Is Woolworths Really The Enemy?

A recent post by Grass Consumer Action Group went semi-viral recently, An Open Letter to Ian Moir, CEO of Woolworths. I must say I love the work that Grass does and I think they raise some very valid points in the letter. I hope it has some impact and Woolworths decides to implement some of, if not all of, their recommendations. I believe we should be putting pressure on all retailers to be more responsible, whether they claim to be responsible or not.

Pressure Can Make A Difference

Corporations can be powerful mechanisms for change. Because they respond to consumer demand. To give you an example, when they invented a genetically modified potato, McDonalds said they would not buy french fries made from GM potatoes as they knew their consumers did not want them. So the GM potato was shelved and to this day there are no GM potatoes commercially available despite the powerful influence of the biotech companies.

Because supermarkets like Woolworths have such huge buying power, they can exert powerful influence on suppliers and this can be turned to good. I was invited to visit a land based fish farm in East London that Woolworths is working with to ensure a consistent supply of farmed cob, which is green listed as opposed to wild cob which is red listed (read more about the SASSI list). Woolworths has visited the supplier to ensure that the operation meets the standards it expects and negotiated supply contracts so that the supplier can confidently expand the business (I will write more on this in a separate post).

Ocean Wise

The only way we could get a company like Woolworths to really care about these issues is if we had some solidarity amongst consumers. If we found out that the milk at Woolies is not really from pastured cows as they say it is, and we all stopped buying it immediately. I can tell you for free that Woolworths would sort that milk situation out promptly. But there is no solidarity amongst consumers. How many people stop shopping at Woolworths when they hear about something they don’t like? Basically none, that’s how many. Because people don’t want to give up the convenience. Being a responsible consumer is not so easy. It means taking a stand, making sacrifices, making an effort.

I would love to know from Woolworths how much free-range vs non free-range meat they actually sell. How much organic vs non-organic produce they actually sell. When I stand at the counter to buy a roast chicken, everyone in front of me buys the normal chicken because they don’t want to pay the R5 extra for the free-range chicken. How many people actually care and how much do they care? Sharing an open letter to Woolworths on your Facebook page is not caring. Buying your food from an alternate source is caring. Start taking responsibility for your consumption. Stop expecting a publically traded company to do it for you. They will never.

Is Woolworths The Enemy?

But, having said all of that, I don’t think Woolworths is the real enemy. I think you are. Unless you are one of the 0.0000000001% of the population that actually makes the effort to source their perishables from local producers via alternate channels such as markets and veggie or meat delivery services, I’m sorry to inform you that you are the problem. I am the problem too, sadly, I have to admit. I also buy my perishables (everything actually) from Woolies or Pick ‘n Pay or some other supermarket that happens to be conveniently close by.

You see, Woolworths is a publicly traded company. Its sole purpose for existence is to make money. Woolworths does not exist to save the world, it exists to make money. It happens to make good business sense to sell the ‘Good Business Journey’ and ‘Farming For The Future’ and organic this and free-range that. Why does it make good business sense? Because we all want to outsource the responsibilities that come with responsible consumption. Note that had to use the word ‘responsible’ twice there, because being a responsible consumer comes with responsibilities, they cannot be separated.

Feedlot beef

We want the free-range meat and the organic veg and the pastured dairy and what not, but we don’t want to be inconvenienced. We want Woolworths to sort it out for us. We want to be able to live the way we live, and have someone clean up after us. In other words, we want to consume as much as we consume and not have to feel bad. It’s like the little tick box when you buy an air-ticket, pay R50 extra and they will plant a tree to offset your carbon. So you can carry on flying all around the world, destroying the planet, but it’s fine because they planted some trees.

Let’s take a brief trip back in time. In 1517, Martin Luther published The Ninety-Five Theses which later led to a protest against the Roman Catholic Church and a group broke away from the church, becoming known as Protestants. Now the main issue that Martin Luther had was the sale of ‘indulgences’ by the church. The way it worked was that people could pay the church in advance for forgiveness from sins they were planning to commit. Which obviously is not cool. These carbon offsets that we purchase to clear our conscience as we go about our consumption driven lives are just a modern form of these ‘indulgences’. They do not take away the damage done.

Consuming large amounts of meat every day is not good for the planet. And because we consume so much meat, millions of cows (and sheep and pigs and  chickens, etc) are treated inhumanely from birth to slaughter. But do we reduce our meat consumption? No, we just eat free-range meat instead, thereby clearing our conscience. But even if everyone ate only free-range meat it would not solve the problems. We have to understand that Woolworths wants to sell as much of everything as it can, that’s how it makes money. So if you buy 3 packs of lettuce and only eat one, throwing away the other 2, Woolworths is happy because they sold more lettuce. So we have buy 2 get 1 free specials. But this is irresponsible consumption. The goals of the responsible consumer will NEVER align with those of a publicly traded corporation.

