Whole Foods' John Mackey speaks out against Obamacare while promoting his new book

Mackey's book, 'Conscious Capitalism,' discusses how he practices responsible business with Whole Foods.

Richard Drew/AP
John Mackey founded Whole Foods in 1980.

Thanks to his unorthodox philosophy and a recent kerfuffle over the use of the term “fascism,” a certain grocery store CEO’s book is getting a lot of attention this week.

In “Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business,” Whole Foods co-founder and CEO John Mackey puts forward a bold, and controversial, perspective on running a business. His philosophy, the perhaps oxymoronically named "conscious capitalism," has earned Mackey a legion of fans as well as detractors who have vowed to boycott Whole Foods in opposition to the CEO’s approach.

“Conscious Capitalism” explains Mackey’s maverick philosophy on business, a view which advocates that companies must have a higher purpose than simply making money. In Mackey’s view, that higher purpose is creating value and lifting people out of poverty and he argues that we need to redefine capitalism as such to flourish as a society.

“My co-author Raj Sisodia and I describe this as a way of thinking about business to ensure that it is grounded in a higher purpose to enhance its positive impact on the world,” Mackey said in an interview with Forbes. “When reinvented in this way, capitalism is an extraordinarily powerful system of value creation mutually benefiting all stakeholders.”

The book is also a personal memoir of sorts that charts Mackey’s remarkable journey to success. A college dropout who dabbled in Eastern philosophy, yoga, vegetarianism (he is now a vegan), and 1960s counterculture, Mackey started a natural foods store in Austin in 1978 with his girlfriend, Renee Lawson Hardy. Named with a wink and a nod, Safer Way was a spoof on Safeway, which operated several grocery stores nearby. Two years later, Mackey and Hardy merged with another natural foods store to open Whole Foods, which they began slowly expanding starting in 1984. 

Now Whole Foods is an $11 billion Fortune 300 company and the largest natural foods store in the US with more than 340 locations in the US, Canada, and the UK. Besides kale chips, sustainably caught salmon, fair trade coffee, and organic chard, the store is known for its responsible business practices, including providing all employees with health care and capping executive pay at 19 times the company’s hourly wage.

Mackey details this and other tools of “conscious capitalism” in his book, which he considers a blueprint for a new kind of capitalism that creates values and benefits all stakeholders, including customers, employees, investors, the greater community, and the environment.

The outspoken CEO recently found himself in hot water while promoting his book. In a discussion about President Obama’s health care overhaul with NPR’s Steve Inskeep, Mackey expressed his staunch opposition to the new health care legislation, which he characterized as ‘fascism.’

“Technically speaking, it's more like fascism. 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.”

The comment drew a firestorm of criticism – including from angry Whole Foods shoppers who vowed to boycott the store – and forced Mackey to step back his comments.

He first apologized for his comments in a CBS This Morning interview and later in a blog post in which Mackey said he regrets using the term, which “today stirs up too much negative emotion with its horrific associations in the 20th century.”

One thing is for sure, that eclectic grocery bag of topics – fascism, organic produce, responsible capitalism, and a billion-dollar natural foods success story – has many more of us curious about “Conscious Capitalism.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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