Shopping for Wholeness: The Political Economy of Whole Foods Market and the Commodification of Altruism

Allison Lakomski

Advisor: Paul Smith, PhD, Cultural Studies Program

Committee Members: Alison Landsberg, Denise Albanese

Enterprise Hall, #318
November 19, 2015, 11:30 AM to 08:30 AM


For the majority of Americans, Whole Foods Market needs no introduction. Expanding from a small natural foods store in Austin, Texas, Whole Foods has become the eighth largest food and drug store chain in the United States, earning recognition for their higher ethics and higher prices in the process. Despite the recent attention given to Whole Foods Market Corporation in academic and popular literature, few analyses have considered the breadth of its actions and the potential long term impact of its corporate financial success. Working from Whole Foods’ CEO John Mackey’s theory of “Conscious Capitalism,” this dissertation provides an analysis of the contradictions in the company’s attempt to produce social, economic, and ecological change through a modified form of capitalism. Situating Whole Foods within the interrelated histories of ethical consumption, the American supermarket, and the natural foods industry, this study reveals that, counter to the popular opinion that Whole Foods is exceptional as a business, the practices of Whole Foods are one outcome of the trajectory of capitalism. Mobilizing ethical consumption by presenting the enactment of care for people and the planet through their brand, Whole Foods attempts address some of the most negative effects of capitalism by showing consumers that their choices can facilitate positive change within the market. Conclusively, this dissertation shows that what appear as admirable efforts by Whole Foods serve to undercut the company's culpability in the preservation of exploitative social relations and ecologically detrimental practices. Far from serving in the creation of a better world, the drive of Whole Foods to profit hinders the achievement of the company's mission by perpetuating the illusion that capitalism can be both optimally profitable and ethical.