Letter #1: Trader Joe's

I want to make sure that the companies that I trust are doing their best to support environmental farming and fair labor practices. To this end, I am writing letters to these companies when I find their products/practices questionable. Here's the first entry from my letter writing campaign...
Dear Trader Joe's:

I often buy your frozen edamame (soybeans). I noticed recently that they are a product of China. Why do you buy soybeans from China? How do you ensure that these soybeans are grown in an environmentally responsible manner? How do you ensure that the workers who pick and process the soybeans are paid a fair wage?

Dear Ms. R---:

We understand your concerns with some of our products coming from China. Whenever possible, Trader Joe's will try to source our produce from growers in the United States. However, often times domestic produce farmers cannot supply us in the amounts that we need and at the prices we are looking for. That is when we will source out products from China and other countries.

All the produce that Trader Joe's sells from China is grown in accordance with all current USDA regulations. Moreover, the vendors that we deal with are U.S. companies who have farms located in China; they have complete control and regulation of the standards of these farms and follow Good Agricultural Practices. Please be assured that all Trader Joe's produce is of the highest quality and meets all USDA regulatory standards for food safety.

I like this response, but I will follow up with a letter to address the labor issue. My respondent sidestepped this issue entirely in her reply. Also, I'm not sure that USDA standards are high enough for my satisfaction.

FYI, if you want to mail a similar query to Trader Joe's, their address is:
Customer Relations
P.O. Box 5049
Monrovia, CA 91017-7149


Caroline said...

Very cool. Even though I'm pretty sure my emails are ignored, I'm always emailing my senators about animal rights bills. These are emails that are pre-written by the humane society, so they won't be nearly as influential as the ones you write, Jana. But it still does feel good just to even make a small effort.

Anonymous said...

Jana: I wouldn't feel too good about yourself. My understanding is that the USDA standards govern the safety of the food for human consumption, eg prohibiting things like fertilizing with human feces. They are neither enviromental standards nor labor standards. They are food safety standards. Furthermore, I believe that TJ's compliance with these standards means nothing. If the food did not meet these standards I don't think that it could be imported into the United States. IOW, mentioning the USDA was probably a dodge. Furthermore, the fact that they bothered touting the USDA standards means that they probably have nothing else to tout.

Incidentally, I think that the living wage issue in China is less of a concern than questions of the freedom of labor to move internally within the country etc. IOW, I am less worried about paying the market wage when the market is not being heavily manipulated by the state. Despite its opennes to certain forms of foreign investment, however, China is hardly a country that allows ordinary labor markets to develop.

jana said...

Nate: I agree that meeting USDA standards isn't good enough. I generally purchase organic produce because I believe the standards for such to be higher, better controlled. Or, I grow my own (though I can rarely grow enough soybeans to satisfy my protein needs because I don't eat meat).

Also, I have trouble buying TJ's assertion that they can't find _enough_ soybeans to satisfy their customers' needs. A few soybean facts from the American Soybean Association:
* Soybeans are planted on 28% of the total U.S. crop area
* U.S. soybean farmers plant 75.2 million acres (30.1 million hectares)
* The U.S. produces 40% of the world's soybean supply
* The U.S. exports 29.9 million metric tons of soybeans, 6 million metric tons of soybean meal, and 429,300 metric tons of soybean oil

So, this leads me to believe that TJ's imports their soybeans from China because of a cheaper price. Unless it's because they can't source non-GMO soybeans--TJ's products are nearly-free of GMO foods and according to some sources nearly 80% of US-grown soybeans are GMO.

As to the labor issue, I probably need to learn more about labor markets in other countries. However, I do think that any conscientious business should ask these questions before they engage in overseas trade. Despite local laws/regulations, a fair wage should be paid to all workers, IMO. If a company is not ensuring this, then I want to know why and I want to make them more accountable.

More than anything, I am writing these letters so the companies I patronize know that their consumers care about labor and environmental issues. IMO, if more of us asked these kinds of questions, then businesses would respond by taking greater care to employ workers at fair wages and to source their products from environmentally-responsible growers.

Nate, do you think these issues are important? If so, how would you go about trying to make companies' more accountable for their choices?

Anonymous said...

Jana: I am conflicted about these sort of issues. I think that global poverty is probably the single largest moral problem facing the world. On the other hand, I think that the only real solution to poverty is economic development rather than socially responsible shopping. For many developing economies, their primary competive advantage is cheap labor. I'm loath to support efforts that would deprive them of that edge, particularlly when those efforts rebound to the benefit of domestic workers. Such policies, it seem to me, are stealing from the absolutely impoverished to give to the somewhat poor. Even if you believe in reditribution, doing so via things like mandates for higher wages is probably a bad idea. (This is basic microeconomics.)

In terms of helping the poor, I am most enthusiastic about projects that allow them become actors in their own economic development. Hence, I am a huge fan of things like microfinance or stuff like Hernando De Soto's work with giving the poor access to property rights and legal formalism. De Soto's project, however, is not without its own pitfalls, most notably that giving the poor clearer property rights to their assets tends to make it easier to steal from them, as has happened, for example in Thailand.

Hence, while I think that writing letters to TJ evidences a wholly laudable set of concerns, I think that the problem of world poverty is less a matter of exploitation by nasty multinationals than supporting the conditions that make real economic growth possible. (Although some multinationals are quite nasty at times to be sure.)

John said...

I sent the following online email to trader joe's this morning.

"I purchased TJ Edamame soybeans 11AN130 in your store based on the labeling "all natural." However the soybeans caused digestive upset and were hard to digest on the only two occasions that I ate them.

"Upon inspection, the package states "product of Vietnam" but does not state "produced from organic non-GMO soybeans." This is very disappointing.

"Can you go into more detail about selling GMO products in your store, and why this product says "all natural" on the label when it obviously is not?"

Anonymous said...

Are the soybeans from Trader Joe's non GMO?
I am confused because Trader Joe's says that their private label contains no GMO but it should state that as well on the edamame... if it's GMO I'm throwing it out!