Trader Joe’s has come under fire recently over accusations that the trendy grocery store is habitually wasting food. The chorus of public outcry from a recent documentary film showing workers dumping large quantities of salvageable food into dumpsters. I must say, I feel for the big company in this case, not because I would for even a moment defend their practice, but because I think Trader Joe’s was awfully unfortunate to have a camera lens somehow come to focus squarely on one of its stores. I know that this problem is in no way limited to a few offending corporations, and everybody that’s protesting Trader Joe’s ought to know that too. Who could not be aware that wastefulness is an endemic problem stretching across vast swaths of American society?
It can be particularly horrifying when it is a corporate policy and the damage done by those policies is not limited to discarded food. When I worked for a large corporate retailer, I was once called in along with virtually every other employee to help clean up after a minor fire had broken out in the store. The fire had been limited to a cell phone kiosk, and there was no real damage elsewhere in the store, but the building had filled with smoke, coating most of the merchandise with soot, which everyone had to meticulously dust off while the store remained closed for a day. Along the way, a manager called me to the center of the store where there were racks of clothing and I found my superior pulling armfuls of winter coats off of hangers and dumping them into a large, wheeled plastic bin generally used for trash and recyclable cardboard. When I arrived, she pointed to a full bin and instructed me that it was to be taken to the back room and emptied into the trash compactor.
I was stunned. These coats were completely undamaged. It seemed that the reason for their being discarded was simply that they had taken on the smell of smoke and were thus no longer saleable. But the fact remained that as sources of warmth they were still entirely useable. It was the beginning of winter in a rather cold climate, and these coats – dozens upon dozens of them – could have been used to outfit homeless people for three excruciating months of harsh weather. They could very well have kept people alive.
I feebly protested, but then wheeled the bin to the back and did as I was told, feeling sick with myself all the while. Upon returning the empty bin to the center of the store and finding another full bin waiting for me, I lodged my complaint with the person who had assigned me this task and explained to her that if she wanted someone to continue discarding merchandise that could better be donated to charity she’d have to find someone else as I considered it unethical and would not be a party to it. She nodded agreeably, but explained that she herself had no choice in the matter, that company policy dictated that all uninsured losses must be thrown in the garbage. She seemed vaguely remorseful of that fact, but not enough so that she would take any pains to contravene the policy. Interestingly, hers was the least agreeable response I got. I explained what was going on to absolutely everybody I encountered in the store for the rest of that evening and every one of them expressed disgust on par with my own. Ostensibly, all of us together comprised a meaningful part of the company and yet the company was willing to do something that perhaps no individual part of it would have found conscionable. As the saying goes, sometimes none of us is as dumb as all of us.
I imagine that a great many of the activists campaigning against Trader Joes are doing so because they want to feel good about their social impact but don’t want to stop shopping there. Trader Joe’s is in a tough position because their clientele is more likely to have an activist bent than many of their competitors’, but that fact is determined more by their merchandise and market position than by their corporate practices. And the unfortunate fact is that that activist bent in individual shoppers is not necessarily indicative of their unimpeachable social and environmental practices. I’m certain that a number of those who are now pumping their fists in front of the entrance to Trader Joe’s formerly didn’t think twice about purchasing merchandise from their shelves that was packaged in multiple layers of plastic, or about throwing away clothing just because it was last season, or about taking a bag of trash to the curb every single week.
I don’t for a moment expect anyone to be flawless, whether an individual or a corporation. I do expect each of us to push ourselves and the whole of society around us in a positive direction. I am pleased to see people making an effort to see that Trader Joe’s reforms its wasteful practices. However, I also think it’s important that we don’t pigeonhole our activism, and that we avoid making the mistake of seeing problems as minute and specific when in fact they are bigger than all of us. Focusing too narrowly on a social or environmental ill can not only prevent one from seeing the bigger picture, it can prevent one from seeing one’s own place in the picture. I fear that some people who are directing their outcry against Trader Joe’s think that we live in a society that has some wasteful stores when in fact we just live in a wasteful society.
The social and environmental progress that we should rightly be looking for is at the end of a long uphill battle, and while protesting newly realized acts of irresponsibility is an important step in that direction, it is imperative that such realizations act as general eye openers and make a person more carefully consider what corporate practices one may have been enabling with one’s purchasing power, what better alternatives there might have been, and what one is doing personally that might be similarly damaging, albeit in a much, much lesser degree.
Change starts at the level of the individual. Part of the individual’s role is to push larger entities in the right direction, but some of that work is done by leading by example. The consumer should be aware that there’s harm done by the things that a store never gets the chance to dismissively throw out, because it is taken off their shelves and becomes trash in the homes of many, many private individuals. Consequently, the consumer should strive to limit consumption and stick to packaging and other materials that can be recycled or will be sure to biodegrade. He should also work to find and support products made from green sources and in environmentally sustainable ways, as well as buying and using products that are durable and high quality and less likely to quickly make their way to the garbage bin.
Bamboo is one key resource that has the potential to help curtail global warming, while providing an extremely multifaceted resource and the potential for much economic growth through domestic growth, harvest, and manufacture. Among the excellent products that can be derived from it is viscose clothing, a highly durable alternative to cotton, which is terribly common in landfills just as well as American homes. By supporting this sustainable resource and making available some of its derivative products in a responsible way, Green Earth Bamboo hopes to do its part in reducing waste, promoting good environmental practices, and building a better world.
Throughout American society, we all have a part to play, and we all can learn from one another as we try to do better for our world, improving our lifestyles as individuals and agitating for more forward-thinking corporate practices. And we should never wait until a documentary lens is turned upon us or the establishments we patronize before we decide that something – and something big – needs to change.