Whole Foods Opens Whole Can of Worms in Canada

Thom Weidlich 11.19.20


Whole Foods was hit with a crisis earlier this month that shows that, while multinational corporations will have certain policies, it’s smart to be flexible — especially when it comes to regional traditions. At least the Amazon-owned outfit reversed its bad course in less than a day.

On Nov. 6, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported that a new policy meant the supermarket giant’s Canadian employees wouldn’t be allowed to pin the poppies traditionally donned for Remembrance Day onto their uniforms. The holiday commemorates those who have sacrificed their lives for their country.

Wearing the poppy would apparently violate Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods’ rule against sartorial support of causes. The CBC quoted a company worker who said she had been allowed to pop on the poppy in the past (the company has 14 stores in Canada).

Even after the policy became public, the company wouldn’t budge. It issued a statement that hit the right patriotic notes about honoring those who serve their country and said it observes a moment of silence in its stores on Nov. 11, Remembrance Day. But, it said, “with the exception of those items required by law, our dress code policy prohibits any additions to our standard uniform.”

An uproar immediately arose from the public and politicians. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the company was making “a silly mistake.” Canada’s veterans affairs minister tweeted that the policy was “absolutely unacceptable.” The House of Commons of Canada passed a motion condemning “Whole Foods and its owner Jeff Bezos for banning its employees from wearing poppies on their uniform.”


I still think Whole Foods should consider changing their name to Whole Fools.

— Toronto Sun columnist Brian Lilley

‘Poppy Pin’

Those are not good things for a company to hear. It backed down later that day. “Our intention was never to single out the poppy,” the CBC quoted a Whole Foods statement. “Given the learnings of today, we are welcoming team members to wear the poppy pin.”

The Toronto Sun noted the reversal came “after a massive and angry response from Canadians.” Its columnist Brian Lilley was more biting: “They backtracked on their stupid rule after getting schooled by Canadians from coast to coast, but I still think Whole Foods should consider changing their name to Whole Fools.”

It was an avoidable crisis. It should have been obvious that Canadians would object. This is especially so because the company is a foreigner. A 2016 study found that customers and others of the same nationality as an organization facing a crisis may be more forgiving in assigning blame than if the organization were foreign-based.

We still don’t have an explanation of how Whole Foods made this gaffe.

Local Tradition

This isn’t the first time we’ve mentioned crises that arise due to multinational companies not respecting local beliefs and traditions. This is especially so in China, where several companies ran into trouble for listing places like Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and Tibet as territories rather than as part of Greater China, as China sees it.

Mercedes was forced to apologize to the Chinese government after it posted a photo on Instagram that included a quote from the Dalai Lama. (The Chinese view the Tibetan spiritual leader as a separatist opposed to China.)

As the saying goes, when in Rome. Or in this case, the Great White North.

Photo Credit: Whole Foods Market

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Related:Brands’ China Gaffes Lead to Groveling Apologies