Share This Page

Whole Foods CEO believes capitalism has higher purpose

| Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

AUSTIN — John Mackey defies most labels, but “unabashed capitalist” is one of the few that sticks.

In “Conscious Capitalism,” Mackey's first book, the founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods Markets Inc. offers nothing less than a full-throated psalm for the power of free markets to create value and lift humanity.

Yet at its core, and true to Mackey's ability to avoid those hard-and-fast labels, the book out this week delivers a pointed critique on how capitalism can lead business astray if its practice isn't grounded in a sound ethical foundation.

For much of American industrial history, Mackey said, free-market capitalism was underpinned by a sense of Judeo-Christian values. A sense of empathy and care softened the cold, hard forces of self-interest.

But that ethical underpinning has eroded as American society has grown increasingly secular, Mackey said.

And with that decline, the trust in public and private institutions has evaporated.

“We have to find our purpose again,” he said. “Business needs to rediscover its purpose, or evolve to find and discover it.”

Mackey and his co-author, Bentley University marketing professor Raj Sisodia, wrote “Conscious Capitalism” as a guidebook for rediscovering that higher purpose. As humanity has evolved, their argument goes, so also must business evolve to integrate the needs of all the stakeholders.

Conscious business leaders don't think in terms of win and lose, they write, but in creative terms that “deliver multiple kinds of value simultaneously.” While it's a marked change from how many business leaders think today, Mackey admitted, it has become second nature as a guiding principle at Whole Foods.

“I can do this very quickly,” he said. “I quickly run through every one of the major stakeholders and say, ‘Is this creating more value for them? Is somebody losing here?' And if somebody is losing, then really we haven't been creative enough, and probably it's not a good decision.”

“Conscious Capitalism” includes several anecdotes that illustrate that process. When vendors argued that Whole Foods didn't put them on equal terms with customers and employees, for example, the company added suppliers to its list of core stakeholders.

When animal rights activists picketed the company's annual meeting in 2003, Mackey was initially offended by their accusations. After meeting with them and studying the issue, he wrote, he overhauled Whole Foods' animal welfare standards and became a vegan.

Those who have followed Whole Foods know that Mackey has drawn his fair share of critics in recent years, including government regulators who investigated him after he posted online messages about the company online under a pseudonym. In the book, he notes that the investigation and media scrutiny forced him to open his heart and mind further.

Ultimately, it's that notion of a constantly evolving and progressing consciousness that lies at the heart of both Mackey's ardent support for — and his concerns about the direction of — free-market capitalism today. Once, underpinned by an ethics of compassion and care, capitalism created more value for humanity than any other political or economic framework in history, he said. As business rediscovers a higher sense of purpose — one that seeks to create value for employees, suppliers, investors and customers alike — it can create value for all stakeholders, he said.

Because humanity is more conscious today than ever before, he argued, business has the capacity integrate a new, necessary ethical foundation on which capitalism can thrive and benefit humanity as a whole.

“In a way, our book is a criticism of capitalism,” Mackey said. “It's basically saying, ‘If it's not going to disappear, it's going to have to go higher. It's going to have to get to a higher level of consciousness, and the practitioners of it are going to need to be more conscious as well.' ”

“There are all kinds of challenges we have,” he said. “Unless we become more conscious, we're not going to be able to deal with it.”

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.