The Trader Joe’s problem

I’ve been shopping at Trader Joe’s for a long time, maybe almost 20 years, and I love it. I especially appreciate their great deals on wine, cheese, and nuts. I like their prices and the way we can fix semi healthy food that’s quick to prepare.

But some time ago I started to get annoyed by their packaging. I realized that while some of their convenience food wrapping could be recycled, like the cardboard boxes around the Indian food, most of it couldn’t, like the sealed pouch the food itself was in.

Since we’ve been getting a CSA delivery and I’m trying to cook from scratch even more often, this TJ-generated trash has lessened greatly, but we still buy their convenience foods as backup, and veggie burgers for lunches, and my husband will never entirely give up their frozen pizzas. So I’m really starting to get bugged about their packaging ethos, which seems to run counter to their healthy food, fair trade, employees as stockholders liberal policies.

I’m thinking of asking for a meeting with my local store manager, but I want to do some research first. And since my readers are some of the smartest people around, I thought I’d start right here on this blog. Please leave your knowledge and opinions on the following in the Comments section:

Is there a movement to get Trader Joe’s to use more eco-friendly and/or recyclable packaging?

Have you or anyone you know addressed this issue at a Trader Joe’s store, on a blog, or in an article?

Have you read anything on the topic?

Do you find their packaging excessive, or is that just the “normal” state of affairs with food in grocery stores these days?

Thanks in advance for your comments. I’d like to get involved if someone is addressing the issue, or get something going if not.


  1. Anonymous says

    I wonder if you'll get far with the local manager. He or she might give you contact info to go higher up. But I would bet that the local managers have next to no control over their inventory. However, the meeting should be interesting — please let us know how it goes!

    I think you may be making an assumption that Trader Joe's is "liberal." Seems to me they operate as close to the bottom line as possible when it comes to their staff. I don't know if they give benefits, but I don't think they're unionized. Have you researched their business model? You might be surprised to learn they are less "liberal" than you think!

    It's really fun to shop there, and I appreciate how they keep costs down, but Trader Joe's is not your mother's co-op.

  2. Catherine @ The Vegan Good Life says

    Thank you for being pro-active on this, Angela. If you google "Trader Joe's packaging," a number of articles will come up by those sharing this concern.

    I told their manager at my NJ TJ's I don't buy their coffee (great prices for organic and fair-trade) because of the packaging: some weird hard-shell container with an aluminum rim and plastic top. It doesn't seem very recyclable. He appreciated the feedback, but I never know how far this gets.

    It would be great to see them use recycled paperboard to package items like cereal.

  3. Julia (Color Me Green) says

    Probably because of all that packaging and the fact that so much of what they sell is premade stuff that I'd prefer to make from scratch (for example, you/your husband could make calzones and stock them in the freezer instead of frozen pizzas), I don't consider their store all that eco-friendly and shop there only occasionally.

  4. Reese says

    I'm with Julia from Color me Green—most of what Trader Joe's sells (to my family) is a special treat. We don't shop for prepackaged, premade goods often. We prefer making everything (including those frozen pizzas you love so much) from scratch.

    This reduces almost all waste… so I do think it may be a bit hasty to call the store "liberals"–which is an unfortunate generalization that many people make about a number of issues.

    Try to remember you're paying for the convienence of certain items. Some things might be able to be recycled in different ways too (not just throwing it in a bin for the city to deal with). Search out art students, shelters that need containers or bags, schools for projects, etc.

  5. Kate Sommers says

    I'd email or contact someone at their
    Pasadena Main Office,
    You'd have a better chance of connecting with someone that can do something about it there.

  6. lorena says

    hello, a friend directed me here as i used to work at trader joe and have also done extensive research on the grocery industry. as to the first comment, they were founded by a progressive man, joe coulombe, who was very environmentally minded (the "frequent flyer" paper used to have updates on endangered species etc. they are not union (and now owned by someone else, a private family trust) but their wage scale and benefits are fairly competitive with union contracts (but with reduced holiday and sick pay). it's true that local managers have almost no control over inventory, unlike most stores, there is almost no variety between trader joe's selection from store to store. purchasing choices are made at a much higher level (thus the lower prices from bulk purchases), so your local store isn't going to carry anything different than the store 100 miles away. there is some different between regions as things like dairy, bakery, and some deli items are more locally produced.

    as far as the packaging, a lot of their produce packaging is biodegradable under landfill conditions (high heat and pressure). as far as things like cereal and prepared food, to be honest, i'm not sure what the alternatives would be for less packaging.

    they have a history of being open to consumer pressure for things like gmo or chinese ingredients (which they've stopped carrying), so you and anyone else concerned should definitely talk to the manager, write headquarters, etc. but keep in mind that their primary goals are low price and unique product, not good environmental practices (which IS more whole foods' focus).