Do you know how many people have tried to start a proper food market in Cape Town where you can go and buy your fresh vegetables? I don’t know how many, but it’s a lot. It fails every time because people would rather go to Woolies for their veg. They can’t be bothered to make the effort. And this is an example of why the problem is not really Woolworths, it’s us. I should have called this post ‘an open letter to us’.

Woolworths Does Some Good

I’m not the biggest fan of Woolworths. I was quite vocal about the Frankies incident and the hummingbird incident. But I believe that if we are going to call them out on the things they do wrong, we should also encourage them by acknowledging the things they do right. I don’t think anybody can deny that Woolworths is doing more than any other supermarket in terms of ethical sourcing and environmental friendliness. There are many examples, but I will share this with you, I received a press release from Woolies recently about their decision to reduce the number of products containing GM ingredients by 50% over the next year. Currently only 5.3% of the Woolies products contain ingredients from potential crop sources, so that should drop to less than 2.7% over the next 12 months.


If you have any idea how pervasive genetically modified ingredients are, you will know that this is a significant undertaking and I applaud the effort. If you’d like to read more about GMOs, continue reading below

So there you have my thoughts on the whole thing. I could go on but this post is already too long. I implore you to become responsible/ethical consumers. Don’t outsource that responsibility to your supermarket, because they will let you down. Support your local producers and the alternate channels available. And most importantly, consume less.

More about GMOs

Interestingly at the end of the press release from Woolworths, there is an extra section entitled GMOs: What are the Issues? In this section they outline what the areas of controversy are, eg. labelling, government regulations, environment, etc. Then they outline arguments for and against GMOs.

They list 5 arguments against GMOs and 3 for GMOs. I want to just briefly comment on the arguments in favour of GMOs.

1. Faster growth and maturity of plants
Supporters of GMO argue that genetically modified plants and animals that grow and mature faster with greater disease resistance and bigger yields are a strong argument in favour of GMO cultivation.

GMO crops are not designed to grow and mature faster. There is a GM salmon which grows quicker, but it’s not commercially available yet. Soy and corn are not designed to be disease resistant, only resistant to the pesticides sprayed on them. There is GM cotton which is meant to be resistant to bollworm. So basically none of these claims are related to GM foods.

2. No risks to people and environment
There is significant scientific consensus that food derived from GM crops poses no greater risk than conventional food. No reports of ill effects have been proven in the human population from ingesting GM food.

There is no scientific consensus on this as it has not be properly studied. When GM crops were first introduced, the FDA in the United States (once the head of the FDA was replaced with a dude from the biotech industry) announced that GM crops were ‘substantially equivalent’ to normal crops and therefore did not need special testing. In fact, many scientists are saying there is definitely risk in eating GM foods. No reports of ill effects have been proven because no studies have been done. We could all be dying from GM foods and not know about it because they won’t allow anyone to do any studies on it.

3. Environmental benefits
There are environmental benefits to GM crops. Some GMO plants, for example, can be “designed” with a built-in resistance to insect pests. These plants need fewer pesticides, making them a greener choice for farmers than non-GMO crops that require pesticides. Plants and animals can also be genetically improved to grow in poorer soils, colder temperatures, drier climates and other less-than-favourable conditions. These GMO crops could have more nutrients and could also need less-intensive industrial processing. Proponents argue these are important benefits in a world where more than 7 billion people now need to be fed.

To the first point, that is the theory, but the reality has turned out to be different with farmers now using more pesticide on their GM crops instead of less. Plants and animals could in theory be improved to grow in harsh conditions, etc. But after 20 years of promises, none have. The only commercially available GM crops are only pesticide resistant, nothing else. In fact, they need more water and more ideal conditions than normal crops. And lastly, yes they have promised crops that are higher in nutrients, but again, where are they? After 20 years still nothing…

You can read more about GM foods in my other posts:


16 responses to “Is Woolworths Really The Enemy?”

  1. This is great Dax. I want to acknowledge the time, energy and thought that went into your response – as opposed to the quick “re-post” the original Woolies letter. This is a complex issue and it deserves proper consideration. You’ve raised the level of the debate – well done!

    I am spending a lot of time considering my own position on ethical and environmentally sustainable foods. We live in tough times. The more we are exposed to, the harder it is to ignore the fact that to continue eating as we do – sushi on every corner, coffee from 3rd world countries where people are paid peanuts…abused animals – we are destroying the planet! I point no fingers. It is a struggle. Not everyone is ready to go vegan – or could even afford to. I just want to acknowledge EVERYONE who is on the food journey of questioning, debating, learning, making sacrifices, demanding more from suppliers, and trying to figure out how THEIR habits affect everyone and how to make a difference.

