Blogs > Sara Gutterman > March 2013 > I Can See Clearly Now

I Can See Clearly Now

Earlier this week, grocery store chain Whole Foods made an important announcement, demanding “full GMO transparency” from its suppliers by 2018. By the end of this five-year timeframe, Whole Foods will require that all products sold in its stores which contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have appropriate labeling.

Whole Foods is the first major player in the grocery industry to set a deadline for GMO labeling. “We heard our customers loud and clear asking us for GMO labeling and we are responding where we have control: in our own stores," the company said in a recent statement.

This important milestone reflects the influence that consumers can have over industry policy. Whole Foods’ aggressive move towards full disclosure forces chemical companies, agribusiness, and food processers into a new arena of extreme transparency and places a higher priority on consumers’ “right to know”.

We’ve begun seeing this level of extreme transparency in other industries—namely, the outdoor apparel sector, which was led into the practice by Patagonia. According to Patagonia’s CEO Casey Sheehan, “extreme transparency is the only way that consumers can make sensible purchasing decisions.” The outdoor apparel industry is now guided by the sustainable apparel index, an industry-wide tool for measuring the environmental and social performance of apparel products and the supply chains that produce them, enabling buyers to make more informed choices.

Back in the grocery industry—John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, is not a diehard environmentalist. He has a relatively laissez faire attitude about climate change, saying that it is “perfectly natural and not necessarily bad.” He considers himself to be a ‘conscious capitalist.’ And what he knows perhaps better than anyone else in the world is how to deliver fresh, organic, high-quality grocery products to a target market that is giddy to have access to those products, even at a price premium. So, when his customers demanded GMO labeling, Mackey took action.

Apprehensive consumers concerned about the human health and environmental safety risks of genetically modified food are pushing to thread GMO labeling into our national political discourse. Despite the recent defeat of Proposition 37 (which proposed mandatory state-wide labeling of genetically engineered food) in California, voters are insisting that the issue makes its way into legislation.

The building industry lags a decade (or more) behind the grocery industry in terms of consumer adoption of sustainable products. Organic foods experienced massive and rapid mainstream consumer adoption in the 1990’s, while green building products began attracting consumer attention en masse ten years later. This gap is likely attributable to the scale of the purchase and the difference in price points between organic foods and green building products (an organic apple is a small price bump, but a high efficiency HVAC system is a bigger pill to swallow). Nevertheless, there are numerous lessons that the building industry can learn from organic foods about purchasing patterns, buyer behavior, consumer preferences, and now the push for extreme transparency.

Due to its influence and customer support, Whole Foods has started a movement. With one press release, the company has made arguably more progress towards transparency than our dysfunctional public sector could have affected in an entire year of mottled, hateful, and special interest-influenced debates.

There are many companies in the building sector that have similar levels of market share and consumer support as Whole Foods. What kind of action should we demand from them to make real sustainable change in our sector? Write to me at or follow me on Twitter @SaraGBM.

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Posted: 3/14/2013 1:17:54 PM by Mary Kestner | with 0 comments

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