG’s CEO and a Director of the Naturipe Farms Board. I was a member of the team that brought Bruce on board at Naturipe Farms.

There are many differences between the Sunkist situation and Naturipe Farms (NF). First; Naturipe Farms is a partnership, not a cooperative. A key difference is the Board structure; Sunkist’s Board is composed of 27 members who represent packinghouses, NF’s 10 member Board represents four partners. The board dynamics are very different as a result.

The Sunkist packinghouse orientation drives fellow members to compete for “fresh market equity” within Sunkist. The NF partnership model drives the partners to maximize value across all berries in all growing regions. At NF, we are more strategically aligned with our partners than under the Sunkist model.

Your comment regarding cooperatives also needs a bit fuller understanding as well. The origins of Naturipe Farms began between a Chilean exporter and US cooperative that had the foresight to understand the value of countercyclical complementation rather than competition. The MBG Board has a broad perspective and understanding of how to successfully partner with investor-owned organizations. The key to our NF partnership is to have partners who are aligned with similar strategic disciplines:

  • Build markets with a view to the long-term

  • Drive value back to the producer/owne

  • Provide retailers and consumers with greater availability and choice by working togethe

  • Valuing the ability to create a footprint in the market place bigger than any one of us could do on our own

Obviously, we at the Board think Bruce is the right leader for the Naturipe Farms organization and we eagerly anticipate his insights about how we grow this business together as partners.

— Frank Bragg
MBG Marketing
“The Blueberry People™”

We appreciate Frank taking the time to write. He is, of course, correct that there are significant differences between the Sunkist situation and what Bruce will find at Naturipe.

We have written extensively about Sunkist and have made clear our critique of what is holding back Sunkist:

In the end, Sunkist was stopped because its governance structure created perverse incentives. All co-ops have challenges because the ownership is so focused on helping sell the commodity that it often loses site of the value of the brand.

Sunkist, however, is unusual because of its structure as a federated co-op, placing packers in positions of influence. Even if each grower’s shares would be worth a fortune on Wall Street, very powerful forces on the Board have other interests. By all accounts, for example, Mark Gillette of Gillette Citrus Company in Dinuba, California, is a powerful influence on the board, yet he is a relatively small grower, and his financial benefit from Sunkist leans heavily toward the income he derives from packing fruit.

It is easy to imagine a scenario in which growers might benefit by privatizing the co-op and doing a public offering, thus getting stock the growers could sell on the New York Stock Exchange any day of the week. Yet individual board members might lose out because growers might elect to have their fruit packed elsewhere.

Naturipe is a different situation in two important ways:

First, Bruce would not work for any co-op directly. Instead he will work for a Limited Liability Company (LLC), which is jointly owned by two U.S. co-ops and a Chilean company. At Sunkist, Jeff worked for one co-op.

Second, the co-ops in question have different governance structures than Sunkist, which gives them different incentives and, we would argue, makes them more likely to be assertive at realizing value for the growers.

We would also add a third point: Bruce is not Jeff.

We happen to really respect Jeff’s mind and to like him as well — but Jeff was used to being the boss. His father started the family business, and Jeff and his brother John diversified it and transformed it into Gargiulo, Inc., which was selling 10% of all the tomatoes sold in the United States when they sold it to Monsanto. Jeff worked only two years for Monsanto, presumably as part of a contract, before he left.

Jeff was an entrepreneur used to having his way; by the time he took the job at Sunkist he was quite wealthy, and one strongly suspects he didn’t have the patience to gently nudge along those co-op members who didn’t see his vision. His lifestyle, far removed from that of the typical Sunkist grower, was almost certain to arouse resentment. After all, how may Sunkist growers have their own winery? If Jeff couldn’t quickly get dramatic changes in capital structure and governance, he wasn’t going to sit around and wait. And he didn’t. When his contract was up, he left.

Now Bruce didn’t need to take this job financially — he has had a successful and reasonably lucrative career. He never has to work another day in his life if he doesn’t want to. But he wasn’t a partner in a giant produce company that was sold to a Fortune 100 firm. The Peterson winery is still in the future.

And, as we mentioned in the article announcing Bruce’s job at Naturipe, he was not the boss at Wal-Mart:

…Bruce is in many ways the perfect man for this job. The popular image of such a powerful Wal-Mart executive is someone always giving orders, but it is important to remember that produce, even the whole perishables category, were just a small piece of Wal-Mart. When Bruce started, they were almost nothing.

While Bruce had to lead his produce and perishables team, he actually spent an awful lot of his time convincing other people, in other departments at Wal-Mart, that they ought to do what Bruce thought they should do. If he had not been successful at building this kind of consensus and support, Wal-Mart’s produce and perishables operation would not have had even a fraction of the success they have enjoyed.

So Bruce, who once built bridges between produce and packaged goods, now will build them between Chileans and Americans, between co-ops and private companies.

