6 Things You NEED to Know About Trader Joe’s

Trader Joe’s is NOT a health foods store, and Trader Joe’s is NOT eco-friendly

A message to anyone who thinks they are helping the environment by buying groceries at Trader Joe’s: sorry, but you’re doing just the opposite.    Yeah, Trader Joe’s has great value for shoppers, offering low-priced, great tasting foods.  I’m not disagreeing with that.  The truth is that as “green” as the store looks, feels, and positions itself to be, Trader Joe’s is actually one of the least eco-friendly businesses around.

Personally, I hate Trader Joe’s because of the brand’s shopping experience.  I’ve never gone in and left without feeling uncomfortable, stressed, or angry.  I’m not a regular; I’m not part of the Trader Joes Loyalist club–I don’t know where anything is and the diagonal aisles disorient me.  I do love their samples though, believe that.

At TJ’s, you are literally surrounded in every direction by fast-paced Joe’s regulars.  If you don’t know what you want before you get there or know exactly where it is, good luck finding it and managing to pick it up without feeling like you’re always in somebody’s way.

Of course if I go there more often I’ll be able to speed up my shopping trip–but why should I have to? Last week my girlfriend and I went to Ralph’s at about 9 pm to shop for food.  We had the entire store to ourselves, and had as much time and space to look for food as we wished.

The Bottom Line

This is what you need to know about TJ’s—THEIR NUMBER 1 PRIORITY IS PROFIT; NOTHING ELSE.

Of course this is the goal for every company, but Trader Joe’s reveals nothing about how their company really works, while positioning themselves as eco-friendly.  In today’s day and age, corporations of this size need to be demonstrating a high level of CSR (corporate social responsibility), especially if they are branding themselves and positioning themselves as a community-oriented, eco-friendly brand.

After we go over the company history, a few of their not-so eco-friendly practices and concerns that reveal the true face of Trader Joe’s, I guarantee you won’t see this company in the same light.

From Neighborhood Outpost to German-Owned, Profit-Driven Corporate Machine

The “Joe” in Trader Joe’s has been dead for years.  He sold the company in 1969 to Theo Albrecht, a German supermarket tycoon whose family is basically Germany’s version of the Waltons (Wal-Mart owners). Albrecht passed away last year, but under his command the franchise has skyrocketed. Those of you familiar with the grocery chain Aldi will recognize the similarities between Aldi and Trader Joe’s. The Albrecht family owns both, and have made these two brands the most profitable in the category.

But, how? What does Albrecht’s business model focus on?  The CHEAPEST sources of food, MINIMAL space to lower real estate expenses, and a SIGNATURE SHOPPING EXPERIENCE. For some, that experience is heavenly.  For me?  Pure hell.

What is Trader Joe’s going to be to everybody in five years? The same thing as Starbucks started revealing itself as a couple years ago–a wolf in sheep’s clothing, big business pretending to be your neighborhood store.

In reality, Trader Joe’s has helped obliterate Mom and Pop grocery stores like PW Supermarkets everywhere.

5 Reasons to Rethink the Way You View Trader Joe’s

1. Trader Joe’s does not buy many local foods

While they have phased out some foods from China and elsewhere overseas, the majority of their products are far from local, driving up energy use and the amount of hydrocarbons they use by sourcing their food from the cheapest suppliers around the world.

When you think about conserving the planet, local foods are the #1 way to reduce energy waste.  Clearly, Trader Joe’s does not have the environment in mind when they outsource all of their products from throughout the world and repackage them as their own.

2. They have a history of mislabeling their organic products

Organic products now dominate the market, and are big bread winners for businesses.  One of the trends in the food industry has been to mislabel foods as organic when they are not certified.  Trader Joe’s has a “no comment” policy in public relations, and does not even respond to inquiries as to where or who their food comes from.

Whole Foods has phased out foods that were mislabeled as organic, let’s hope TJ can also start backing up their brand with some real certified organic products.

3. Trader Joe’s has been flagged by groups that assess the environmental impact and sustainability practices of major corporations.

In assessing the organic dairy industry, The Cornucopia Institute gave Trader Joe’s 1 out of 5 stars.  Nobody in their upper management leaks any info on their practices.  They don’t talk to the press.  They don’t reveal how they work or what they do.

Thankfully, Trader Joe’s has committed to phasing out red-listed seafood by 2013.  Greenpeace has been begging them to do this for a couple of years.

4.  Excessive Packaging = HUGE waste of plastics and other materials

Look at all of the Trader Joe’s food items you buy.  Do their bags, boxes, and other packaging indicate that they were made with recycled materials? I don’t think so…

Look at their produce–yes, prepackaging it like meat makes it faster to buy and offers you combo deals you’d have to comprise on your own elsewhere, but this is a huge waste of plastics and paper material.  This produce ultimately ends up being overpriced, and your selection is extremely limited!

