We Love Trader Joe's and Here's Why You Should Too

food & beverage op-ed sustainability sustainable living Sep 01, 2023

Like so many other people in the United States, I love Trader Joe’s. They offer a wide selection of unique products, the prices are better than most other grocery stores, and every store I’ve been to has the friendliest staff around. What more could you ask for?

I hear a lot of people, however, complaining about the one thing that does drive them crazy… their approach to packaging. I’ll admit, historically, there was a LOT of single-use packaging and it seemed that too many items were individually wrapped and that there was little attention paid to the plastic that was used and/or where it went after our purchase.

Well, it seems that they heard those complaints and are making efforts. Not only in packaging, but in their supply chain and more…

You might not have known, but TJ’s has committed to sustainability and making their stores and products better for customers and the planet. This isn’t something they shout from the mountaintop - in fact, they keep their sustainability efforts tucked away at the very bottom of their website. Plus, you won’t see any marketing in the stores showcasing how environmentally friendly a product is. Trader Joe’s is a pretty remarkable grocery store that continues to fascinate me.

My family has been shopping at TJ’s for years, but I had never thought about their business model until I watched this video from The Wall Street Journal. It starts with the humble banana - it cost roughly 19 cents in the late ‘90s and still costs about 19 cents in 2023. How the heck can something cost the same as it did 20+ years ago, especially through a major economic downturn, a global pandemic, and skyrocketing inflation?

The short answer: Trader Joe’s has an incredibly short supply chain that works hyper-efficiently. Trader Joe’s is able to buy directly from suppliers and manufacturers, cutting out the middleman that traditional grocery stores utilize. You’ll find most of the time that Trader Joe’s products are private-label, allowing them to work with a few manufacturers to make large quantities of a given product that is then distributed to stores around the country. Keeping your suppliers close and working with them directly helps eliminate some of the additional costs and headaches associated with the traditional production model.

Working for an organization that primarily works with the apparel and footwear industries, I hope brands will one day be able to adopt this production model as well…

Trader Joe’s website doesn’t provide a lot of insight into their supply chain, which is vital information we’d love to see, but there’s still plenty of sustainability information for us to explore.

As of late 2022, Trader Joe’s carries around 3,400 products, of which 23% are certified organic. TJ’s plans to expand upon their organic offerings, so long as consumers continue to express their desire for organic goods. As they say “Our customers tell us they value such products, and we continue to increase our offerings of these items as demand grows.” This may not be the most ideal approach, but this does highlight the concept of voting with your dollar - if you can afford organic goods, you should opt for them!

We’ll be waiting for Trader Joe’s to ramp up their organic offerings, but for the time being, it’s awesome to see they’ve put in a concerted effort to reduce their packaging impacts. Grocery items are notorious for having excess plastic packaging and this is something TJ’s takes very seriously - over the past few years, they’ve done the following:

  • Removing plastic mesh packaging from produce.
  • Increasing the number of frozen entrees in a plastic tray with a compostable option.
  • Eliminated the plastic rings from our six-packs of beer.
  • Changed packaging in over 20 products from virgin plastic to 100% Recycled PET1 plastic. This allows us to increase the closed-loop of plastic recycling.
  • Eliminated packaging in 40+ items in our produce department.

Although packaging is considered low-hanging fruit in the world of sustainability and reducing impacts, it is great to see a major stakeholder in the grocery industry taking a stand to reduce their plastic consumption.

Beyond reducing plastic packaging, Trader Joe’s seems to have done a great job of managing the plastic waste that comes through their operations. In fiscal year 2022, they claim to have recycled 277,358,147 pounds of plastic, and while we’re not sure what percent this is of the total plastic waste through their system or if this number represents BtoB waste or consumer packaging, this is no small feat. Plastic waste isn’t the only thing they’re handling responsibly - food waste is an unfortunate byproduct of the grocery industry, but Trader Joe’s tries to manage theirs as responsibly as possible. In fiscal year 2022, they diverted over 17 million pounds of organic waste to compost. Instead of sending this material to landfills, TJ’s is contributing to a system that can be used to help regenerate soil and is less emissions-intensive. 

There are plenty more resources to learn about Trader Joe’s business practices, like their podcast! Two of our favorite episodes are Value and the Supply Chain at Trader Joe’s and Sustainability. Plus, if you’re looking for some recipes to put those organic ingredients to use, check out their recipes page!

Thanks for giving this blog post a read! If you’d like more content from The Underswell, be sure to follow us on Instagram and subscribe to our podcast, Good Things Happening. You can also grab our free 35 Guide or subscribe to our weekly newsletter by filling out the forms below. 

See you next week! 


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