by Meghan Miller
Trader Joe’s is fun to shop in. It’s like going to a store where things seem new, and therefore they are intriguing. When I visit family in the Chicago area I will stop by and pick up some of their mini peanut butter cups and chocolate croissants. I enjoy the treats that they offer. I can see the value of the frozen entrees and sides that TJ evangelists are devoted to. I’m not strictly opposed to all of their stores, but I think we can do better.
Trader Joe’s is a secretive, privately held company. It is owned by the Albrecht Brothers in Germany. They own the eighth largest global conglomerate retailer (Ethical Chic). The Albrechts have owned the business since 1979. Since then the stores have gotten larger and the local grocery store facade has been more forced.
As one would expect from a private global corporation, the products are sourced globally and secretly. The wealth of information has to be protected to protect the bottom line. One secret that is out is that they use PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay division to produce some of their name brand snack products (money.cnn.com). They have refused to state where their dairy products come from (cornucopia.org/dairysurvey).
Yes, they do state that all eggs are cage-free and there are no GMOs in their products. But cage-free is is a tough one. Yes, there aren’t individual cages, but the hens often are not even allowed outside. That would be free-range. Confusing, right? Green purchasing has become such a powerful economic tool that businesses are looking for ways to appear more friendly towards animals and the environment. This is greenwashing, and Trader Joe’s is guilty of this in more than one way.
Trader Joe’s sells many pre-made foods. They even sell pre-cooked hard boiled eggs in plastic. The more energy that goes into preparing foods before they get to the shelves, the less environmentally friendly those products become. They are time-saving, which is valuable. But it cannot be the only reason to choose a store. These precooked and ready to eat meals are available elsewhere.
Locally I can’t see Trader Joe’s taking away business from our independent stores. I know the argument that it would take away from Strawberry Fields or Common Ground, but it is a different species. Putting smaller chains out of business is something that the Albrechts could do if desired–they caused Walmart to leave Germany by underpricing their products. But, I don’t think that TJs will do that.
It would provide jobs, yes. But only to the young and transient working population. They require hard work with no unionization. Working Mother has never ranked them as a positive workplace for women, even though they are large enough to qualify to be ranked (Ethical Chic).
The biggest factor for me is that we, as a community, can do better. We can help develop stores that make shopping more fun. Are we really petitioning to have a large global company with food that comes from mysterious sources move into our town on the basis of small shopping cards and hidden stuffed monkeys in the store?
If the idea of getting Trader Joe’s to come to town is for organic food, lower prices, or a fun shopping experience, we need to reconsider what the goals are. These things can all be found elsewhere. If we want Trader Joes for it’s novelty, that would make sense. But what message does that send?
Meghan Miller is a educator and photographer living in Champaign with her husband and two sons. She appreciates the pace of a smaller town with the opportunities of a larger, progressive city.