Joe green?

Hey, Joe, where you goin’ with that soy milk in your hand?

Hey, Joe, where you goin’ with that soy milk in your hand?

(Come friend Aunt Ruthie on Facebook and let’s hang out.)

So how green is your supermarket? How do you gauge it? Vegetables that are organic on the inside and unpackaged on the outside? Free-range chickens, beef raised with fewer chemicals? A tendency toward natural foods that are free of preservatives? Local stuff for sale vs. stuff trucked in from Florida? As more stores climb on the green bandwagon, the gray areas get wider and wider. What’s an eco-shopper to do?

Take Trader Joe’s: Davis just got its first store, which might not strike most as newsworthy; there are six T.J.’s in the Sacramento region already. But in a town that has prized the notion of slow growth (some say it’s more a notion than a reality), not to mention eco-awareness, T.J.’s entry into that market was arduous. Arduous, but desired—an acquaintance of Auntie Ruth’s noted Davisites had been “salivating” over T.J.’s for “years.”

Salivating? Dear Davis, let Aunt Ruth wipe the drool from your chin. How green is T.J.’s?

Auntie Ruth agrees with the Cornucopia Institute that the organic movement is about “consumers understanding where their food comes from and how it is produced.” Trader Joe’s, with more than 350 stores in the country, ain’t talkin’. In an industry that prides itself on opacity—long before the government regulated them, organic farmers set their own protocols to determine what, exactly, it meant to farm organically—Trader Joe’s won’t disclose which dairies it buys its organic milk from.

Nor will it disclose the source of the soybeans it uses in its soy milk, tofu and related foods. While it was consumer demand that drove T.J.’s to carry cage-free eggs and GMO-free foods, “Neither claim is backed by a third-party auditing mechanism,” writes Amy Westervelt in Sustainable Industries, an environmental publication out of San Francisco.

Does this automatically mean that T.J.’s products aren’t what they claim? No. It means they won’t confirm it, and their reasons could be more obvious than any green agenda: As stated in the Sustainable Industries story: “Because the company purchases its private label goods directly from the people who produce them, it cuts out the corporate middleman, driving down costs.”

If green capitalism is a brave new world, it is the same old world as well. Buyer beware: Go to your grocery store and ask what farm the organic zucchinis are from and how they know for sure their products are organic. Ask and ye shall know. Trader Joe’s ain’t talkin’.