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John Mackey, Whole Foods and Conscious Capitalism

February 11, 2009

john_mackeyA movement, according to John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, needs two different kinds of people: purists and pragmatists. The purist is important, he says. The purist provides vision, inspiration and a golden image of the future. That’s not all you need, however. The pragmatist is in the trenches, fighting to make a difference with whatever tools are available, and sometimes having to do things that don’t quite feel right because they have to be done to move forward.

He stopped short of explicitly referring to himself and Michael Pollan in these terms.

Whole Foods as a company and John Mackey as an individual came under a lot of fire following Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which Whole Foods is characterized as putting up a front of ecological concern while surreptitiously feeding the industrial food system. Pollan called Whole Food’s “supermarket pastoral,” a system that did little more than alleviate the consumer’s guilt about buying industrial food without actually doing anything to fight it.

Mackey, naturally, takes umbrage at these accusations. Despite his “aw shucks” attitude and his gentle Austin accent, he is an intense, sharp man. Of course there are more things Whole Foods can be doing, he says, and there are things they probably shouldn’t be doing, but this world is about constant improvement, not momentary perfection.

“I was out there with a machete,” he said, “hacking a path out of nothing. It’s easy to drive up in an air-conditioned SUV and say ‘you’re not doing enough.'”

Ultimately, Mackey runs a business, and his perception of the relationship between producers, retailers, consumers and the world is intensely informed by his faith in free market libertarian thinking. His customers vote ideas in and they vote ideas out, he says, and without satisfying his customers he can’t stay in business, and if he can’t stay in business he can’t do anything at all. It offers some explanation for why Mackey, a vegan, sells dead animals in his stores.

The market, as we have seen, is not perfect, but Mackey’s view is a little different than the kind of modified, nonsensical capitalism that we’ve seen on Wall Street. It would seem that for Mackey, the free market is better as an expression of the will of the people. Whole Foods isn’t successful because it has a responsible ethos, Whole Foods is successful that it has a responsible ethos that people want to buy.

While Pollan’s point’s remain valid, Mackey has a point. There might not be any organization in the country that has done more to promote a healthy relationship to food in this country than Whole Foods, and they didn’t do it through grants, subsidies or a dogmatic insistence on what was right. They did it by finding something that people wanted to buy, and selling it to them.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2009 1:39 pm

    I recently saw Gus Speth (your Dean of Forestry and Environmental Studies) speak at our college about environmental challenges that are ahead of us and the ways that various sectors have tried to address it thus far. Though he stopped short of providing any concrete solutions, his discussion of having to face a post-capitalist society was the most interesting to me. He identified, as the founder of such organizations as the NRDC, how working in the system to try to change it has not worked. I think the type of capitalism Mackey suggests, is a continued attempt to gloss over the real structural problems that face the environment in general and the food system in particular. In short, it is just more “green-washing”; attempts to buy our way out of a problem that is fundamentally rooted in consumerism, while trying to make us feel better at the same time. So while Mackey runs a business, which means his first responsibility is to make profit for his shareholders, Whole Foods of course has found something people wanted to buy – a passive ethic and a pretense to real food consciousness – that at the same time does a great job of maintaining the status quo. Unfortunately, articles like this do much of the same.

  2. Richard Riggs permalink
    October 15, 2009 9:12 pm

    Stick to groceries. Politics is beyond your grasp.

    Oh, and count me as another lost customer, you dork.

    I’ll still cruise your stores but only for free samples, gulp.

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