    Warm regards

    1. Thanks Amanda, for that lovely comment. I’m glad my little rant is appreciated by some 🙂

      I agree with what you say, the first step on the journey is to realise the way we are living (generally) is destructive (or to use a softer word, unsustainable). The next step is to become informed about the impact of the choices we make in terms of consumption (this is really an ongoing thing) and then we only really start making a difference when we do something about our impact. Consume less, choose better options and spread the word.

      I join you in acknowledging all those on this journey, including Woolworths who, as I said, or doing more than most other retailers.

  2. Dax, while you are clearly having a good suck at the corporate lollypop (if you will pardon the euphamism) you do NOT speak for SA consumers. Yes, most consumers are fast asleep but that does NOT give Woolworths carte-blanche to lie and mislead us with their labelling and false claims. I can only think Woolworths must be paying you for this twaddle! Are they?
    One thing you got right is that corporate chains care only about profit , NOT their consumers and NOT animal welfare. To pretend otherwise is naive, at best!
    Consumers who care, vote with their money and WALK away. Since I boycotted Woolworths more than three months ago (also PnP and the others) but I mention WW because I used to be SUCH a loyal customer until I stumbled over the truth – my health and eating habits have vastly improved. You would be surprised how many good markets there are and things like spices, GM-free rice, lentils, coconut sugar etc are easily purchased online.
    Unlike you, I do not presume to speak for the rest of SA consumers – only for myself. But I can tell you there are MANY like me who will never set foot inside a Woolworths again until they start stocking genuine pasture-raised meat, chicken and eggs.
    Also, since Israel razed Gaza to the ground, I also cannot in good conscience support the stocking of Israeli goods by Woolworths. Half my family is Jewish and they don’t support the genocide either or the IDF.
    I understand we all have to earn a crust. I, too, get paid by corporate companies to write or blog on occasion. But if you are getting paid by Woolworths to defend them so vigorously I think it only fair that you say so upfront.

    1. Hi Caroline, thanks for you comment.

      I am not being paid by Woolworths for this post. In fact, I’ve never done any paid work for Woolworths. These are just my thoughts on the topic.

      I’m pleased that you have made the effort to boycott, but I still maintain that there are so few of you it will never have a major impact on Woolworths. And I think if you read my article more carefully you will see that I did not say it was ok for Woolworths to mislead or claim falsely.

      As for the boycotting of Israeli goods, that’s your choice but I’m not getting into that debate on my blog. My position is that I’m very happy to buy Israeli products and I hope they continue to make huge contributions to humanity as they have been doing for thousands of years. And my family is not Jewish.

  3. I received this email…

    Hello Dax,

    My name is Jo. I’m a content creator with a focus on sustainability and green living. I was intrigued to read your post on GRASS and Woolies this morning. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
    After reading I was left feeling convicted (in a good way).

    “But, having said all of that, I don’t think Woolworths is the real enemy. I think you are.”
    Although I actively try to be one of the 0.0000000001% and the above concept is not new to me, these two sentences almost leapt off my screen. I think you are spot on. I’ll also be the first to acknowledge how difficult, inconvenient and expensive responsible consumerism can be. Shopping sustainably is not easy, it requires sacrifice. I wish more of us would be willing to do it anyway. (I include myself in that “we”).

    Thank you for reminding us that being a responsible consumer means taking responsibility. It seems like an obvious thing to say, but sometimes even though the truth is right before our eyes we don’t really see it until it’s made clear to us.
    I’m sorry for the personal attack in your blog comments. Just to let you know, I didn’t find the post “corporate-lolly-sucking”. Firstly, it doesn’t absolve Woolies and secondly it puts the ball in the court of those of us who can actually do something about it: vote with our wallets.

    Thank you for your work, it’s fun to follow your adventures.

    See you around the interwebs,


  4. Thanks for this article Dax – I think it is very well written and provoking.

    I completely agree with you that the responsibility lies on the shoulders of consumers and the corporations cannot be relied upon to be ethical. I read somewhere a definition of ethics as being ‘obedience to the unenforceable”. You do it for inner reasons, not because you might be punished if you break the rules and get caught. Woolies has been ‘caught’ time after time and they merely do a shelf pull and get their PR guns into action.

    I do not agree with you that Woolies is ‘doing more than any other supermarket’ – I think they use that marketing trump card more than any other supermarket which makes them worse. Farming for the Future comes with serious restrictions for the farmers and I have had quite a few farmers (a large scale fig farmer comes to mind immediately) tell me that he doesn’t want to supply Woolies anymore as they take his whole crop. He delivers them, they go into the cold chain (figs apparently handle cold chain very badly!) after a week in cold chain they asses the crop – typically rejecting about 50% and pay him a measly amount for the other 50%. This seems like highly unethical behaviour to me.

