20 Questions with Sunni’s Salon

This interview was originally published in Sunni's Salon, Sunni Maravillosa's monthly 'zine of individualistic, pro-freedom culture.


SUNNI: Hi, John, and thanks for letting me play my version of "20 Questions" with you today. How are you?

JOHN: Great!

SUNNI: Glad to hear it! I have a lot of things I'd like to touch on with you, and I don't want to take too much of your time, so let's jump right in. In doing some research, I found you being referred to as an "ex-leftist libertarian". I thought that a very odd phrase, since many individuals come to the freedom philosophy from a left perspective -- and lots of pro-freedom people are more concerned with personal and social issues than economic ones; that's generally considered to be a "leftist" slant. What do you think of that phrase? Does it fit you?

JOHN: I think that depends upon how "leftist" is defined. Usually people who define themselves as "leftists" are opposed to capitalism, economic freedom, and believe that the coercive power of government should be used to create more equality and social justice in society. Usually people on the left have sympathy for democratic socialism. When I was in my very early 20's I believed that democratic socialism was a more "just" economic system than democratic capitalism was. However, soon after I opened my first small natural food store back in 1978 with my girlfriend when I was 25, my political opinions began to shift. Operating a business was a real education for me. There were bills to pay and a payroll to be met and we had trouble doing either because we lost half of our initial $45,000 of capital in our first year. Our customers thought our prices were too high and our employees thought they were being underpaid, and we were losing money. Renee and I were only being paid about $200 a month and the business was a real struggle. Nobody was very happy and Renee and I were now seen as capitalistic exploiters by friends on the left who believed we were overcharging our customers and exploiting our workers -- all because we were apparently selfish and greedy.

I didn't think the charge of capitalist exploiters fit Renee and myself very well. In a nutshell the economic system of democratic socialism was no longer intellectually satisfying to me and I began to look around for more robust theories which would better explain business, economics, and society. Somehow or another I stumbled on to the works of Mises, Hayek, and Friedman, and had a complete revolution in my world view. The more I read, studied, and thought about economics and capitalism, the more I came to realize that capitalism had been misunderstood and unfairly attacked by the left. In fact, democratic capitalism remains by far the best way to organize society to create prosperity, growth, freedom, self-actualization, and even equality.

I no longer think of myself as a leftist, but I definitely don't think of myself as from the right either. For the past 25 years I've thought of myself as a libertarian, but I'm now beginning to move away from that label as well. I have a number of intellectual problems with libertarianism as a political philosophy as it currently exists. I believe we need a new social/political/economical/environmental movement in the world today and I've got some definite ideas what this movement should look like.

SUNNI: You sure seem to be popular in the libertarian community, despite having arrived here through a side door, so to speak. How do you account for that? [laughs]

JOHN: I'm not aware that I'm popular in the libertarian community. On the contrary, I've frequently found myself criticized for lacking sufficient doctrinal purity by many in this movement.

SUNNI: Perhaps it's the celebrity element at work, then, John ... In doing background research for this interview, I came across mentions of you at several libertarian sites -- Advocates for Self-Government and several blogs. I don't recall seeing any critical comments. But I'm sure that you'd get them after a speech -- the movement doesn't suffer a lack of critics. [laughs]

JOHN: It could be the celebrity element. I'm not shy about telling the media or anyone else that I'm a libertarian. I suppose I've brought some favorable publicity to the libertarian movement. I hope so anyway.

SUNNI: I'm sure you have. One of the Conspirators who blogs with me is a huge fan of Whole Foods Market -- she's a stakeholder in more than one meaning of the term -- and I know a number of loyal Whole Foods Market customers in the pro-freedom community. I know that some wouldn't bat an eye at its Declaration of Interdependence, for example, but others might be surprised to see how often the word "collective" and its variants show up on the Whole Foods Market web site ... or to see ideas like "shared fate" and "community citizenship" in its core values statement. How do you square all that with being libertarian?