THINK ABOUT THIS–NOT ONLY DOES TJ’S USE AN EXTREME AMOUNT OF HYDROCARBON ENERGY BY OUTSOURCING THEIR FOOD FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD, THEY ALSO WASTE A TON OF MORE ENERGY AND MATERIAL BY PACKAGING FOOD UP INDIVIDUALLY WHEN IT DOESN’T NEED TO BE.

I don’t even need to provide links, just Google articles about their packaging and you’ll find tons of people online who feel the same way.

5.  Trader Joe’s is a black box company–they release NO information as to how they operate

Where does Trader Joe’s buy their food from?  Who knows? Why do you think their foods are priced so low?  It’s not because the company loves their shoppers and wants to give them a great deal…TJ’s makes the most profit per square foot of any grocery store or supermarket.

We can call this the Wal-Mart effect: you find the cheapest sources in the world to produce your products, and package them as your own.  This is extremely deceptive!

6. Their stores are set up in extremely close quarters ONLY to minimize expenses, but somehow they manage to paint their cramped shopping experience as fun, exciting and simple

For me, every TJ experience is defined by insanity–never being able to turn a corner without weaving through two or three carts, never being able to stand and look at foods without blocking someone else.

This is a key passage from the short article you must read:

“The company, which has about 300 stores in the United States, also keeps its stores small (usually about 9,500 square feet versus the average 50,000 square feet of conventional grocers) and the number of products in its stores low—about 2,500 to 3,000, roughly one-tenth the selection carried by conventional grocery stores, according to Private Label Magazine. As a result, the stores consistently post record profits for the grocery industry.”

Everything in big business has its purpose.  For TJ’s the small store size is meant to get you in, get your money, and get you out as fast as they can.

Go Green

If you think you’re shopping green at Trader Joe’s, you’re actually doing less to help the environment than if you were to shop at any other large supermarket.

Trader Joe’s has “unique” items, but only as far as the purple colors on their pita chip bags go.  Anything you can find at TJ you can get at another market or large grocery store.  If you haven’t been in to Ralphs, Safeway, or Vons lately, they each have a HUGE selection of organic products, local foods, and gluten-free stuff if you’re into that.

Perhaps I’m just airing my bitter frustrations out because I haven’t unlocked the mystery of Trader Joe’s for myself yet…but maybe some of you feel the same way.

Sincerely Yours,

Tommy G.

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About Tommy_Gustaveson

I'm a 22 year old genius with an appetite for knowledge and a critical mind....I'll be graduating in May, 2012 from San Diego State University with a B.A. in Marketing and Minor in English. Hopefully I can find a good amount of time to get my thoughts down on paper here, and get everyone involved in a discussion about what's REALLY going on in our crazy world. I love my family, my girlfriend Kelli, my friends, and everyone who's supported my writing over the last four years. This Blog is the culmination of four years of hard work, lots of sleepless nights, and one hell of a ride through college. News, entertainment, sports talk, business, academia, politics, religion, humor, dirt, and more...This site is for you guys to enjoy and help build with me; I only hope the crazy thoughts in my mind are exciting enough for you all to enjoy and respond to. Love, Tommy G.

Posted on March 15, 2011, in Business, Environment, Nutrition & Health and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

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  2. I’ve worked for Trader Joes for a very long time. I don’t know if many supermarkets are necessarily better—it’s just the American Way now to buy foreign–but I agree anyone shopping at Tjs with the environment in mind id deluded. But mostly I think the general population will sacrifice the environment for convenience, given the choice.

    From an employee point of view: the pay is still above union, but barely. Every year wages and benefits go down despite the company going up. We’re working harder all the time and I have never seen so many injuries in a company, and I have worked in forestry and welding fabrication. Those tight spaces for you as a customer pushing a cart translate into sometimes even tighter spaces for employees to find and lift up to 50 pound boxes. When machinery breaks down, we are all expected to carry on working, despite increased risk. But of course you don’t see that—we’re all just soooo happy.

