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Reusable bags sold at a Whole Foods store

David McNew/2008 Getty Images

Upscale U.S. grocer Whole Foods Markets assures its eco-aware shoppers that its meat has no antibiotics, that its coffee and roses are fair-traded and, now, that its organic produce is delivered using oil-sands-free fuel - for the most part.

Whole Foods' trucks travel more than 35 million kilometres annually, delivering organic and natural products to its 284 North American outlets, items such as Manchego cheese from Spain and Himalania-chocolate-covered Goji berries from China.

The earthy grocer has now committed to reducing its carbon footprint further by shunning, where possible, Canada's oil sands producers and the U.S. refiners who market gasoline and diesel made from Alberta's bitumen, which creates more emissions than conventional, light oil.

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The move by Whole Foods is part of its ecostrategy to cut energy costs, appeal to its environmentally aware customers, and raise the pressure on oil companies operating in northern Alberta to find cleaner ways of producing fuel.

Critics, however, suggest it is mere "greenwashing," a marketing ploy in which companies claim environmental progress that is, at best, difficult to quantify.

In fact, even with its new plan, Whole Foods may still use more of the so-called dirty oil, in percentage terms, than the rest of the U.S. economy.

Whole Foods and home furnishings retailer Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. have signed onto a campaign by environmental group, ForestEthics, in which they commit to reduce their reliance on fuel that is produced from Alberta's oil sands bitumen.

ForestEthics expects to sign up other Fortune 500 companies, and says it is currently negotiating with 30 companies, as it looks to increase public pressure on Canada to impose dramatic emission reductions on the oil sector.

"The goal here is to demonstrate to Alberta and to the oil patch that this problem isn't going away. In fact, it's going to get a lot worse," ForestEthics executive director Todd Paglia said in an interview.

But industry experts say that it is extremely difficult for consumers to know the crude source of the diesel that fuels their trucks because refiners mix their feedstocks and swap product with competitors for efficiency reasons.

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It's difficult to see the boycott as much more than a publicity stunt, said Alan Knight, a U.K.-based sustainable development consultant who worked with Virgin Airlines when it considered the possibility of refusing to use oil-sands-derived jet fuel.

Mr. Knight determined that not only was it impossible, it was the wrong thing to do for the environment.

He recommends that companies like Whole Foods work to improve oil sands' environmental performance by prodding the industry to accelerate investment in clean new technology, and by refusing to buy from those oil companies that are laggards among their peers.

"Boycotting is a lot easier. It's a lot cheaper and you get really good PR," Mr. Knight said. "But you won't solve the problem. You'll bury the problem and hide it and probably make it worse."

Still, Whole Foods switched its Indiana distribution centre from Marathon Oil Co. to CountryMark, a farmer-owned co-operative that produces its own conventional crude and processes it at a small refinery in Mount Vernon, Ind.

Whole Foods senior vice-president Michael Besancon insists the company is working with its suppliers to ensure they can provide fuel that is not derived from Alberta bitumen, and has been assured that they can.

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"Because the tar sands are a higher carbon footprint and arguably a higher degree of environmental degradation regarding their extraction, that's one we want to move away from," Mr. Besancon said. He denied the greenwashing charge, saying the company has undertaken a wide range of environmental initiatives to appeal to its ecoconscious customers.

Oil sands production currently accounts for about 6 per cent of the U.S. fuel supply. With the switch to CountryMark, the heavy Alberta crude represents less than 10 per cent of Whole Foods' fuel source.

Complicating the picture further is the fact that CountryMark opposes proposed U.S. cap-and-trade legislation, which aims to reduce emissions by imposing costly regulations on the oil industry.

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