JOHN: I personally don't see any contradictions here. Human beings are highly social animals and we evolved over hundreds of thousands of years living in small hunting and gathering tribes. I believe that much of our fulfillment as human beings comes from our participation in the various social organizations that we belong to. Today we are raised in families, live in neighborhoods and communities, and are members of a number of greater collectives. For example, I am a member of the following collectives: Austin, Texas, The United States, Homo sapiens, vertebrates, DNA-based life forms, planet Earth, Milky Way Galaxy, etc. I'm also a voluntary member of a number of organizations including my marriage with Deborah Morin, Whole Foods Market, various long-distance backpacking groups, various animal welfare/animal rights groups, and various libertarian organizations, plus many others. Even my physical body is a collective consisting of many billions of cells working together in various organs to stay alive and pass on its genetic material into the future.

I think the reason why many libertarians object to the words "collective", "shared fate", and "community citizenship" is that they associate those words with coercive, involuntary organizations such as the forced collectivization of Soviet agriculture under communism or other totalitarian political organizations. Needless to say I don't use these words in these contexts. I believe in voluntary cooperation as the key principle for organizing any collective organization. Whole Foods Market is a collective based on voluntary cooperation between all the various stakeholders. No one is forced to cooperate against their will and all are free to withdraw from the collective organization anytime they wish to. A collective without freedom is by nature coercive and is therefore unlikely to lead to human flourishing. However, collectives based on freedom and voluntary cooperation can lead to very high levels of human flourishing. Indeed, I seriously doubt that high levels of human flourishing are even possible without voluntary cooperation from millions of various communities and collectives.

SUNNI: It sounds to me like you aren't a libertarian of a Randian persuasion -- wholly profit-driven and focused on the self; is that accurate?

JOHN: That is correct. I was very inspired by Ayn Rand's novels like millions of other people have been. However, I don't agree with some of her philosophies. For example: I don't think selfishness is a virtue and I don't believe that business primarily exists to make a profit. Profit is of course essential to any business to fulfill its mission and to be successful and to flourish and I will defend the goodness and appropriateness of profits for business with great passion. However, profit is not the primary purpose of business. Renee and I didn't begin Whole Foods Market to maximize profits for our shareholders. We began it for three main reasons: we thought it would be fun to create a business; we needed to earn a living; and we wanted to contribute to the well-being of other people.

As the business grew we created our mission statement back in 1985 and have tried to fulfill it ever since. That mission very clearly articulates that we have collective -- there's that word again -- responsibilities to all the various constituencies who are voluntarily cooperating with the company. In order of priority these constituencies or stakeholders are: customers; team members; investors; vendors; community; and environment.

We measure our success on how well we meet the needs and desires of all of these various stakeholders. All must flourish or we aren't succeeding as a business. I'll email you a graphic that represents how Whole Foods views the voluntary cooperation between the various stakeholders:

Whole Foods Market Business Paradigm

We call this a "New Business Paradigm" because it puts the Business Mission and Core Values at the center of the business model -- not maximizing profits. Profits aren't the primary goal of the business. They are an important result of fulfilling the Business Mission and meeting the needs and desires of customers. I'm writing a book on Whole Foods philosophy of business right now so it's hard for me to do justice to all the ideas and answer all the standard objections in this interview. My more complete statement on this will need to wait for the publication of the book. I'll share two ideas as food for thought here though.

Free-market economists have done a major disservice to capitalism and to business by making profit maximization the supposed primary goal of business. The terrible reputation of business in the world today is a direct result of the belief that business has no other purpose besides maximizing profits. The average person believes that business should care about its customers, employees, society, suppliers, the environment -- as well as its investors. The fact that business philosophers and economists articulate a philosophy that business should only care about maximizing profits and shareholder value (and has no other compelling ethical responsibilities to any of the other stakeholders) has done incalculable harm to the reputation of business. The "brand of business" in the widest sense is pretty terrible throughout the world. Read David Korten's book When Corporations Rule the World to get a good perspective on how many intellectuals see corporations and big business today -- a threat to the well-being of the entire world. The anti-globalization movement is actually an anti-corporation movement and it is a direct result, in my opinion, of the faulty logic of the shareholder value maximization model. You and I know that business and capitalism are helping increase prosperity throughout the world. Too bad the economists have done such a poor job of intellectually justifying the intrinsic ethical nature of business and the capitalist system. Both business and capitalism have terrible reputations as a result. Socialism, communism, and anti-globalization are all reactions to this philosophy. I sometimes wonder whether any of these horrible philosophies would have had much of a following except for the intellectual failures of our economists to properly understand the real purpose of business.

