Whole Food For Thought

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey should have realized who his customers were

The nexus of capitalism and crunchy liberalism resides in the Whole Foods chain. With 276 stores in the U.S., Canada and the UK and nearly $8 billion in revenue, it's the leader in the market of "natural" and organic products. That includes, "produce, seafood, grocery, meat and poultry, bakery, prepared foods and catering, beer, wine, cheese, whole body, floral, pet products, and household products." Founded by John Mackey more than three decades ago, it perfectly anticipated the current "back to natural" movement launched by the post-Woodstock progressive movement (but has spilled over to bring in so-called "crunchy" conservatives). 

In addition to being a place for organic food ingesters, Whole Food is also seen as a broadly "socially responsible" company:

Whole Foods is yet another company that keeps employee needs in mind, with caps on management compensation, an open-book policy on pay, and benefits that workers can vote on. Its mission to provide organic and natural foods is heavy on environmental awareness -- it was in the vanguard of companies seeking to reduce the use of plastic bags -- and it carries out a myriad of other green initiatives. It has also created non-profit organizations: the Animal Compassion Foundation and the Whole Planet Foundation.  

So, with a reputation like that -- doing well and doing good at the same time -- what on earth could upset the apple-cart?  Well, John Mackey had the nerve to exercise his First Amendment rights.  He wrote an op-ed column for The Wall Street Journal, explaining his problems with the president's health-care plan. Again, one of the main reasons why Whole Foods is seen as socially responsible is because it provides health-care for all employees working more than 30 hours a week. It also provides workers with an extra health stipend that can be used for additional benefit.  

Well, you would have thought someone had personally insulted the shopping liberals.  As soon as the Journal piece appeared, liberal calls to boycott Whole Foods began. Given Mackey's background and philosophy, this action is rather extreme. Mackey wasn't insulting the White House or the president personally: He just had a different view on the best way to deliver health care. Alas, in the current environment, it was very easy for him to be considered part of the "enemy" of reform. Somehow the "you're either with us or you're against us" philosophy has managed to survive the change in administrations.  

On the other hand, it's fair to ask: What was Mackey thinking?  One of the first rules of business is -- Know your customer!! Is Mackey really shocked that a significant segment of  his regular shoppers are politically liberal supporters of Barack Obama? They may not know how "responsible" or "green" Whole Foods is. Or, they may know, but not care in this instance.  Instead, they see the CEO apparently taking sides in what is the most intense political fight in sometime.  

A Whole Foods shareholder can't be too happy by this turn of events: The CEO of the company picks a fight with a sizable segment of their customer base; then that base starts a boycott -- which causes bad headlines. 

It's enough to give everyone -- shareholders, board of directors and Mackey himself some major indigestion.

New York writer Robert A. George blogs at Ragged Thots. Follow him on Twitter.

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