Whole Foods Market: An opportunity for better then market returns and positive impact?

What values does Whole Foods (WFM) stand for?

According to their Declaration of Interdependence, they stand for “Whole Foods – Whole People – Whole Planet”. In 2012 they published their first Green Mission Report which highlighted work in a wide variety of areas including:

  • Labeling initiatives for sustainable seafood, health and beauty products and animal welfare
  • Wind energy RECs (renewable energy credits) to offset the entire company’s energy usage, and initiatives to further reduce energy use
  • Micro-lending and school gardening programs in Whole Foods communities

The Whole Trade Program – their certification partnership program –  has four Fair Trade criteria:

  1. quality
  2. premium price to the producer
  3. better wages and working conditions
  4. the environment

The Whole Foods website shares profiles of some of the producers. In communities where there are stores there is a local producers loan program, which to date has loaned $10 million.

In addition to their self-admitted need to make ongoing improvements on environmental impact, there have been significant controversies due to their union positions.

Executives don’t make more then 19 times the average employee pay. At the same time, according to one recent article by Ronnie Cummins, the Founder and Director of the Organic Consumers Association and Dave Murphy, Founder and Executive Director of Food Democracy Now!  ”…here in the U.S., WFM, the second largest union-free food retailer behind Walmart,  has taken the position that unions are not valid. ”

Another area of concern is the impact of new locations as Whole Foods continues to expand the local environment and community.

The highest sales per square foot in the grocery industry

Since Whole Foods went public in 1992 it’s commitment to organics and sustainability has helped it rise to Number 232 on the Fortune 500 list along with the growth of the organics market overall.

They have 78,000 employees and the highest sales per square foot in the grocery industry.

This growth has translated into tremendous returns for investors – close to 8000% including dividends since they went public.

What’s the Road Ahead look like?

As Whole Foods has grown its customer base has also diversified in age and income. It’s aiming to compete more on price and prove it no longer deserves the “Whole PayCheck” name.

There are new stores in the UK and Canada, which they anticipate to be a $1 billion market for them over the next decade.

Whole Foods has an expansion plan that calls for 1,000 US stores compared to the current 373.

As the Organics market as a whole continues to mature they face greater competition.  Whole Foods CEO John Mackey considers Trader Joe’s their main competition. “We match all Trader Joe’s prices so they’re not underselling us.” he says.

That competition, though, also signals the opportunity.

Many Americans have embraced buying organic, and still have room to become more frequent organic shoppers, as this Infographic from the Organic Consumers Association indicates:

Consumersurveyinforgraphic

While there may continue to be pressure on Fair Trade practices, especially in relation to US workers, their long standing commitment on a broad range of environmental and community issues is at the core of their brand.

Overall, Whole Foods is positioning itself for long term strength as it continues to climb the Fortune 500 list and expand its reach without losing the core focus on organics.