Second, there is a fundamental paradox that I call the "paradox of shareholder value". The best way to maximize shareholder value is to not make maximizing shareholder value the primary purpose of the business. Why not? Because it is the business that satisfies customers best that has the most customers, the highest sales, and the most profits. The best way to satisfy customers best is to organize the entire business around satisfying the customer. Every communication the business makes towards its customers, its employees, and the media should be about putting the customer first. Ultimately the best way to satisfy customers' needs best is to actually put those needs first. If profit is the articulated primary goal of the business then it is unlikely that the employees or management of the business will dedicate themselves to customer satisfaction to the same degree they would if customer happiness was seen as more important than investor profits. In the first case customer happiness is merely a means to an end -- maximizing profits. In the customer-centered business, however, customer happiness is an end in itself and because it is it will be pursued with greater interest, passion, attention and empathy than the profit centered business is capable of.

Let me give you an analogy that may make this point better: What is the key to happy marriage? Is my wife's happiness an end in itself for me or is her happiness merely a means to a different end -- my own personal happiness? It has been my experience that I am happiest in my marriage when my love for my wife causes me to place her needs and desires first -- ahead of my own. When my wife is happy then I am happy. When she isn't happy, then I'm not happy. I achieve my personal happiness in marriage best by not focusing directly on it, but by focusing on her happiness as the primary goal for me in the marriage. That is the way love works, in my opinion. The beloved's happiness is an end in itself -- not a means to some other end. Paradoxically by seeking to maximize my wife's happiness, I also maximize my own. However, that is a secondary by-product of my desire for her personal happiness. Fortunately for me my wife shares my philosophy of marriage and reciprocates my dedication to her happiness with an equal dedication to my own happiness as well.

Similarly to a happy marriage, the most successful businesses put the customer first -- ahead of the shareholders. They really have to have this dedication to the customer to maximize customer happiness. Customers aren't stupid. They know when they are being misled or merely being used. It is also difficult to impossible to truly inspire the creators of customer happiness, the employees, with the ethic of profit maximization. Maximizing profits may excite shareholders, but I assure you most employees don't get very excited about it even if they accept the validity of the goal. It is my business experience that employees can get very excited and inspired by a business that has an important business purpose (such as selling the highest quality natural and organic foods) and teaches them to put the needs of the customers first. People enjoy serving others and helping them to be happy -- when they know this is their primary goal and are also rewarded for successfully doing so.

The customer-centered business is usually the most successful and the most profitable, while the shareholder centered business usually underperforms over the long-term. I suggest reading Jim Collins' two books Built to Last and Good to Great for empirical evidence to this viewpoint. The ultimate test of these two business theories, however, is in the marketplace -- not in theoretical arguments. My company, Whole Foods Market, is a mission-driven business that puts the customer first, the team members second, and the shareholders third. We are winning competitive battle after competitive battle in the marketplace against businesses which adhere to the philosophy of maximizing profits and shareholder value as their primary goal. Whole Foods has never had a store we open ever fail in the marketplace. We have never lost a competitive battle in 27 years of business! Why not? Because the profit-centered businesses we compete against cannot beat us in the marketplace. Our customer and team member-centered business model beats them every single time.

You may or may not agree with my business philosophy, but it doesn't really matter. The ideas that I'm articulating result in a more robust business model than the shareholder-maximization model that it competes against. They will triumph over time, not by persuading intellectuals and economists through argument, but by winning the competitive test of the marketplace. Someday businesses such as Whole Foods which adhere to a stakeholder model of customer and employee happiness first will dominate the entire economic landscape simply because it is a more robust business model. The old shareholder model that most economists believe in will not successfully compete over the long-term with the new paradigm that Whole Foods represents and that I've tried to articulate here. The better business model will win in the marketplace and it's the Whole Foods model. Wait and see!

