Whole Foods Jumped the Shark with Plastic-Enclosed Oranges — But “Convenience” is Not the Enemy

A grocery-store gaffe sparks an ethics debate over plastic packaging and the merits of convenience foods.

March 11, 2016

You may have heard about the latest sign of modern-day bourgeois decadence: the brief and ill-fated commercial existence of pre-peeled oranges in a plastic container. Almost immediately after the denuded fruits appeared in Whole Foods stores, this misguided attempt by the upscale grocer to spare its upwardly mobile customers the time and energy associated with skinning their own citrus was being roundly mocked and angrily derided on social media. Recognizing the damage that such boneheadedness could do to its brand—which has traded heavily on the company’s image of responsible environmental stewardship—Whole Foods promptly apologized and expunged the item from its shelves.

But the controversy didn’t end there. Nowadays, in our contemporary outrage culture, even our backlashes have backlashes. Just when Whole Foods was hoping that #orangegate would go away (in much the same manner the store’s ridiculous $6 “asparagus water” disappeared last year), a funny thing happened: The company found some unlikely defenders.

Well, maybe defenders isn’t the right word for the individuals who responded by pointing out that for some people—those who are disabled or suffer from impairments like arthritis—the simple act of peeling fruit is an impossibility. Given that Whole Foods hadn’t really been marketing its absurdly packaged oranges as disability-friendly, members and supporters of this community weren’t defending the company’s decision specifically so much as they were positing that it wasn’t, in and of itself, “indefensible.”

Regardless of the intent, their input has changed the tone of the ongoing online conversation. Suddenly, those who felt certain they were on the side of the angels when calling out Whole Foods for an environmentally unsustainable business practice are now themselves being called out for their indifference to the daily struggles of others.

The result is the sort of juicy moral dilemma that ethics professors are always inventing for classroom hypotheticals but that actually emerges far less frequently in everyday life. Fact: We have a serious and ever-growing postconsumer plastics problem on our hands; Americans currently recycle less than 14 percent of plastic packaging, and our landfills, oceans, and waterways are choking with this waste. Fact: Every day, disabled people must suffer through a gauntlet of indignities and insensitivities that are far too numerous to count; to issue a blanket condemnation of packaging that allows these people to enjoy a freshly peeled orange is to define convenience from a vantage point of abled privilege.

So how do we reconcile these two facts without encouraging the creation of even more plastic waste or limiting someone’s access to a simple human pleasure? As far as I know, no one has yet demanded that Whole Foods call off its self-imposed moratorium on pre-peeled, plastic-encased citrus. And in truth, that doesn’t appear to be the goal of those who are lashing back against the backlash. Instead, their goal seems to be to get people to slow down—to consider different points of view and the unique circumstances of different stakeholders—before reflexively equating the desire for convenience with laziness, or wholeness with wholesomeness.

Their point is significant—and, I believe, socially beneficial—in the way that it asks the rest of us to earn our outrage by proffering ideas and solutions along with our blistering critiques. So where’s the common ground? Maybe it’s to be found in the space between indignation and empathy. People with rheumatoid arthritis or other disabilities don’t care any less about the environment than the fully abled do; they’re just as bothered by the horrible effects of plastic waste as everybody else is. And people who are furious at Whole Foods for peeling an orange, enclosing it in plastic, then selling it as an “on-the-go” snack aren’t up in arms over the mere existence of convenience food. It’s the idea that a plastic container should serve as the means of displaying this food that has them Tweeting and Facebooking their righteous anger.

So rather than writing #orangegate off as par-for-the-course corporate derpitude, I’m inclined to view it more charitably as a teachable moment. Right now, as I type these words, efforts are afoot in labs all over the world to create new and innovative packaging solutions that just may transform the way we ship, store, and display food. If Whole Foods wants to turn an embarrassing episode into a public relations triumph, it could announce that a percentage of profits from sales of plastic-encased foodstuffs would henceforth be invested in the R&D behind such innovation.

That would make the idea of a pre-peeled, plastic-enshrined orange much easier to swallow. I’ll still never buy one. But I’m not going to rush to judge someone who does, either.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


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