Green Is Good, Green Is Right

Whole Foods Market co-founder and co-CEO John Mackey on how healthy food and capitalism will save the world.
Photograph by Jeff Wilson

JAKE SILVERSTEIN: In your new book, Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business, you say that capitalism needs both a new narrative and a new ethical foundation. Why?

JOHN MACKEY: Two hundred years ago, 85 percent of the people on planet Earth lived on less than $1 a day, in today’s dollars. Today that’s down to about 16 percent. For 40,000 years the average human lifespan was 30 years or less. And in the past 150 years, we’ve gradually been able to raise that up to 68.9 years. Almost the entire planet was illiterate throughout history, and now we’re down to 15 percent. That is due to business. That is due to capitalism. 

JS: So you think capitalism doesn’t get credit for the good it’s done.

JM: It has not yet gotten credit. Instead, it’s generally portrayed as selfish and greedy. So we need a new narrative and a new ethical foundation based on a higher purpose than just making money. Not that there’s anything wrong with making money. My body needs to produce red blood cells for me to live, but the purpose of my body is not to produce red blood cells. Business cannot exist without making money, but that’s not
its purpose. Its purpose should refer back to the contribution it’s making
to the good of society. 

JS: In the introduction to the book [which was co-written by Bentley University marketing professor Raj Sisodia], you write about how you came out of the co-op movement in Austin in the seventies, a very liberal milieu, but that later you “abandoned the social democratic philosophy of my youth because it no longer adequately explained how the world really worked.” Were you attacked for being a sellout?

JM: The co-op movement has an ideology: it’s food for people, not for profit. When I created SaferWay [the precursor to Whole Foods], I had to make payroll every week, and I found this interesting paradox. My customers thought my prices were too high—many of them still feel that way—but the team members working for us thought they were underpaid and the benefits were [bad], and the suppliers didn’t want to give us additional discounts, which put us at a competitive disadvantage. We were losing money. The nonprofit sector still wanted us to make donations, the government was still taxing us. It was really difficult. And my political philosophy didn’t explain where I found myself. I knew I wanted to make the world a better place, but I’d be criticized and castigated as somehow evil because I was in business. 

JS: You say in the book that “a more constructive way to think about competitors is as allies striving for mutual excellence.” Is that how you think of the Trader Joe’s that is about to open up a few blocks away from your flagship store?

JM: There has been no competitor anywhere in the United States that has helped Whole Foods as much as Trader Joe’s. 

JS: Why is that?

JM: They’re very aggressive in price, and that’s forced us to become more aggressive in price. That’s going to make us a better company, because it helps us compete not only against Trader Joe’s but against H-E-B, Randalls, and everyone else.  

JS: I read an interview where you said, “Human beings are obviously self-interested. We do look after ourselves, but we’re capable of love, empathy, and compassion, and I don’t see that business is any different.” When I read that, I thought instantly of Mitt Romney saying during the Republican primary that corporations are people. Do you think he was unfairly maligned for that line?

JM: Organizations are treated legally as people, and this bothers some people. But they are collections of people, and I do think an organization like Whole Foods has sort of a collective consciousness. That could be what Romney was referring to. You’d have to ask him. 

JS: In some sense the election itself became a referendum on capitalism. What did you think as you saw that debate playing out?

JM: Let me put it this way: Romney did a very poor job of defending [capitalism]. He was on the defensive all the time. For whatever reason, he was afraid or resistant to go to the heart of the matter. 

JS: Which is?

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