Aligning Our Products with Our Mission
The world of food has grown extremely complex. People have a variety of needs that lead them to look for products that include or exclude certain ingredients, and there are a plethora of labels (fair trade is especially confusing) and categories (just shelf stable milk has huge variety—soy, rice, oat, hemp, organic, non-GMO, etc.). Many new companies are emerging to fulfill the varied desires and needs of consumers. Companies change their ingredients or their label without notice. Small companies get bought by larger corporations.
It’s a complicated puzzle, and The Food Co-op has a variety of approaches to untangle this knot in order to serve the needs of all our members and shoppers while keeping our shelves stocked with products aligned with our values.
Our products are chosen by department managers and staff buyers who are dedicated to the mission of the Co-op. They look for products that help us fulfill the goals in our strategic plan*, and the choices are filtered through our product guidelines, such as Products We Choose to Carry, our seafood guidelines, and TAUFIL—The Acceptable and Unacceptable Food Ingredient List. They are always looking for organic, local or regional, non-GMO, fair-trade, and/or cooperatively made products.
The Food Co-op’s Product Research Committee (PRC), comprised of staff members, members at large, and board members, researches questions about products raised by staff, producers, and members. When someone has a concern or a question, be it a committee member who read an article on an additive or an eagle-eyed staff member who notices that a label has changed, the PRC will try to get to the bottom of it. Then they pass the information on to the managers and buyers. PRC also writes informational articles for The Commons and has a binder at the front of the store.
We are a relatively small store and do not wield much power through the amount of product we buy, but we can still influence our suppliers. For instance, our produce manager works continually with our suppliers and producers to get more environmentally friendly packaging. As you might expect, it is an uphill battle for a variety of reasons, but by letting suppliers and producers know what our customers want and expect, we gradually create change.
We also can endorse initiatives, such as label transparency laws or plastic bag bans.
National Cooperative Grocers
The NCG, which is a cooperative of cooperative grocery stores, allows us to band together with other co-ops for better prices, but also to advocate for better practices. Most recently, the NCG asked the Willamette Valley Pie Company to change the palm oil in their pies sold to NCG members to Palm Done Right palm oil. After looking at the issue, the company made the choice to make all of their pies with Palm Done Right palm oil, not just those they sell to NCG members.
Choosing not to purchase
Our managers are committed to our mission and values, and if necessary, they will choose to temporarily or permanently stop buying a product if an issue arises. They do not need to wait for a formal boycott from the board; they are empowered to make their own, well-thought out decisions based on their knowledge, their extensive contacts, information from the PRC, etc.
Boycotts are political statements that are very useful in certain situations. We join boycotts with care and consideration, following our Civic Engagement and Action Policy (C9) and our boycott procedure. We do not boycott ingredients (that falls under our product guidelines and TAUFIL), countries, or people.
Companies Purchased by Corporations Who Do Not Meet Our Standards
Our overarching goals at The Food Co-op are to offer good food and support our community. Speaking a little grandly, we want to make the world a better place. We believe this is a gradual process that often moves in fits and starts and we believe the greatest success will come from positive actions rather than the punitive ones.
We know many corporations have focused on profit at the expense of the environment and human rights and we know some corporations are steadily buying up the small organic companies on which we rely for our products. As a cooperative, democratic organization, we believe that there can be positive change in the world, even if it is incremental and even from corporations. We don’t expect the corporations to become cooperative or suddenly good, but we do think they can become better and we believe even small improvements could make a huge difference in our world. And if good products reach more people, that is also progress. So rather than simply dropping the products, we have chosen to monitor companies thus acquired to make sure they stay true to our standards.
When an independent company is bought by a large corporation, the PRC sends a letter asking the following questions:
1) Will your product be changed? If so how?
2) Will your employment and environmental practices be changed? If so, how?
3) What influenced your decision to be purchased by Nestlé/General Mills/Campbell’s/Coca Cola?
4) What input do you expect to have with that corporation to influence positive changes in their products and employment and environmental practices?
This letter both gives us information and lets the company know that we are paying attention. The PRC then monitors the company to ensure it continues to fulfill our standards.
Note: The Food Co-op carries a few products we might not normally carry—such as Cheerios—in order to qualify for WIC (Women, Infants, and Children), which helps families get food.