The Universal Notebook: The petty politics of boycotts

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Last week I read that some employees at Whole Foods in Portland are concerned because the upscale grocery store is too crowded to maintain safe social distancing. As a result more than a dozen Whole Foods workers have tested positive for COVID-19.

That would be a good reason to avoid Whole Foods had I not been doing so for the past 12 years.

I stopped shopping at Whole Foods in 2009 when founder John Mackey came out against Obamacare. I may have broken my pledge a couple of times when in need of some expensive, exotic foodstuff, but when Mackey called Obamacare “fascism” in 2013 I redoubled my principled boycott.

You might think the founder of a natural foods supermarket chain would be a progressive person, but Mackey is a libertarian who not only opposes public health insurance, he is also anti-union and a climate change denier. Plenty of good reasons for liberals to avoid Whole Foods.

Of course, Mackey has not owned Whole Foods since 2017 when Amazon acquired it. The fact that Amazon’s Whole Foods now has an extra 20-30 home-delivery pickers in the store in addition to regular employees and in-person shoppers seems to be a major source of the crowding in Portland. But if I were all that concerned about crowding I wouldn’t shop at Hannaford in Brunswick where the aisles are so narrow that you can’t maintain 6-foot distances most of the time anyway.

Since I am in the habit of avoiding Whole Foods, I am not concerned about pickers and pandemic protocols there. And, to be perfectly honest, I have been questioning my whole Whole Foods boycott since 2017, not because liberal Jeff Bezos bought out libertarian John Mackey that year, but because L.L. Bean, where my lovely wife worked at the time, faced a political backlash that year that caused me to rethink the ethics of consumer boycotts.

You may remember that one of the 50-odd family members who own the venerable Freeport outdoor retailer made a donation to Donald Trump’s election campaign, triggering a Bean boycott led by a California activist who has also boycotted everyone from Revlon and Procter & Gamble to U-Haul and Wendy’s, as well as the New England Patriots, Chicago Cubs, Dallas Cowboys, and Cleveland Browns.

Since I was as horrified as the next person that Trump won, I understood people’s desire to lash out. But punishing an enlightened company that treats its employees well and contributes so much to the community in order to hurt one stockholder seemed, well, unjust, unkind, unethical, and uncalled for. I have not been enthusiastic about consumer boycotts since.

If you are going to get all self-righteous and indignant about one person at one company, then, in the interest of fairness, you should apply the same standards to all the companies with which you do business. Are you sure there are no board members or executives at your bank, mortgage company, credit card company, insurer, or gas company who contributed to or voted for Trump? I’d be willing to bet good money there are plenty.

So, by my own reasoning, I guess I should stop boycotting Whole Foods just because the former owner is a cad, but then, of course, I’d have to start worrying about the overcrowding and the coronavirus. So I guess I’ll stick to Hannaford and Trader Joe’s. I’d then be honor-bound, however, to make sure the notoriously furtive and feuding German clan that owns Trader’s Joe’s does not harbor any Nazis.

It’s a full-time job being holier-than-thou.     

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.