Possible reasons to thank and disagree with John Mackey

Forest McKenzie

At Lawrence, most of us have heard of the natural and organic grocer Whole Foods Market. Whole Foods has 270 stores located in North America and the U.K. Some of us imagine a glorious day where a grocery store more substantial than Jacobs Meat Market would appear within walking distance of campus. But would we really welcome Whole Foods with open arms?
The legacy of the company and the feeling of each store are attached with notions of community, healthful eating and progressive business practices. But most of us have not heard of a man named John Mackey. Mackey is actually the CEO, cofounder and chief visionary of Whole Foods. A recent profile of him in The New Yorker paints a most interesting picture of complex relationships and the generally paradoxical nature of Mackey’s life.
After reading the article, some question whether we should support a company that sells health food alongside hot dogs, a company that limits the salary of executive officers to 19 times the salary of an average team member – Mackey pays himself one dollar per year – but vehemently opposes unionization of its workers; a company headed by an outspoken free-marketer who admirers the work of Ayn Rand, proposes that unregulated insurance companies are fit to run our nation’s health care system – see “The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare” published in The Wall Street Journal – and states that no “scientific consensus exists” on climate change and “historically, prosperity tends to correlate to warmer temperatures.”
I would like to ask Mackey who he thinks would prosper in a world of unabated climate change. Certainly some species might – mosquitoes – but the majority of the Earth’s creatures, including human beings, would not be able to sustain the climate effects predicted if they keep living in a “business as usual” scenario.
The effects have already been documented in regions around the world. Specifically, Mackey should speak with the people who have been forced to leave their homes and villages in Bangladesh and the Cartaret Islands and ask them if they are “prospering.”
Despite my disagreement with Mackey’s personal opinions and beliefs, I – unlike others organizing on blogs and Facebook groups – choose not to boycott Whole Foods. On a personal level, I support organic farming techniques and love to eat.
Thinking of the larger picture, Whole Foods has been instrumental in bringing the organic and natural foods movement from the fringes to the mainstream. The company actively engages people to question where their food comes from and how it will serve them. In short, Whole Foods has changed the way people think about daily life.
Just by having Whole Foods in their neighborhood, people are starting to question: Why can’t all big corporations in big box stores conduct themselves more like this? That is a powerful question. It is precisely this question and the increased demand for environmentally sensitive products by consumers that is motivating Wal-Mart to seek the advice of environmentalists Adam Werbach – coming to Lawrence later this year – and Amory Lovins. It is why Wal-Mart is the largest retailer of organic groceries and the world’s largest buyer of organic cotton.
As a pioneer in environmentally focused retail, Whole Foods has begun a market surge of companies seeking to learn from and improve upon its business model. This model is one of few that have been successful at increasing profits while recognizing a higher level of responsibility to communities and the environment.
While Mackey’s personal views might be like ipecac to some, his company will continue to be instrumental in changing the how the world conducts business. Thinking of Mackey as a CEO, his personal views do not surprise me. What is surprising is how he has channeled his love for capitalism and personal choice into something that is a major force in improving people’s health while simultaneously improving the health of our planet.