THE BLOG

Is Whole Foods Market Just Another Evil Corporation?

06/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I just finished reading Sharon Smith's article by the same name online at AlterNet.com. I am writing this blog in direct response to the question she posed in the title of her article.

Whole Foods Market is, like any human endeavor, hardly perfect. In my mind, however, they are exemplary corporate activists, striving to not only be a sustainable company in a currently unsustainable sector, but also to define sustainability and uplift their entire industry along with them. Likewise, no journalist is perfect -- but Smith's attack on a fellow advocate for positive change only serves to hurt the larger cause of creating a safe, clean, and just world that we all share.

For the sake of sustaining and improving the life, peace and prosperity of future generations on this great green Earth, I am an advocate for sustainable businesses like Whole Foods. I cannot stand idly by and watch members of the movement naively gnaw off one of the legs on which we stand.

My answer to Ms. Smith is NO. Whole Foods Market is NOT "just another evil corporation." Evil -- as defined by our collective intelligence at Wikipedia.com -- describes "intentional negative moral acts or thoughts that are cruel, unjust, or selfish."

The article begins innocuously enough, by mentioning some of Whole Foods' innovative and progressive corporate strategies. Included in the list are its commitment to advancing the fair trade movement, supporting micro-entrepreneurs in developing countries, improving living conditions for farm animals, empowering its team members, and fostering a work culture of acknowledgement and appreciation. (Not to mention that they are in the business of providing wholesome nourishment to their customers.)

Then Smith attempts to pull back the curtain to reveal "something sinister [that] lurks beneath the surface of Whole Food's progressive image." Later, she writes, "Whole Foods turns ferocious" -- implying that all of this "do-gooding" is sheep's clothing for a voracious wolf eager to gobble up anyone who steps in its path of profit.

The central assumption in Smith's pronouncement of evil -- that unions are unequivocally good -- remains highly controversial. Although historically a powerful force in the empowerment of labor and evolution of corporate culture, it is hardly a matter of fact that unionizing works in every circumstance. Sometimes it protects workers from unfair corporate practices. Other times, it pits them against each other. I would not presume to take a stance on whether WFM workers should or should not unionize. However, the company should not be demonized and accused of intentionally immoral acts due to one journalist's opinions on their labor practices.

No single sociopolitical agenda, be it progressive, conservative, libertarian, anarchist, or Marxist, should be defended at the expense of a larger mission. Smith, along with many well-meaning yet misguided progressive activists, would better serve that larger mission by focusing on revealing the most backward and corrupt organizations, rather than what is likely the most sustainable Fortune 500 company.

Smith writes that "[s]omehow, Mackey has managed to achieve multimillionaire status while his employee's hourly wages have remained in the $8-$13 range for two decades." First of all, I would argue that salaries are a reflection of the value a person creates for the organization. Executives are paid high salaries because they create more value for the organization than those just starting out, who will also likely leave within a few years. All team members are all essential to the success of the business, but the executives are creating the conditions that provide jobs to the fruit stackers in the first place. If their organization does not duly compensate them, they leave to find another company that will, just like anyone else offering trained services (including journalists).

Smith accuses WFM of being profit-hungry. How does Smith suggest Whole Foods decrease its profits and simultaneously increase benefits to employees? The more successful the company, the more successful the employees, the greater the profit, the more everyone wins.

Secondly, and perhaps more to the point, Smith failed to mention WFM's policy that caps executive salaries at $19 for every $1 made by their average full-time team members. That may still sound like a lot -- but to put that in perspective, as of 2005 the average US CEO was making $411 on every employee dollar. That's a twenty thousand percent difference between Mackey's "evil" earnings and those of the other executives with whom Smith has lumped him. What more, since 2007 Mackey has reduced his salary to $1, directing to the rest to charitable organizations such as the Whole Planet Foundation and Animal Compassion Foundation. In addition, I have heard that close to 90% of stock options are offered to team members, not upper management. Are these the actions of an evil mastermind, someone who milks his "workers" for all they're worth so he can fatten his pockets from the profits?

Smith also attacked WFM's high prices, as if this is a cruel and unusual practice. Largely thanks to the market created by -- and the standards set by -- Whole Foods, there now exists a wide array of healthy grocers from which to choose. Customers are not forced to shop there any more that the employees are forced to work there. As a customer, I prefer produce from my garden, the local farmer's market, the local co-op, Whole Foods, and then the standard markets -- in that order. However, I buy my toiletries in bulk when possible to reduce packaging waste, and Whole Foods provides that in a convenient and cost-effective way. They also have the widest selection of the locally-grown, small-batch artisanal products that I prefer. For these items, and many others I freely choose to shop at the store that best serves my needs. In fact, a lot of people do -- which is how WFM grew from a "mom and pop operation" into what it is today, beating the odds by competing against conglomerate grocery chains with more purchasing power and lower prices.

WFM also provides the single greatest opportunity for all the courageous conscious entrepreneurs I know -- people creating healthy, environmentally sustainable, artisanal, innovative, socially beneficial goods. People who, without WFM, would have a limited marketplace to reach the consumers who want their products.

I recently walked the halls of the Natural Products Expo, the largest of its kind in the world, where over 1900 vendors from all over the country come to market their conscious products. Helping to evaluate companies for potential investment, I asked many of them where they sell their products. Every time, the response was the same: "WFM! Thank God!," or "Hopefully we will get into WFM soon!" I'd wager that 5% or less sold their products to Wal-Mart, who only started even tracking interest in organic and sustainable goods in 2007 -- and whose green branding website LiveBetterIndex.com, which shows state-specific "adoption rates" for a depressingly limited palette of eco-friendly items, hasn't been updated in over a year.

I have had the opportunity to engage with Whole Foods team-members on both store and corporate levels. In each and every case, I encountered a conscientious, thoughtful individual with a passion for making the world a better place and a commitment to the purpose of Whole Foods (which includes and transcends all of their corporate practices). If any other grocery business doing a better job, I guarantee you that WFM is open to learning from them. They are quick to evolve and improve, to expand their mission and practices to create value for the most stakeholders -- not at the expense of the employees, but for and because of them. They call this a stakeholder-centric model -- one practice among many that other leading businesses ought to model, and that emerging entrepreneurs ought to build into their corporate DNA from the beginning.

The point is this: legitimate critical analysis distinguishes between whole and part, rather than leveraging one controversial practice to rationalize sweeping proclamations of evil. Whether history decides that WFM's stance against unions is wise or misguided, this single issue hardly outweighs the tremendous good that WFM has done for the culture of sustainability. Smith would do well to remember the overarching and increasingly urgent priorities of progressive business.

We as advocates need to prove through every vehicle available that a more sustainable, more just, more efficient, more successful way is possible. When we do this, we move from being a counter-movement, to the new guard -- the standard bearers of a widely accepted values system -- because the strategies for peace, happiness and prosperity simply work better.

I encourage anyone interested to read the following paper by John Mackey about Conscious Capitalism and leave your comments below. Consider these issues yourself and let me know: Do you think Whole Foods Market is "just another evil corporation?"

(If you agree with me, please distribute this, and take a stand with me against such slanderous and uninformed mudslinging wherever you may find it.)

For a deeper dive, check out Mackey's CD:
Passion and Purpose, the Power of Conscious Capitalism