Whole Foods chief urges: Look beyond win and lose

John Mackey, founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods Markets, wrote “Conscious Capitalism” as a guidebook to help business rediscover its higher purpose.


AUSTIN, Texas — 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 also delivers a pointed critique on how capitalism can lead business astray if its practice isn’t grounded in a sound ethical foundation.

“If everybody is always calculating what’s to their advantage, and no one comes with generosity, or kindness, or compassion, or forgiveness — higher virtues — your society starts to break down,” Mackey said at his company’s Austin headquarters. “I actually think that’s what’s happening in America right now.”

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 both public and private institutions has evaporated.

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

“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.’ ”

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