SUNNI: [laughing] Geez, John, you're getting ahead of me -- answering questions I haven't asked yet! So, what does it suggest to you about this country that two very different types of retailer -- Whole Foods Market and Wal-Mart -- are both so profitable?

JOHN: It means that the mass market is segmenting in food -- just like it is doing in every other category as well. Some people want the cheapest food and some people want the highest quality food with high levels of customer service. Wal-Mart meets the first group of people and Whole Foods meets the needs of the second group.

SUNNI: You've mentioned your management style, and I would like to explore that more. It's certainly worked very well, but it doesn't seem to be a very libertarian one. Do you see your management style as paradoxical given your libertarian philosophy?

JOHN: Most corporations in the United States are hardly the epitome of libertarian utopias. In fact, most corporations in the United States are organized as top-down, command & control, hierarchical systems. Very little personal freedom exists in these corporations. Their employees are often managed through either pure financial incentives -- greed -- or through fear -- "my way or the highway". Whole Foods is very, very different. Our mission at Whole Foods can be summed up by our slogan "Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet". We put great emphasis at Whole Foods on the "Whole People" part of this mission. We believe in helping support our team members to grow as individuals -- to become "Whole People". We consciously use Maslow's hierarchy of needs model to help our team members to move up Maslow's hierarchy. As much as we are able, we attempt to manage through love instead of fear or greed. We allow tremendous individual initiative at Whole Foods and that's why our company is so innovative and creative. Most retail companies create a prototype retail store format and then cookie-cutter reproduce it across the country. Think McDonalds. Not Whole Foods. We have no prototype store. All our stores are unique. Why? Because our team members are constantly innovating, experimenting, and improving them. Whole Foods is very much committed to a Hayekian discovery process and our team members -- both as individuals and as members of teams -- are leading this Hayekian discovery process. As our team members learn and grow as individuals, as they become self-actualized, as they become "Whole People", our company better fulfills its mission to all of its stakeholders.

The seeming paradox that you keep hinting at is no paradox at all. Human beings are both individuals and members of communities (or collectives). We learn and grow best through relationships and our growth will always be limited without them. I haven't met anyone that I consider to be self-actualizing who did it all by themselves. Freedom as an ideal is a very, very incomplete ideal when it lacks love. Freedom is my highest "political ideal", but love is my highest "personal ideal". We need both. There is no paradox and there is no contradiction here. Freedom and love: let us marry these two together!

SUNNI: [laughing] Now that sounds like a marriage made in heaven, John! And thanks for not taking my pushing here too personally; I actually don't see it as a paradox either, but I imagine that you know of people in the pro-freedom community -- I sure do -- who seem to have an almost phobic reaction to anything that moves beyond the individual level. I'm an individualist, but I'm no idiot -- we're social animals, and one of the things that interests me most about libertarians -- especially as a psychologist -- is how they approach those two aspects of human nature.

JOHN: Some libertarians may be using their political ideology as a psychological defense to avoid the challenge of further personal growth. From a psychological standpoint the challenge for all of us is to simultaneously continue to individuate as individuals while also integrating closer to our communities. In my experience, libertarians are more enthusiastic about the individuation part than the integration part. However, psychologically healthy, self-actualizing people need to be doing both.

SUNNI: A very interesting observation, John ... and of course, if the individuals aren't psychologically healthy, it's very difficult to create a vibrant, pro-freedom community. This reminds me: I've seen people call you an anarchist, but in other places I've read others who claim you think some government is necessary, which would make you at the very least a minarchist. Which is it?

JOHN: I'm not an anarchist. Of course government is necessary. Without a monopoly of force by some institution -- let's call it "government" -- we will have various violent gangs and private armies struggling for political control and the winner will become the de facto government. While government is necessary the never-ending political challenge is to find ways to keep government in check. "Who guards the guardians?" remains a huge philosophical issue. The United States has done better than most other countries in this regard with the creation of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and the various governmental checks and balances. Unfortunately, as we both know, government has been steadily gaining in power ever since the United States came into being. What is the solution? There is no simple solution--just the ongoing and continual quest by people who care about freedom and individual rights to work to expand them and lessen governmental power. Progress can be made. For example, there is much more freedom in Eastern Europe than there was 30 years ago.

