John Mackey: Not So Wacky After All
The original Whole Foods Market. Austin, Texas
John Mackey, co-CEO of Whole Foods, did a couple of interviews this week with NPR’s Steve Inskeep (the second one, which ran this morning, is the more interesting–I’ll post a link when it’s available). The recent Mackey buzz is centered on his new book, Conscious Capitalism.
In so many ways Mackey is a conundrum: a libertarian vegan who, in this interview (second part), calls Obamacare “fascist” and rails, as he long has, against unions. With a multiplicity of strong opinions, Mackey inevitably offends a lot of people—people on all sides of the standard political spectrum. It’s hard to find anyone who sees eye-to-eye with Mackey on every issue. Personally speaking, this is one reason I admire him. He’s a moving target and, as we keep missing him, he keeps proving how valuable he and his company are to the American diet.
What comes through quite powerfully in the second interview, though, is something more universal and agreeable: Mackey cares deeply about personal health—and not just his own (his vegan diet even omits processed oil). He speaks eloquently and with sincerity about helping children in particular overcome their “food addictions,” particularly our addictions to sugar, salt, and fat. I will never forget, two years ago, when Mackey and I were on a panel at Texas State and, fearlessly (and in contrast to my studied diplomacy), he told a packed lecture hall of students that their diets were shameful and their health in decline. There was something almost preacher-like in his delivery and I recall being very impressed with the unabashed and urgent nature of his appeal. I wasn’t alone. Students were moved.
Whole Foods is, in these respects, a direct reflection of Mackey himself. It, too, is something of a conundrum: a publicly traded company with a social mission, a health food store serving both raw vegan food and a lot of junk, a company founded by a vegan but teeming with display counters of “welfare approved” flesh. Not unlike Mackey, it’s hard to find any socially conscious consumer without a strong opinion about Whole Foods. Some see it as “whole paycheck,” others as an oasis of sanity in a food desert, and yet others as a labor-abusing sweatshop. Whatever the truth or falsity of these claims, most people who hold them, when stranded in a strange city, seek out Whole Foods for a decent meal of real food. (In the interview with Inskeep, Mackey said he did this as well, to which Inskeep did a goofy guffaw and said, “sure, just go an eat in the aisles.”—I’m not a fan of that guy.)
Anyway, as I read Mackey, the rubber hits the road when it comes to choice. If there’s a unifying theme to his seemingly fragmented array of beliefs it is this: personal choice. Why does Whole Foods carry oreo-like cookies? Because we have a choice. Why does it have a meat counter? Because, as Mackey sees it, we have a choice. Why does he oppose federal legislation that structures how corporations offer health care? Because it restricts choice. Why does a country that is overweight and getting sicker have a fighting chance to save itself? Because we have a choice. Mackey’s idea of “choice” itself might at times border on its own kind of fascism. Still, on balance, he and his company have done more than any major food store in American history to help consumers make better choices. Not perfect, but not bad.