  3. Hello,
    I am a Trader Joe’s employee. I have been since 2003 and I am a die hard TJ’s fan. I understand your statements on it being crowded and small (think how I feel being there 9hrs a day) but there are other statements that are a misconception. For one, Trader Joe’s does deal locally. Very locally. All of their fresh produce, bread, eggs, milk and the such come from local companies. As a matter of fact, sometimes the stores deal so locally that the vendor is not able to keep up production and we then have items go “TOS” which the public hates and get so angry at us for. In other regions where there are a large number of local breweries, those stores carry those brands. Each Trader Joe’s region sells different products due to the locality of the products
    The one thing that everyone seems to not understand about Trader Joe’s is that it never claims to be a health food store, it is and always has been a unique neighborhood grocery store that offers products at a value price. They will say that they provide healthier options, but Trader Joe’s is not a Whole Foods or Sprouts. I find that some of TJ’s frozen items are filled with too much sodium and fat but every other grocery store that offers similar frozen products are filled with too much sodium and fat content as well. It has always been said to shop on the perimeter of a grocery store for healthier foods, and the same can be said for Trader Joe’s. It is well known that the Trader Joe’s label is put on a lot of well known brands such as Amy’s, Dessert Essence, Annie’s, and Stacy’s which are well known organic and healthy labels which all the other grocery stores sell as well. They deal mostly in cash and the fact that they don’t advertise and will never advertise is the reason these products are offered at lower prices.
    I am not positive about Trader Joe’s green effort, but I can tell you that over the years the company has been asked to revise some of their reusable bags to better cooperate with some of the environmental standards that have been set in place, and they have. Also, Trader Joe’s does a lot of community outreach with all of the food spoils that we accumulate through out the day and there are times where we donate up to $2500 a day in food to organizations that come to the stores for help. The company cares about the community and helps out a great deal. When hurricane Irene hit last year, many Trader Joe’s stores donated tons of food and water to the surrounding areas.
    I do shop at a variety of places for my household groceries. I know sometimes it is easier to shop at Safeway because I can get everything on my list, but at the same time, I find myself spending way more then I would like on household necessities. Over the last two years that company has gone through a change and us veteran employees have become aware of differences. We actually feel like they are changing to go public and as an employee I would greatly disprove of that, as I feel like the quality of the company would become diminished.

    I know that Trader Joe’s is not a favorite for some, and there will always be criticism but I felt I should share what I know, being on the inside and all.

  4. @Juanloco I agree that we all need to tell the USDA what we think of their lack of regulation. However, the fact remains that Trader Joe’s is a private company which has never issued a corporate social responsibility report (CSR), which means that we don’t know what it is really doing to lessen its environmental footprint. Wholefoods does issue CSR reports. (You can download it at http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/pdfs/2012GreenMissionReport.pdf) From a sustainability standpoint, Wholefoods is a better company. The better alternative is to find a local “green” grocery store. In the Fresno, CA area we have one. I would rather spend my money in a locally owned store if at all possible.

  5. I read your point of view and though it is interesting, I was actually compelled to leave a comment. We can all sit here and talk about why TJ’s does this or doesnt do this right or their isles are cramped up, its all good,, but lets honestly think,, does anyone here think Giant,, Food Lion,, Publix,, can be a better option? No grocery store is perfect,, people can comment all day long about local producers and the bags not been to “friendly” but in my opinion, atleast, Trader Joes and Wholefoods care to atleast some extent, than these other groceries feeding you guys “pink slime”, and if you don’t know what it is, man you’re in for a rude awakening. So instead of nitpicking here and there, because the isles are not the right color or you feel hurried, or the salesperson looked at you the wrong way,,, people needs to put more emphasis on the bigger picture. Ok, so the local mom n pop shop got closed down,, it happens in every single business category, the big fish “will eat” the small fish,,thats business 101. So instead of turning on Wholefoods, TJ’s, or any grocery proclaming organic,, (atleast they do watch where the food is coming from and what goes into it) Start doing research into “pink slime” if you dont’ know what it is, and pick a fight with the USDA who are the real criminals. Not a sermon, just a thought.

  6. Great article – just a quick note, though, I think the Joe of Trader Joe’s is still alive – Joe Coloumbe – look him up :)

  7. Hey tommy, how’d you get this information? Its because I’m doing a research project on how sustainable Trader Joe’s is and i need cite sources to use your information because i can’t find any other site that gives the info,…Thanks – C.Hidalgo

  8. While doing research for a story about fair trade chocolate, I discovered that Trader Joe’s does not disclose its sustainability efforts on its website, and does not publish CSR reports. I inquired via their general comments form, disclosing that I am a freelance journalist, and was sent back an email that disturbed me. This is what disturbed me the most: “However, we are also a privately-held company and do not currently participate in surveys or studies of the nature that you referenced, or divulge specific business practice information. This tends to perhaps reflect negatively on us, while not fully offering a true representation of our current practices and
    position.” I am now working on a story about Trader Joe’s lack of disclosure because of that email. Since I disclosed that I am a journalist, the email is fair game to cite, in my opinion. I will not shop at Trader Joe’s again. I only do a few times a year which has been a few times too many.

    Your post is proved to be helpful for me as I do research about Trader Joe’s. Thanks!

    • Hi Gina:

      I apologize for not visiting your comment earlier, but the blog is back after some time away!

      Thanks for reading, and especially for actually contacting Trader Joe’s about their CSR policies to get even more valuable insight than I’ve provided. You’re helping push conversations that are driving companies like Trader Joe’s to “go green.”

