Whole Foods CEO John Mackey knows what’s best for you, and fighting climate change ain’t it
You’d think that by now John Mackey would have learned to shut up.
The Whole Foods CEO and cofounder would no doubt be incensed at my saying so, of course, since — in classic hyper-entitled, superfluously wealthy, privileged white-man style — he considers suggestions that he do something other than what he wants a threat to the American constitutional experiment. Or, as he puts it: He’s a libertarian.
Socialism is where the government owns the means of production. In fascism, the government doesn’t own the means of production, but they do control it — and that’s what’s happening with our health care programs and these reforms.
He has (of course) since apologized for the remarks. There’s some irony to the claim; in 2007, conservative writer Jonah Goldberg isolated Whole Foods as an example of what he deemed “liberal fascism.” So many fascists!
Mackey began his response to NPR with a telling two-word phrase: “technically speaking.” “Technically speaking,” he said to NPR’s Steve Inskeep, Obamacare is fascism. Why is that phrase telling? Because Mackey is trying to (incorrectly) explain basic political science to one of NPR’s most capable reporters. The phrase gets to the core of what Mackey’s doing every time he opens his mouth: He’s telling you that you’re wrong and he’s right.
This is Mackey’s entire philosophy — that he knows best. He has for decades fought virulently against his workers’ attempts to unionize. When I worked in the labor movement, we’d hear stories from Teamster truck drivers about pulling up to Whole Foods to make deliveries and being handed anti-union literature. For Whole Foods workers, it’s worse. In 2009, Mother Jones’ Josh Harkinson reported on the company’s push to squelch unions. Most revealing was this paragraph:
Starbucks’ and Whole Foods’ anti-union, pro-worker stance “is the essence of benevolent paternalism,” says Kim Fellner, whose book, Wrestling With Starbucks: Conscience, Capital, Cappuccino, praises many of the company’s other employment practices. “These are companies that want to do good by their workers, but want to decide what that good is, rather than letting the workers decide for themselves. And that’s a problem.”
The occasion for Mackey’s remarks to NPR was a new book that the CEO co-authored. Called Conscious Capitalism, the book apparently encourages corporations to play more of a role in effecting change. (I haven’t read the book because: come on.) As described by NPR:
Mackey tells Inskeep that companies must have a higher purpose than just making money.
For example, when Whole Foods decided it wanted to stop selling overfished species of cod and octopus at its seafood counters, it didn’t just abruptly cut off its suppliers. Instead, the company gave its suppliers three years to come up with a better way of fishing; during that time, the seafood stayed for sale — but with a label of “unsustainable.”
In the end, Whole Foods, working with the Marine Stewardship Council …, was able to find one supplier of sustainable cod.
“You take a risk when you do that because some of your customers … who don’t care about sustainability, they’re going to go shop at your competitor’s store who has the fish, so you lose some business that way,” Mackey says. “But it was the right thing to do.”
It was the right thing to do. Sustainability is one of the two times during the day that Mackey’s broken clock is correct. But what Mackey obscures in this argument is that corporations are constantly striving to shift behavior patterns. Usually, though, they’re not toward something as beneficial as more sustainable products. Corporations, for example, fight things like comprehensive healthcare reform. Mackey sacrifices his capitalism for the health of his fish, but not for the health of his workers.
And he knows his customers don’t really care. This is the dichotomy of Whole Foods in its clearest shape: The chain’s stereotypically liberal and urbane customers agree with enough of the company’s visible, promoted philosophy that they can ignore the obscured, non-liberal components.
Josh Harkinson, the Mother Jones reporter mentioned above, also sat down with Mackey this week.
[Mackey:] Contrary to what has been written about me I am not a “climate-change skeptic.” Climate change is clearly occurring, and based on what I have read global temperatures have increased about 1.5 degrees Celsius over the past 150 years. We’ve been in a gradual warming trend since the ending of the “Little Ice Age” in about 1870, and climate change is perfectly natural and not necessarily bad. In general, most of humanity tends to flourish more when global temperatures are in a warming trend and I believe we will be able to successfully adapt to gradually rising temperatures. What I am opposed to is trying to stop virtually all economic progress because of the fear of climate change. I would hate to see billions of people condemned to remain in poverty because of climate-change fears.
There’s one part of this that is correct. (It is not the part about how “climate change is perfectly natural and not necessarily bad.”) Mackey accurately describes the decision-making of conscious capitalists — that shifting behavior patterns to combat climate change costs them too much money, so they won’t. It’s this very statement that gives the lie to Mackey’s championing of sustainability. At the end of the day, the consciousness Mackey promotes is, as always, his own — his own deluded, incorrect science and his own insistence on his own primacy.
At his heart, Mackey is scared. He’s scared that this company he built will be subjugated to the will of the people it employs. He’s scared that the food he’s eating isn’t healthy. He’s scared that the government will restrict his ability to do whatever he wants. What Mackey sees as enlightened individualism is, instead, the terror of the powerful — the thought that he might not be able to get or do what he wants.
He’s not the first person to share this condition. There was once another group obsessed with control and eating organic. People called them fascists, too.
Get Grist in your inbox