Thursday, May 10, 2012

“What Publix Can Learn From Apple” or “Why Farm Worker Conditions Should Be Publix’s Business”

Many people I know have a strange love for buying groceries at Publix. It is a brand loyalty like people have for Coke or Pepsi. After being in Colorado for a few years, one of the first things my sister did upon flying home was visit Publix… and take pictures. When we love a company like that, it goes deep. I’m sure you know people that seem to have a deeper relationship with Target or Starbucks than they do with their spouse and children. More on Publix in a bit…

Companies love this type of brand loyalty. But with this special attention comes a different level of standards. We expect more from brands we love.  We expect generic brands to let us down or cut corners—that’s why they are cheaper. We are willing to pay more for brands we love because we want to believe we are participating in something more than just purchasing a product—our very identity is attached. Think I am exaggerating? Just take a look at bumper stickers and the giant logos on peoples’ shirts next time you go out.

One of the biggest examples of this is the Apple-nation. It is a movement that has defined a generation and changed the world. Apple tends to attract those who greatly value social responsibility. We love Apple and so we expect more of them. That is why it was such big news when Apple was being challenged on worker conditions at Foxconn in China, the mega-factory that assembles all those phones, tablets and computers we can't live without. Long story short, some of the accusations against Foxconn were exaggerated, and many would have given Apple an out if they had stated that they don’t meddle in other companies’ labor disputes, but Apple still took the initiative to investigate. Why? Because they know their consumers expect more from them.

Here is an excerpt from The Economist (March 2012) on the latest action taken by Apple
(See full article at:

                        Apple and Foxconn: iAudit
IS IT possible to run an “ethical supply chain”? After the publication on March 29th of the first independent audit of the factories Apple uses in China, the iconic consumer electronics giant has definitely become the test case for whether multinationals can put an end to labor abuses... …Apple had asked the Fair Labor Association (FLA), a non-government organization, to conduct the audit following a burst of bad publicity over reports of workers being abused, particularly at factories in China operated by Hon Hai, known as Foxconn, the world’s biggest contract manufacturer... …Apple and its chief executive Tim Cook, to their credit, welcomed the report and agreed to support its recommendations. "We think empowering workers and helping them understand their rights is essential," the said in a statement. And it claimed that is has been working quietly on these issues for years, albeit clearly with only mixed results…

Kudos to Apple for claiming moral responsibility for investigating all the way down the supply chain, even if it might cut into their profit margin. This is a game changer that I hope will not only change Foxconn, but factories in the rest of China and the world.

Now, back to Publix…
Publix purchases tomatoes from Immokalee, Florida where farm worker conditions are deplorable. Workers put in 12-hour days making $0.50 for every 32 pounds of tomatoes they pick. This is up from $0.40 in 1980. The average worker makes less than $12,000 a year, not to mention no health insurance, contact with dangerous pesticides, inadequate housing and many are made to work against their will by means of threats of debt repayment. The US government convicted farmers guilty of slavery in Immokalee as recently as 2008 ( This is real life, it is happening in the United States, and the tomatoes you buy are cheaper because of it.

All of this has been brought to Publix’s attention.  They are being asked to join other companies (Trader Joe's, Whole Foods Market, Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonald's, Burger King, Subway, Compass Group, Aramark, Sodexo, and Bon Appétit) in signing the Fair Food Agreement and pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes. This money goes directly to the farm workers, and brings them well toward a living wage.

The logic behind the Campaign for Fair Food is simple. Publix, like Wal-Mart, purchase a tremendous volume of fruits and vegetables, leveraging their buying power to demand the lowest possible prices from their suppliers. This, in turn, exerts a powerful downward pressure on wages and working conditions in these suppliers' operations. Publix, which had 1.3 billion in profits last year, holds the most power when it comes to the wages of workers at the bottom of the chain.

Publicly, Publix’s position is that they don’t think they should get involved in labor disputes of other companies. This has been articulated by PR manager Dwaine Stevens: “We firmly believe it is a labor relationship, or issue between the employers and the workers.” In a PR misstep in 2010, Stevens said, “If there are some atrocities going on, it’s not our business.” Publix says they support the enforcement of existing laws as a way of distancing themselves from the injustice—an attempt to wash their hands of responsibility. “It’s not our business,” they claim.

That is what they say publicly. Privately, there is an ongoing whisper campaign with claims against the integrity of Immokalee community organizers, product tampering, and rumors that the extra penny per pound never reaches the workers. They don’t make these claims publicly because they aren’t true. Instead, they use influential leaders in the community to spread these lies and do the dirty work of seeding doubt in the minds of those listening.