      I suspect that in 2012, Trader Joe’s will start to advertise more heavily through mainstream channels, maybe even television. Right now farmer’s markets are all the buzz, like Sprouts (recently buying the Henry’s brand in San Diego) and smaller private markets, but Trader Joe’s and the mainstream stores like Vons and Ralphs are and have been pushing organic products with force.

      Bottom line, let’s watch Trader Joe’s closely after the New Year to see if they are more open with their policies and/or start to advertise organic more heavily.

      Thanks for reading, and stay tuned!

      -Tommy G.

      • I sincerely hope that Trader Joe’s becomes more open with their policies. It would be nice to see that the company took sustainability seriously by issuing a report. I will keep watching.

        If Trader Joe’s does advertise more through mainstream channels, the company opens itself up to more scrutiny. It should follow that there will be more disclosure, but Trader Joe’s track record shows that may not happen. We’ll see.

        I hope that more consumers will contact companies with questions. Everyone who is concerned about the environment needs to help drive the conversation. I wrote an article about Trader Joe’s for Care2.com and received 38 comments. Clearly, people care about sustainability.

        I’m glad you are posting again.

        Gina

  9. Actually, the places that supply their products are from brands that you would see in a regular store (mostly someplace like Wegmans) and are bought at a lower place and sold at a lower price. Trader Joe’s finds products that they choose to back because of the quality and prices that they can offer. The brands that they buy from are then able to sell their products in regular stores for a regular price while also offering those same products to the same people for a lower price. I have always found the service at Trader Joe’s to be very friendly and helpful. Obviously you have the bad luck of being placed near a lower-scale store. The other two stores that you recommended in place of Trader Joe’s,”Ralphs” and “Vons” I have NEVER heard of. Since you were there at 9pm, that is most likely the reason for your quiet shopping trip. Have you considered that there are also reasons that it wasn’t crowded and Trader Joe’s always is? I found your article very informative and interesting, but before you judge Trader Joe’s or anywhere else, you should also take into account that different locations are likely to have different atmospheres/service.

  10. Hey Tommy G:

    Keep up the good work. I was told that TJ’S is the upscale version of Aldis, which is a growing entity in the Midwest. Their headquarters are in Batavia, Illinois or someplace like that. They are even cheaper than TJ’S.
    When you talk about not talking about their business, you hit the nail on the head. Aldis had a spaghetti sauce called MAMA COZZIS, and it was the best. All of a sudden, it wasn’t available anymore, being replaced by a real shit sauce that wasn’t even close to MAMMA COZZIS. I wrote to the company, asking them to bring it back to Aldis shelves and they didn’t even have the courtesy to acknowledge my inquiry. Being that you know me, you know I wasn’t too happy.
    I have been unable to find that sauce anywhere else. Maybe it was such a good seller that they gave it to Trader Joe’s so they could raise the price on it. It was extremey popular at our local Aldis Stores, by that I mean it was difficult to keep it in stock. If you have another shopping experience at TJ’S, take a look and see if they have it there.
    Again, keep up the good work.

    Jay Ross

  11. i was hesitant in reading this post, I am a weekly trader joes shopper and love some of their food items, which i can only get at TJs. what you says makes sense. they do package most all of their veggies and even some fruits, which at other grocery stores arent, i personally like to mix and match my fruit&veggies. they do go big on the packaging and as nice as it is, it isnt eco-friendly. i personally know where the food i like are and can attain them easily but i could see how one would feel rushed. my normal shopping time there is 30minutes or less, at henrys its probably the same because of the small size but at ralphs or vons it takes me an hour, just to look at all the aisles. trader joes in a sense helps me do my shopping, as i’m a very indecisive individual, it throws out food meals and options for me, that all i have to do is heat and wa-lah, dinner is served. at raplhs i get overwhelmed and walk around aimlessly and cant think of ideas for meals, although yes there are more options, i am more of a small store shopper. to me trader joes convenient, one stop shop. well one-stop for the most part. the produce is a better deal than at a normal grocery store! i see what you mean, trader joes has this hippy vibe but it isnt fully there, also its funny how people assume that because its a “health food” store that everything there is healthy and better for you.. some is, but next time check the stats, its not that easy! i like that its not advertised but i guess i never thought why. i am still going to go there for my select items, but i think ill stick with giving my money to henry for the local produce and to ralphs for all the necessities that health food stores dont carry or that they over price ;) well keep the posts coming. also i’m not to d with the white on black, its makin me dizzy.. just an opinion from noname. take care tommyG.

    • Yes, they’re all about convenience! You’re right, one stop shop. TJ was first designed to be just like a bigger 7-11, which I’m hella down for, now if they went ahead and went the extra mile to be green they’d have the brand consistency that would drive skeptics like me to purchase more often

  1. Pingback: The Hypocrisy is Green | La Vida Organica

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