  7. melissa bee says

    angela i'm so glad to see you address this. i've been surprised that i haven't heard more people talk about this. i stopped buying any produce at trader joe's for just this reason. bananas are about the only produce never wrapped in plastic. i still buy wine and a few other things there. if the nuts and grains were sold in bulk i'd shop there more often.

    i am a csa member also, so rarely buy produce from a grocery store anyway, but they definitely lost my business for other items over this. it seems so counter-intuitive to sell organic produce, and market to environmentally concerned consumers, and then wrap it all up in plastic. i wonder how much it costs them to trim and package all that produce.

    please keep us posted about this. lorena's comment that they respond well to consumer pressure is encouraging, i'd definitely jump on that bandwagon.

  8. lorena says

    they've started carrying citrus (lemons, limes, oranges, pineapple), potatoes, and apples as singles, so keep up the pressure and requests!

    but also keep in mind they don't have scales (nothing at the store is weighed) so they probably wouldn't start carrying bulk. part of this is that every employee works in different stations each day, rather than being assigned only to stocking or only to cash register. this means it would be harder for people to learn the codes needed to ring up produce by weight, even if they had scales. from my experience at both tj's and wf, i much prefer this switching stations as it makes the day much less boring!

    a friend and i investigated the produce package question for a class, and asked a bunch of different managers and staff, and it wasn't clear why the other produce is packaged. it seems like there are a few reasons: packaging helps prevent spoilage by protecting produce from bruises, there's a "convenience" aspect (e.g. they also carry silly things but big sellers like pre-cut apples, pre-diced onions), and the aforementioned lack of scales.

  9. Betsy Talbot says

    I used to shop there a lot, but I've never been a fan of their produce. Sometimes I think their items are overpackaged because they have to have such a long shelf life or get shipped great distances.

    The biggest way to make a statement with a corporation is economically, by not buying overly packaged products. A group effort on this front would be a powerful statement.

  10. Forest Parks says

    If there is a movement I bet you'll find it through Google…. If not I think you may have just started one!

    I would be completely happy to blog about it and link back to a post if you want to put one up with some pics of the packaging.



  11. frugalgravy says

    I love Trader Joes, but since I've been shopping at a different store that completely checks all of their items and make sure they're eco-friendly I see the difference between them and trader joes. I don't know anyone that has addressed it but I think if they're made aware of it they will change it. They seem to be accomodating.

  12. Angela says

    Thank you all for your response! I so appreciate you taking the time to tell me what you know.

    Particular thanks to Lorena, for sharing your "insider" knowledge and taking the time to write it out. It is indeed encouraging to know that they respond to consumers, that is somewhere to start.

    I think I did misuse the word "liberal" and that was basically sloppy writing. And I hardly ever buy their produce, actually never since we've been getting a CSA. I used to sometimes get the bagged greens but still always got produce elsewhere. The packaging always seemed ridiculous, plus it didn't taste very good.

    As far as the pizzas, my husband actually does make pizza from scratch but still likes their frozen brands for times he just wants a snack. My point was that regardless of what we buy, it would be nice to try to change their policies if it is possible. That would make a bigger difference than if I went out of my way to recycle every one of their strange containers or simply stopped shopping there.

    Thanks again for your comments. I'm going to do a bit of research, and then meet with the manager at my local store to get a feel on whether this has come up a lot and how responsive they are to it.

    I will keep you updated!

  13. Di Hickman says

    I shop at TJ weekly, and think it's a great place to shop as an alternative to mainstream stores. They sell a wide variety of organic products, free range/organic eggs etc and at decent prices. But yes the packaging issue is annoying.

    Case in point: chamomile teabags. Each bag individually wrapped in cellophane, then in a paper box which is again wrapped in cellophane! Seriously???

    However you local store manager can't do anything about this. I've worked in supermarkets, if you want answers you need to go further up the chain and go to head office and fire your questions there. Local store managers have no say on product packaging. Hell at my local store one checker tried to tell me that their "biodegradable plastic bags" were a better option than paper!

  14. I. Vybot says

    I love Trader Joes, but since I've been shopping at a different store that completely checks all of their items and make sure they're eco-friendly I see the difference between them and trader joes

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