“Groupthink Isn’t Sustainable”

Final installment in 3-part essay on Trader Joe’s, Publix puts supermarkets’ stubborn resistance to Campaign for Fair Food under the microscope

“Dear Joe” letters keep coming…

Some of you may remember an article we posted here about two weeks ago by Ted Coine, a widely-followed author and commentator in the world of business leadership and corporate social responsibility. The article, entitled ““Doing the Right Thing Pays: Sustainable Leadership Series”, took a close look at why companies like Trader Joe’s and Publix, despite their reputations as ethical businesses, take such a stubborn stand against a widely-accepted and respected initiative like the Fair Food Program. Here’s how he wrapped up Part 2, leaving us hanging for the conclusion:

… Now, the CIW is locked in a similar struggle with Publix, one of America’s largest supermarket chains, and with Trader Joe’s. And following the pattern of the fast food giants, these two companies are stonewalling. It seems that penny is more than either is willing to pay for ethically-source food.

It’s a fascinating, troubling clash of wills to observe. A clash that seems especially inconsistent with the reputation of a firm like Trader Joe’s, which has branded itself as highly ethical, as dedicated to CSR.

In my next exclusive post here at SBF, on December 2, we’ll dive into the struggle CIW has been fighting for that extra penny. Hopefully by then both Trader Joe’s and Publix will have responded to my queries.

My underlying question? Can a company be Good just some of the time, and still prosper from a reputation as a responsible actor in society? Or is Corporate Social Responsibility a matter of consistently-applied principles, of doing the right thing even when no one’s looking?” Read more

Well, Part 3 is here, and it was worth the wait. Titled “Groupthink Isn’t Sustainable,” it is a rare inside-the-board-room look at the possible thinking behind the grocery giants’ inexplicable refusal to support the innovative and virtually cost-free Fair Food Program. It is well worth taking a few moments to read if you are interested in understanding the psychology behind the resistance to progress. Here’s an extended excerpt:

… Now it’s Trader Joe’s and Publix’s turn in the spotlight. And even though these two companies are publicly committed to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), they have fallen into the familiar pattern of resistance shown by their predecessors.

Even my most laissez faire, politically conservative acquaintances are shocked by the positions of Trader Joe’s and Publix in this matter. “It’s only a penny!” one remarked the other day. Another surprised me by saying, “This is so black and white! What’s the problem?”

This brings up something that carries far beyond tomatoes, to Sustainable Leadership in general. As a professor of psychology recently asked me, “What is the larger issue with these companies? Surely they can’t be resisting because of a penny. There must be something deeper.”

Here, then, are some thoughts on Sustainable Leadership and ethical decision-making.

  • No one wants to see himself as evil. Push a kid on the playground, he’ll push back. I’d wager there is at least some of that spirit of moral self-defense with these companies.

  • Business leaders relish their independence. I was one, and my clients are today, so I can relate. When pressured to act, the natural reaction is to defy that pressure, to exert independence.

  • This resistance leads to groupthink, as leaders circle the wagons and surround themselves with like-minded thinkers. Opposing viewpoints fail to get through in this type of environment.

  • When pushed as these companies are, their press releases read like they were written by lawyers: full of point-by-point justification, but often missing the larger picture of right and wrong.

  • Leaders often become convinced of the proverbial slippery slope. In this case the thinking might go, “If we give the tomato pickers an extra penny, next we’ll hear from the cattle farm hands, who want an extra dollar an hour – from us, not the ranchers. Where will it end?”

  • I would be surprised if there weren’t class considerations involved. To many 20th-Century leaders, the thinking is that workers should be supplicants, grateful for “gifts” such as benefits and raises in pay. Adding racial and ethnic considerations to this will only intensify their us-versus-them mentality.” (read more)

He concludes by writing:

“… I hope these insights prove useful to leaders who wish to act sustainably, and to those who would seek to influence them. A step back to evaluate motivation is essential to strategic decision-making. If CSR isn’t a strategic imperative, I don’t know what is.

My questions for these two prominent brands are this:

  1. Is your resistance really about a penny per pound for tomatoes?

  2. Is that penny worth it?”

Meanwhile, consumers fed up with this kind of thinking by Trader Joe’s continue to pen “Dear Joe” letters, explaining why they are breaking up with the company they used to love. Here’s one of many that have come to the office since we announced the Dear Joe letter movement in November, this one from Max Ray “devoted TJ’s shopper from ages 0 to 28”:

Dear Mr. Bane,

One of my earliest memories is shopping at Trader Joe’s, the original store in Pasadena. I remember free cookies, friendly employees, delicious healthy affordable food (especially the dried strawberries and cherries!).

I was thrilled when Trader Joe’s came to my adult home, Philadelphia. I loved that the food was still healthy, delicious and affordable. I especially loved that I had a source for good, spicy, California-style Mexican food.

So you can imagine my surprise when I learned that Trader Joe’s, a store I relied on for affordable fair-trade products, was not signed on to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers Fair Food Agreement. I was sure that you’d be better than Taco Ball, Whole Foods, Sodexo, McDonalds, and the other less friendly and delicious stores that have signed on.

Sad as it makes me, I will not be shopping at Trader Joe’s until you have signed the agreement.

Max Ray
devoted TJ’s shopper from ages 0 to 28

That’s what groupthink gets you.