    All that being said, and I feel I could go on and on ad naseum…, focusing on the solution is probably better. I believe that their are enough alternatives around. It takes dedication and effort and at one stage, even as a market owner, I found myself standing in the Woolies queue once too often so I challenged myself to get absolutely everything possible at the market. I now buy about 80% of my total monthly shop at the market and I feel so much better about it. The market has grown so solidly over the last 2 years and we have many customers who do all their shopping at the market. There are also brilliant shops like Frankie Fenners, Wild Organics, Oranjezicht Market etc. All I can do is say that is really is possible to do. It’s a much more rewarding way of shopping – both in terms of health and wellbeing but also in terms of connection with the suppliers and a more enjoyable shopping environment.

    I don’t necessarily agree that lots of people have tried to set up shopping markets and failed, I think it is more a case of many subscribing to the quick buck of ‘party markets’ and market owners not taking the shopping side seriously as it is much harder work. There is perhaps more commitment needed from all sides.

    Thanks again!

    1. Thanks for you comment Jacqui. The article was certainly nothing if not provoking! I got called a horrid little man on Twitter today. I can see why people don’t like greenies, they are not very nice people.

      You are right, to be truly ethical is not something you can force on someone, let alone a corporation. Even if the corporation is ethical at board level, how do you guarantee that every employee subscribes to that ethos? It’s just not possible.

      In terms of Woolies doing more than other supermarkets. I would say that other supermarkets are slowly coming to the party but I’ve met with the Woolworths sustainability team on several occasions and I can tell you they are passionate, dedicated and switched on. They know what they are doing and after chatting to them I realised that these things are not as simple as people think they are, there are many challenges to getting it right. Believe me, they are not sitting there thinking of ways to trick the consumer, they are genuinely trying to move Woolworths along the road to sustainability in many different aspects. They have literally hundreds of projects on the go at any one time.

      As for solutions, I agree, it is possible to source via alternate channels and if more people did it, it would become easier and easier. But I’m afraid for now too many people opt for the convenience factor.

      As for shopping markets, you would know better than me as you are in that industry, but I spoke to several people when they were starting a market and they all referenced the great food markets of the world like Borough market in London, etc. as their model. Their vision was a market where people could come and have a selection of fruit, veg, meat, cheese etc and they could do their weekly shopping. But in the end, they did not see the support and the few food traders were slowly replaced and they became another ‘party market’, to use your description.

      We continue the journey…

  5. Food for thought??

    SOUTH AFRICA is the only country in the world to permit the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) seed for the production of a staple food-maize. 86% of the 2012/13 maize crop was planted to GM seed on 2.7 million ha. 81% of the white maize seed sold was GM – and belonging to Monsanto. GM white maize is used principally as milled maize meal for human consumption and eaten by several million South Africans as a staple food, at least once a day. Tiger Brands, Pioneer Foods and Premier Foods control the milling of 60% of the nation’s white maize crop.Ref:

    Corn syrup is practically in everything! How on earth they get 5.3% use of GMO’s I don’t know!!

    Regarding free-range “”There exists a popular and dangerous misconception today that organic, grass-fed, pasture-raised livestock is better for the environment than factory-farmed livestock. However, the truth is that grass-fed, pasture-raised livestock actually is less sustainable than its factory-farmed counterparts…” Ref:

    In closing – “There is one single industry destroying the planet more than any other..” Factory Farming, but no-one wants to talk about it. A great documentary has just been released expoising this truth :

    Being vegan, the thing I would say is good about Woolworths is that the veggie section is always on the other side of the store to the meat section. In most super markets you will find they are opposite each other. Additionally labeling there products with a “V” which indicates no animals were used in the production.

    Kind regards

    1. Thanks for those interesting links, Mike. I am very keen to see that movie. I hope it comes here soon!

    1. Thanks Catherine, for that link to the Cowspiracy movie trailer. I did watch it on the link which Mike shared above.

  6. Oh dear! You are so not a horrid little man!!

    These kinds of debates are so important and when people get personal it takes away the opportunity to move forwards…

    1. Thank you 🙂

      And yes, there is really no reason to get personal. Plus I can see why greenies have a bad name!

  7. I think this is a balanced view of “big retail”. The bottom line (for me) is trust: Do you trust the retailer/farmer/supermarket where you buy your food from? Anybody in South Africa can lay claim to the organic label and as long as it is not regulated (as if anything can be properly regulated here) it’s all about who you trust.

    1. That is a good point, Maggie. And sadly, trustworthiness is rare these days!