One defense Publix loves to use is their community involvement. Publix pours a lot of money directly and indirectly into many charities, churches and schools. No one can argue that Publix doesn’t do a lot of good in the community. The problem with that logic is that just because a company does good doesn’t mean they aren’t responsible for the injustice they are causing. In Lakeland, Florida, where they are headquartered, it is not uncommon for individuals or groups to be silenced from speaking out against Publix. There is a lot of money at stake. Philanthropic Southern slave owners used this same logic to rationalize their ownership of people.

In 2011 the Wall Street Journal published an article on this common practice.  A study showed a correlation in Corporate Social Irresponsibility and it being offset it by engaging in Corporate Social Responsibility. Here is an excerpt from that article… (full article:

Doing Good to Do Bad?
One of the propositions behind socially responsible investing is that companies do “well” by doing “good”… …But economists Matt Kotchen of Yale University and Jon Jungbien Moon of Korea University suggest that an important reason companies do good is to paper over the bad stuff they’ve done… …Using a database that monitors companies on about 80 of measures of social responsibility, they found that when companies engage in bad behavior – which they call Corporate Social Irresponsibility, they offset it by engaging in Corporate Social Responsibility. Usually, the offsets occur within the same category – if a company does something seen as hurting the environment, it does something else that’s seen as helping the environment. Spill some oil, save some tigers.

Publix is just as responsible for people at the beginning of the supply chain as they are for CEO Crenshaw’s salary. They are just as responsible as Nike was for those shoes being made in sweat shops. They are just as responsible as Apple is for the conditions at Foxconn.

The conversation is changing. As more and more people become aware of working conditions in Immokalee and other farms they are starting to ask questions about where their food comes from.  Grocery stores do everything they can to not make you think about where your food comes from, but a more socially conscious people are starting to ask those questions. Award winning documentaries, “Payback” and “Food Chain” are about to raise the conversation to a higher level and a wider audience. More people are going to start to demand that Publix act more like Apple.

The difference between Apple and Publix is that Apple is doing something about it, even from half a world away. No one expects either Apple or Publix to fix injustice overnight, but we want them to honestly try. Publix has something to learn from Apple’s example. And if you don’t think that farm worker wages and conditions is Pubix’s business, then I have a great job for you picking tomatoes on a farm in Immokalee.

Get involved in fighting for food justice in Immokalee at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.


  1. If you still live in Lakeland, you can buy fresh vegetables from local farmers in Plant City. They are delicious and you can inspect the farm yourself.

    Publix and Apple have a very different business models. Publix purchases hundreds of thousands of different items and sells them retail. Apple has many fewer products. And yes, they are looking into their largest manufacturer in China. I don't see how that comparison makes any sense. Are you suggesting Publix should inspect every farm for every vegetable it buys from all over the world? That is not Publix's responsibility.

    You compared Publix to white southern slave-owners, how about a comparison between the group you are recommending and the Mafia. According to your post, they are trying to extort a penny a pound out of Publix.

    Working inside our capitalist society, maybe you could pitch Publix to buy and sell a special branded farmer safe product. Like “free range” for farmers. Customers could choose to spend extra to support higher paid farm workers.

    Farm workers should be legally in the United States, well documented, should follow the rules and laws of the government of which they live in, and they should be treated fairly and make a livable wage. I hope everybody can get together and develop a better worker program.

    I'm going to contemplate how we can do this as I eat my Publix sub, hold the tomatoes.

  2. @Ron, a couple of thoughts...

    First, you didn't identify yourself. Do you work for Publix?

    Second, thanks for the tip on Plant City farmers.

    Third, I believe all parties, at every part of the supply chain (including the consumer) has a responsibility to ask questions and know the integrity of where their product is coming from and what conditions the workers are subject to. By your logic, Publix would not have any responsibility and could continue selling meat with salmonella or products made under even worse conditions than Immokalee. Publix does have the responsibility as does the consumer... they both hold the power.

    Fourth, I did not compare Publix to White slave-owners, but I compared the rationale that "if you give lots of money to charities it erases responsibility of oppression elsewhere." There is a significant difference. Also, the CIW is hardly the mafia. By those standards you would have to consider Mother Theresa and MLK Jr. mafia members. Not to mention that the CIW has been nationally recognized with humanitarian awards and has the backing of Robert F. Kennedy, Hillary Clinton among others.

    Fifth, I love the fair trade option. As a consumer, I always pay more for fair trade when I have the option. From what I heard, Publix doesn't want to offer special tomatoes as fair trade because they would have to admit other tomatoes were unfairly traded.

    Sixth, I agree with you that we all need to work together to look out for the rights' of those who are at the bottom of the chain and often have no voice.

    Best wishes,

    1. To amend my last statement... The farm workers do have a voice, but not enough people are listening to them.