“I guess my position on it is that I don’t think that’s that big a deal.”
-John Mackey, Whole Foods Co-Founder & CEO, upon being asked his views of climate change 
On September 20, 1980, twenty-five year-old John Mackey, along with girlfriend, Renee Lawson, opened the first Whole Foods Market (WFM) in Austin, Texas.  Thirty-seven years later, upscale grocery hub WFM sits on the outskirts of a complex web of suppliers and distributors, whose pains are projected to grow astronomically in the face of climate change. How can WFM sustain itself as its supply chain suffers?
Climate Change’s Assault on the Food Supply Chain
The food industry’s supply chain simplifies into five key players, as shown below. 
Farmer’s Fight: Crop yields are of major concern for the farmer. Increased atmospheric CO2 actually appears to improve yields for plants such as rice and wheat; however, the accompanying temperature increase doesn’t play so nice.  For every degree Celsius increase in global mean temperature, wheat yields reduce by about six percent–concerning for a crop that accounts for one fifth of the world’s daily protein consumption. [5, 6]. Also, geography matters—while some areas may experience warped growing seasons due to warmer temperatures, other areas may experience decreased water availability due to changing rainfall patterns.  Extreme weather such as flooding and drought also damages crop yields, and related challenges include built-up pest-resistance and growing disease-spreading susceptibility. 
Processor’s & Distributor’s Pains: Food safety regulations make food handling and storage a major concern, both in warehouses and transit. Careful refrigeration measures are complicated by rising temperatures.  Also, the potential for extreme weather events poses threats to food transportation via damage to physical infrastructure.
Retailer’s Struggle: This all trickles down to two major challenges for the retailer: uncertain food availability and increasing food prices. “Changes in the availability and quality of land, soil, and water resources… are later reflected in crop performance, which causes prices to rise,” according to the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization.  When prices rise for the retailer, they often rise accordingly for the end customer. 
Despite Mackey’s comments, WFM’s website boasts its “Green Mission”; beyond Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, WFM pursues composting, reusable grocery bags, renewable energy credits, and even sometimes on-site solar panels.  However, these near-term efforts illustrate how WFM tries to lessen its contribution to climate change—rather than how WFM tries to protect itself from climate change.
One instance of WFM protecting itself from supply chain problems triggered by climate change is Gotham Greens—WFM’s operating partner that installed a garden on WFM’s roof in Brooklyn, NY, supplying the store with fresh, on-site herbs and produce, as shown below. [11-14] This way, if the supply chain is unable to provide produce due to, say, farmland flooding, WFM can provide for its customers regardless.
Partnership projects like Gotham Greens can help WFM following extreme weather events that block roads or ruin farmlands. On-site sourcing also gives WFM more pricing control; because WFM is already known for being high-end, increased tag prices from supply chain pains may make WFM less competitive. These types of measures help WFM stay afloat in the medium-term as supply chain problems intensify.
So what now?
Climate change attacks WFM’s supply chain in endless ways beyond just those described here. WFM must prepare itself not only for the sake of its business, but also the communities it serves. Its best shot starts with diversifying sources, pursuing partnerships, and accepting climate change as a real threat.
- Diversifying sources: WFM should strategically diversify food sources in the events that major farmlands or transportation routes are compromised. Similar to its Gotham Greens project, WFM could pursue more on-site food sourcing to ensure more reliable food availability.
- Teaming Up: WFM should also seek operational synergies with new parent company, Amazon, to protect itself from upstream transportation issues. It can also form alliances with other players in the supply chain to support each other however they can; for example, sponsoring farmers to obtain better yielding seeds or having on-site storage in case of emergency. It should also partner with climate researchers to determine how WFM can continuously improve operations to best support its supply chain.
- Acceptance: None of these efforts can fully support the supply chain without senior leadership encouragement. Statements like, “climate change is perfectly natural and not necessarily bad,” may not inspire the type of work needed to combat climate change’s impact on WFM’s entire supply chain.  This cultural hurdle is vital to WFM’s ability to weather this storm.
And finally, some lingering questions…
- How does global perception of climate change impact business decisions?
- What are the ethical implications for Whole Foods to not act in the face of climate change?
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- Samuel, Maia. “Whole Foods Founder Says Global Warming ‘Not That Big a Deal’.” Yahoo! Finance, Yahoo!, 24 Jan. 2013, finance.yahoo.com/blogs/off-the-cuff/whole-foods-founder-says-global-warming-not-big-224803744.html.
- “Whole Foods Market History.” Whole Foods Market, www.wholefoodsmarket.com/company-info/whole-foods-market-history.
- Kuldiloke, Jarupan. “Food Supply Chains.” YouTube, YouTube, 15 Oct. 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tffcy7269LE&t=184s.
- Ranger, Nicola. “How will climate change affect food production?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 19 Sept. 2012, www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/sep/19/climate-change-affect-food-production.
- “Climate change will cut crop yields: study.” Phys.org – News and Articles on Science and Technology, phys.org/news/2017-08-climate-crop-yields.html.
- reakout session P1.1 National Food Security – The Wheat Initiative. Global Conference for Agriculture Research and Development, Nov.1, 2012, www.fao.org/docs/eims/upload/306175/Briefing%20Paper%20(3)-Wheat%20Initative%20-%20H%C3%A9l%C3%A8ne%20Lucas.pdf.
- “Climate Impacts on Agriculture and Food Supply.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 6 Oct. 2016, 19january2017snapshot.epa.gov/climate-impacts/climate-impacts-agriculture-and-food-supply_.html.
- Alcamo, Joseph, and Jorgen E. Olesen. “Life in Europe Under Climate Change.” Google Books, John Wiley & Sons, Mar. 2012, books.google.com/books?id=alEGYtdaW1MC&lpg=PA56&ots=j-MSScnO4a&dq=food safety climate change refrigeration&pg=PA56#v=onepage&q=food%20safety%20climate%20change%20refrigeration&f=false.
- “Climate Change: The Unseen Force Behind Rising Food Prices?” Climate Change: The Unseen Force Behind Rising Food Prices? | Worldwatch Institute, Worldwatch Institute, www.worldwatch.org/node/5434.
- Majoroh, Efemena. “Climate Change and Food Security.” LinkedIn, Apr. 2016, www.linkedin.com/pulse/climate-change-food-security-efemena-majoroh/.
- “Brooklyn Greenhouse: Gotham Greens.” Whole Foods Market, www.wholefoodsmarket.com/service/brooklyn-greenhouse-gotham-greens.
- Image: http://gothamgreens.s3.amazonaws.com/farm/greenhouse_gowanus.jpg
- Image: https://tctechcrunch2011.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/bib_gotham_greens_feature_img_06.jpg?w=680&h=453
- Image: http://millennialmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2015/10/Gotham-Green-Headquarters.jpg
- Harkinson, Josh. “Whole Foods CEO Welcomes Climate Change, Warns of Fascism.” Mother Jones, Jan. 2013, www.motherjones.com/environment/2013/01/whole-foods-market-john-mackey-interview-conscious-capitalism/.
- Header Image: https://futureleadershipinstitute.files.wordpress.com/2016/03/fli-food-production-climate-change.jpg