April 13, 2011
CIW Response to Trader Joe's
“A Note to our Customers about Florida Tomatoes"
Confronted with mounting pressure from the Campaign for Fair Food, Trader Joe's recently posted an update to its website entitled, “A Note to our Customers about Florida Tomatoes.” Its key passage states that:
“Trader Joe's is working directly with wholesalers and growers to pay an extra penny per pound to all growers from whom we buy tomatoes grown in Florida. We have no problem paying an extra penny per pound as a 'fair food' premium to certified growers. We have been told that the CIW will not allow their partner-growers to accept and pass on the penny-per-pound premium from Trader Joe's without Trader Joe's signing their agreement.” read more
Before we take a closer look at Trader Joe's new position on the Campaign for Fair Food, we want to make one thing very clear: The CIW has never asked any grower to refuse money that Trader Joe’s or anyone else may send its way (perhaps that's why that particular sentence starts with the subtle disclaimer "we have been told that..."). While it would not surprise us if some growers do in fact refuse payments they cannot account for, that is their decision to make, not ours.
But there is much more to unpack in this cleverly deceptive update. For while it is comforting to hear that Trader Joe’s apparently no longer has a problem with paying a penny per pound to support human rights, there are two fundamental problems with the company’s new found claim to social responsibility:
1) There is no way to verify it, and
2) There is no binding commitment behind the new policy, and therefore no way to enforce it.
Let's begin with the issue of verification. Trader Joe’s can of course spend its money as it sees fit, and as an $8 billion retailer it has a lot of money to spend. But claims that it is supporting the Fair Food Program by paying the penny per pound are not enough. The program requires -- and every participating retailer has agreed to -- auditing to verify that all tomato purchases comply with the program. Without the auditing, there can be no credibility, nor any foundation for accountability.
It is, of course, hardly surprising that Trader Joe’s -- a company dubbed "obsessively secretive" for the exceptional opaqueness of its supply chain ("Inside the secret world of Trader Joe's," Money Magazine, 8/23/10) -- doesn't want to report to anyone, much less the CIW, about where it buys its tomatoes. But you can't, on the one hand, jealously guard the secrecy of your supply chain while simultaneously asking consumers to trust you to manage your supply chain responsibly. "Trust but verify" is more than an oft-quoted proverb, it's what today's socially conscious consumers demand of their retailers. And Trader Joe's has built its business on the demand of socially conscious consumers.
Then there's the question of commitment and enforceability. Over the past ten years, thousands of Florida farmworkers, and tens of thousands of consumers across the country, have built the Fair Food Campaign on a foundation of real and sustained commitment at the retail level towards collaboratively addressing farmworker poverty and modernizing working conditions in the supply chain.
Only with such a binding commitment on the part of retailers can lasting improvements in the fields be achieved, for growers and workers alike need to know that the changes they implement will be supported not just in the short term while the world is watching, but in the long term as the industry endeavors to move forward.
They also need to know, not merely hope, that, in the event a participating grower is found to be no longer in compliance with the Fair Food Code of Conduct, Trader Joe’s will stop buying tomatoes from that grower. Trader Joe's must commit -- as have nine other retailers -- to condition its purchases on compliance with the Code. Their website update contains no such commitment (nor could it), and so there is no way to "enforce" their update if a grower in their supply chain decides to cut corners on human rights.
This model of retailers advancing human rights in their supply chains, with their pennies and their purchases, has been vetted and codified by nine industry leaders – from the fast-food, foodservice and supermarket sectors – as well as by the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange.
But Trader Joe’s is not yet willing to commit to supporting the human rights of those who pick its tomatoes. Rather, its position reads as a textbook example of a short-term, public relations stunt designed to neutralize criticism just long enough for the spotlight to fade away. That won't satisfy the requirements of the Campaign for Fair Food, and we're willing to bet it won't satisfy Trader Joe's customers, either.
Post Script: The Trader Joe's web update included two additional points that we thought we'd answer quickly while we have your attention.
1) Trader Joe's says:
“To date, Trader Joe's has requested and not received specific information from the CIW about the allegations of human rights abuses in Trader Joe's supply chain. We are unable to comment on accusations we haven't seen.”
CIW response: Over the past fifteen years alone, newspapers have been full of accounts of human rights violations in Florida’s tomato industry -- from slavery to sexual harassment and systemic minimum wage violations – all of them documented and prosecuted in federal court. Did Trader Joe’s continue to buy from the growers associated with those abuses, no questions asked? Probably, but remember, Trader Joe's supply chain is totally opaque, and they obviously want to keep it that way. We, and you, have no idea which growers supply them. How would one report the misconduct of Trader Joe’s suppliers if Trader Joe’s won’t tell you who those suppliers are? And if you were to report the misconduct of every grower, how would you know whether Trader Joe’s ever bought from that grower, or whether they stopped buying after the report? That is exactly why a signed agreement that includes strict reporting requirements is essential, so that when a human rights abuse does occur, not only can we know if it happened in Trader Joe's supply chain, but we can verify that Trader Joe's will cut off purchases from that grower if the violation is serious enough or goes uncorrected.
2) Trader Joe's says:
“We have made it clear to the CIW that Trader Joe's does not sign agreements that allow third party organizations to dictate to us what is right for our customers. However, the wholesalers and growers with whom we work in Florida have agreed to sign a CIW "fair food" agreement which would guarantee that all tomatoes from Florida in Trader Joe's meet all aspects of the CIW standards.”
CIW response: Trader Joe’s apparently does not think much of its customers’ logical abilities. If the company’s concern is about not allowing third parties to "dictate" what's right for Trader Joe's customers, how does it possibly matter if the agreement that "dictates" the Fair Food standards is signed by Trader Joe's or by its distributors? Either way, at least according to the statement, "all tomatoes from Florida in Trader Joe's" would be bought under the terms of the agreement. Sounds like petulance, not principle, is the operating factor here.
But, in fact, Trader Joe’s attempt to foist their responsibilities off on others in their supply chain would not insure that “all tomatoes from Florida in Trader Joe’s” meet the Fair Food standards. This is because no single distributor knows Trader Joe's total purchases, only Trader Joe's does. The distributors only know their piece of the overall pie, not the whole. There would be no way of knowing, much less verifying, that Trader Joe's wasn’t simultaneously buying from wholesalers who participate in the Fair Food program and wholesalers who don’t.
Nor would there be any way of knowing when Trader Joe’s added a new wholesaler, whether they did that to avoid paying the penny per pound on some of their purchases, or to avoid cutting off a favored grower who has fallen out of compliance with the Fair Food program.
In short, no amount of verbal gymnastics can hide the fact that Trader Joe’s can have a supply chain that is socially responsible or a supply chain that is opaque. They can’t have both, and so far social responsibility is the loser.