Whole Foods promises to stop selling food produced by people in prison

At last: Whole Foods has promised to stop selling food produced by people in prison.

The change comes in response to years of bad publicity and protest, including, last week, a direct action at a store in Houston. While the company markets itself as hip, progressive, and a champion of sustainability (“We embrace our responsibility to co-create a world where each of us, our communities and our planet can flourish”), Whole Foods has come under fire for charging customers $12 a pound for cheese produced by workers paid less than a dollar a day.

In a smart piece over at Dissent last year, Trish Kahle exposed the hypocrisy behind the Whole Foods brand:

If Whole Foods sells free-range eggs because it’s inhumane to keep hens in cages that rob them of their quality of life, it seems more than a little contradictory to then claim that exploiting the labor of caged humans who have been ripped from our communities—often for nonviolent offenses—and locked up by a barbarous criminal injustice system is ‘serving the community.’

Whole Foods’ CEO, a staunch libertarian, is a big proponent of so-called “conscious capitalism.” Conscious capitalism is marketed to the American public under a million different names — corporate responsibility, corporate social responsibility, responsible business, and (my personal favorite) corporate citizenship — but, at the end of the day, it’s all just capitalism with a smile. The company’s comfortable reliance on exploited labor exposes the ruse.

So too does its recent decision to shape up. Whole Foods didn’t decide to stop relying on exploited prison labor because it cares about people in prison. It didn’t stop because it cares about workers’ rights, or even about its customers. It stopped in order to come “in-tune with [its] customers’ wishes.” It stopped, in other words, because it cares about its bottom line.

That’s why this week’s victory feels deeply incomplete. Responsive only to the ethic of profit under the logic of capitalism, Whole Foods will inevitably find some other way to keep profits up and people down. And, what’s more, Whole Foods is just one company of many that relies (and — in a capitalist system — necessarily must rely) upon an underpaid, powerless labor force to keep overhead low and profit margins high. Labor exploitation is just one abuse of many (rampant gender violence, for instance) levied against people in prison. And prison is just one tactic to keep black and brown folks down. The exploitation of (black) labor is foundational to this country.

So let’s not go out and enjoy our goat cheese conscience-free. The fight isn’t over because the exploitation isn’t; the system that produces and maintains economic (and racial, and gender) violence is still going strong. As organizer Michael Allen succinctly put it, “We can only emancipate prisoners by ending capitalism.”

New Haven, CT

Dana Bolger is a Senior Editor at Feministing and the co-founder of Know Your IX, the national youth-led organization working to end gender violence in schools. She's testified before Congress on Title IX policy and legislative reform, and her writing has appeared in a number of outlets, including The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. She's also a student at Yale Law School, and you can find her on Twitter at @danabolger.

Dana Bolger is a Senior Editor at Feministing and a student at Yale Law School.

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