By disposition and situation, Bruce is far more likely to succeed at Naturipe than Jeff was at Sunkist. And we should note that we think Jeff’s tenure was itself, in many ways, a great success for Sunkist — he was just stopped short of instituting the sort of fundamental change in capital structure and governance that would have been desirable.

This all being said — and fully recognizing the many differences between this situation and Sunkist and our agreeing with Frank and the Naturipe Farms board that Bruce has much to contribute and is the right man for the job — we still think there are challenges ahead.

John Shelford has always impressed us but over the years we have sensed that the board was in many ways running the company. John knows everything about berries. He was so involved in product development, operations and execution that he didn’t really have time to be the classic CEO.

Bruce’s interests are different, and we suspect that he will insist on running the company — that will mean a change from the way things have been.

We also think there is something of a cultural gap between the way business is done in Chile and the way it is done in the U.S. — and bridging that gap will be a long-term project for Bruce.

The diversified ownership, each with its own economic interests, creates a whole set of management challenges all its own. A publicly held company has the charge to increase shareholder value — it doesn’t know or care if doing so conflicts with other economic interests of its owners. A situation like this is more difficult to manage simply because maximizing corporate value is not the only value — the owners also want to maximize the return on their growing operations.

All this is not to say that success cannot be obtained. We think Naturipe has already obtained much success. Look, Bruce Peterson is one of the rock stars of the industry and he had many offers. The very fact that he would consider the position shows the success Naturipe has had since its founding.

To say that both challenges and opportunities lie ahead is not surprising. If the Naturipe board didn’t agree that there would be plenty of both in the years to come, they surely could have found someone a lot cheaper than Bruce.

We appreciate Frank’s letter and join with Frank and the board in agreeing that Bruce is the right leader for Naturipe Farms LLC. And we join with the whole industry in waiting to see the next step of growth for Naturipe Farms. Best of luck to all involved.

Pundit Mailbag — Honor ‘Green’ Attempts

Our piece, Consumers Not So Fast To Go Green, brought this astute observation:

The sentence below, from “Consumers not so fast to go Green,” leaves me gasping:

Yankelovich’s survey of 2,763 consumers and their environmental attitudes, GOING Green, released today, found that only one-third (34%) of consumers feel much more concerned about environmental issues today than a year ago. And less than one-quarter (22%) of consumers feel they can make a difference when it comes to the environment.

I think that a 34% increase in concern on a particular subject, in the space of a single year, would in most contexts be seen as an avalanche, a tidal wave, whatever superlative word one might choose. And yet to a skeptic, the truth is that 66% of those polled had not changed their opinions, and therefore nothing has really changed.

The 22% percent of people who feel they can make a difference when it comes to the environment is equally staggering. Many of your articles propose that this sense of personalresponsibility is based on various trendy illusions — the truth being that there isn’t much of a problem and even if there were, nobody could realistically do anything to improve things.

I agree with you that some, perhaps most, attempts to be pro-active are misguided or oversimplified, but this is because the scale and complexity of the problems facing humanity are so huge.

But the concern, and the attempts,should be honored, I think.

— Bob Sanderson
Jonathan’s Sprouts
Rochester, Massachusetts

Bob is a frequent contributor to the pages of the Pundit and his comments are always insightful. Today he points to something absolutely true: If over a third of people have become much more concerned about anything in a year, that is a sea change.

That Yankelovich didn’t treat it that way — they didn’t make the headline “A Third Of Consumers Much More Concerned About The Environment Than Last Year” — is probably because the nature of the question is tricky.

Yankelovich didn’t do a comparison survey of one year’s results over the next. They did not ask people to rate their concern on environmental issues one year, then do the survey again this year and note a 34% increase in people who respond that they are concerned about the environment. Instead Yankelovich asked people today if they had grown more concerned on this issue.

The problem with this methodology is that the question was not morally neutral. There have been hundreds of articles, TV interviews, cocktail conversations on this subject, not to mention an Oscar-winning movie… all creating the atmosphere in which the virtuous answer, the answer that communicates a personal concern by any knowledgeable citizen, is to say, “Yes, my concern in the environment has increased.”

So while we agree with Bob that the leap in concern seems enormous, we have to put this whole matter into the category of “interesting, if true” until we get some more data, perhaps in next year’s follow-up study.

We agree with Bob that honoring those who try to do good for the world is desirable, but we believe in the ancient admonition, Primum Non Nocere — first, do no harm. This means that those who choose to act also take on the responsibility to know what they are doing.

This means that consumers in a Marks & Spencer who decide to avoid produce from Kenya with the airplane sticker on it to help the world better have included the plight of those Kenyans in their calculations.

Otherwise, electing not to buy that product is not really an attempt to help the world. It is a kind of moral snobbery, in which people do things to feel more virtuous — regardless of the actual consequences of their actions.

As always, we appreciate Bob Sanderson’s insight and contribution.

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