As those regular readers know we have a love hate affair with Whole Foods CEO John Mackey. While we wish more corporations were like Whole Foods, espousing values for more than just stockholders and a triple bottom line approach (people, planet and profit) to success, there aren’t. If there were, Mackey’s consistent willingness to step on his soapbox and espouse his political philosophy would not be something we admire, even when violently disagreeing with his views.
Notwithstanding the fact that there is plenty to debate over how sustainable a business Whole Foods really is (as opposed to say, local grocers) the current marketplace makes most of this debate far more conceptual than practical. Although retailers like Whole Foods that are rightly considered good places the store pays wages that a mid-level unionized grocery clerk at Safeway or Pathmark would have earned in the 1990’s.
Of course comparing today to the 1990’s is like comparing Starbucks to Horn & Hardart’s Automat. Things have changed dramatically. Stagnant wages along with/or because of downward price pressures from Chinese imports, NAFTA and the growth of mass merchants (most notably Wal-Mart, but increasingly Target now moving into more and more urban areas) have made blanket wage comparisons imprecise, while still offering valid food for thought. How much does Mackey’s Whole Foods practice what it preaches? Is the essential point that workers make less and stockholders get rich? Or that Whole Foods team members (what they call workers) have stock options and these incentives are what makes these non-unionzed workers and the stores they operate so successful?
But while the above question has many shades of sustainable gray, what is clear is that those who criticize Mackey as another misguided part of the 1% or a big-mouthed member of the corporate elite aren’t really paying attention. There’s many sides to this man who so reflexively and thoughtlessly condemns Obamacare at the same time he passionately advocates for a society that reins in self-interest in a way that benefits all.
In a recently released video of a 2011 debate sponsored by the Atlas Society entitled “Is self-interest enough to create personal happiness or a good society?,” Mackey noted his admiration for Ayn Rand, admitted that he sees himself like a character in one of her books yet strongly concludes that the basis for her rationale of human behavior is highly mistaken. Fast forward to Mackey’s opening statement shortly after the 13 minute mark.