Walk into the Whole Foods store in Mississauga, Ontario, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s just another chichi gourmet food shop.

Artisanal raw milk cheese cozies up to salted caramel truffles and bulk quantities of roasted garlic. You can choose from at least three different kinds of coconut water. And pre-made takeaway salads include couscous with feta cheese, scallions and dried cranberries.

Everything’s organic or fair trade or natural or local or craft-made. You’d also be forgiven if you thought those labels—so ubiquitous in an age of greenwashing and marketing jargon—were just so much marketing hype.

You’d be forgiven—but you’d be wrong.

Not just a gourmet shop

Yes, Whole Foods is a little pricier than your neighbourhood Sobey’s. (The BizEnergy team regularly spends over $15 on lunch from their by-the-weight buffet, but that’s partly because we’re obsessed with their tofu with tomatoes and olives.) They carry stuff, like pink Himalayan salt and organic, glass-bottled goat’s milk, that’s usually the exclusive purview of gourmet shops

Thing is, though, the Mississauga Whole Foods, open since August 2011, does a whole lot to live up to those “green” labels besides sell $8.99 packages of organic kale chips (although they do that, too)—and a lot of it is never noticed by customers.

Stuff like:

  • Thermal night curtains that cover the open refrigerator cases, reducing the energy consumed by refrigerator compressors after-hours by up to 50%
  • Motion-sensor lighting in the freezers, dairy cases, and non-sales areas, meaning there’s less energy consumed when the store isn’t busy
  • A water-efficient food pulper in the kitchen that reduces food waste by 90%, turning it into a dried compost material that can be used as a nutrient-rich fertilizer
  • An integrated energy management system called Parasense to monitor electric, gas, and water usage
  • A white roof, which reduces rooftop temperatures by up to 15 degrees, decreasing the need for excessive air conditioning

Spreading the green message

Of course, Whole Foods does communicate many of its efforts to its customers, using signs and chalkboards throughout the store to highlight their coffee bar made of recycled glass and reclaimed barn board, their low-flow faucets in the customer washrooms, and their commitment to purchasing clean electricity through Bullfrog Power, among many other efforts.

And they’re more than happy to talk about the store.

“Whole Foods is considerably—compared to Loblaws or Sobeys—new,” says Janice Chan, Ontario Marketing Team Leader. “It’s a different shopping experience in general, so what we encourage customers to do is go to our customer service counter and take a tour.”

Customer service reps will walk new customers around the store, asking about their preferences and sharing take-home info in the form of flyers and cooking booklets.

And the communication isn’t done yet.

Take the “community table” in the customer eating area, for example. Designed by Chicago-based Icon Modern, the community table uses wood that’s been reclaimed from urban trees felled by storms or disease.

“We haven’t gotten to this point yet, but we’d like to ask Icon Modern exactly what neighbourhoods our tables come from,” says Chan. “Then we’d put up a sign and some photos, and say ‘This table came from this street.’”

Good for the environment, good for customers—and good for business

Although ROI on Whole Foods’ green initiatives vary, payback periods are generally targeted to be approximately three years, with specific ROI figures becoming evident after a year of operational use.

And since Whole Foods has been in business in the States for 30 years and Canada for 10—with stores are planned for Unionville in April of 2012, and Yonge and Sheppard in 2013—they can afford to implement measures with longer-term payoffs.

Local, local, local

For now, there’s a definite emphasis on local products, some of which are highlighted on a sandwich board made from—what else—reclaimed wood from a Guelph barn.

Local vendors at the Square One store include Beretta Farms from King City, who supplies organic meat, Pfenning’s Organics from Baden, who supplies and packages produce, and Frogpond Farms Organic Winery from Niagara-on-the-Lake, who supplies—yes, organic wine.

“People in Ontario especially love their local vendors and their local farmers,” explains Chan. “We try to look for vendors that are local, but we also want to team up with vendors who have the same values we do in terms of their materials and transportation—which means that not only are we supporting them, but we’re both supporting the same green mission.”

It’s no coincidence that the store’s iconic logo is green…

Image credit: Whole Foods Market