SUNNI: Yes, there's been a lot of progress, but I think many would say that's in spite of the kind of government you're speaking of. I don't want to focus on this too much, but I'm curious about how you might think a monopoly of force by any institution can be genuinely limited, short term as well as long term. It seems to me to be the nature of powerful institutions to always work to retain, and gain, more power.

JOHN: Competition is the best way to limit any power -- economic, social, political, or military. For example, it is good that our states have to compete for businesses and citizens. To some extent this puts a limit on their ability to tax their citizens because many will vote with their feet and move to a different state. California has been driving business to move to other States for a couple of decades now. Our federal government could obviously use more competition as well. As financial capital becomes more and more liquid and mobile it will be increasingly easy to move it to more favorable tax homes and more free locales. That may be illegal, but it will increasingly happen anyway if our federal government becomes too oppressive. Breaking the federal government's monopoly on money is obviously very important. I think we are pretty near to doing that right now with increasing competition to the dollar from the euro and eventually the yuan. People and businesses will be able to denominate their investments and assets in whatever currency they have the most faith in.

So competition with other nations will become increasingly important as a check on our federal government's power. Obviously Constitutional amendments could be very powerful checks as well, but are difficult to get into law. Probably the most important thing we can do, however, is continue to fight the good fight for more liberty. Citizen activism can make a huge difference in the world and frequently has.

Liberty has always fought an uphill battle throughout history. You can pretty much name any period of time in history that you wish to, and if you study it carefully, you'll see that liberty was always very constrained. There never was a golden age for liberty. I would argue, in fact, that right now there probably exists more absolute personal and political freedom across the entire globe than at any time in history. Even here in the United States. We tend to forget how little freedom that women and minority citizens have had in America throughout our history. There has been tremendous progress made in these 2 areas within my own lifetime. We tend to forget the progress we have collectively made and instead focus more on what has been lost or not yet gained. Progress tends to advance in more of a spiral fashion than a straight line upward.

SUNNI: Hmm. I'll have to think about that, John; I'm not convinced that competition is a sufficient check for an institution with a monopoly on force. It seems to me that decentralizing force is the best course. But, back to Whole Foods Market. I read that you were pretty upset after the Madison Wisconsin Whole Foods Market voted for a union -- not surprisingly, since most unions aren't private or voluntary organizations these days. Yet I know some libertarians who are pro-union. Can you give me the short version of why you think unions aren't beneficial?

JOHN: I've written a 17-page pamphlet (a chapter in my upcoming book) called Beyond Unions. In it I outline my philosophy towards unions. I can't do complete justice to all my ideas briefly. Let me just make a few points.

The right to collective bargaining (unionization) is an important legal right. It is important that employees, when they wish to, should have the legal right to form unions. In countries where unions are outlawed we see massive totalitarian exploitation of workers. Solidarity in Poland was a very important force to liberating that country from communism.

No employee should be forced to join a union against their will. Unfortunately in many states in our country, such as California, once a union is voted in by a majority of the employees, employees no longer have free choice in this matter. This closed shop means they must join the union and pay dues to the union whether they wish to or not. If they don't join then they are fired. I believe open shops should be legal in all states and no employee should be forced against their will, as a condition of employment, to join a union.

SUNNI: Yeah, that's what I find most objectionable about union practices.

JOHN: It's illegal in the United States for there to be company unions -- special unions which are formed and controlled by the employees and managers of the company to represent their interests and collectively bargain on their behalf. These type of unions are legal in many countries such as Japan, but are illegal in the United States. Instead the law requires that all unions be outside unions. I believe this law should be repealed and that company unions should be as legal as any other kind of voluntary association. Why shouldn't employees and employers have the legal right to form this type of voluntary association if they wish to? Preventing company unions is a form of monopoly protection from competition for outside union organizations.

Unions as they evolved in the United States became very adversarial, untrusting, and opposed to the success and prosperity of the business. This is my major objection to unions today -- they harm the flourishing of the business for all the stakeholders. Instead of cooperation between stakeholders, they focus on competition between management and labor. Instead of embracing the notion of the "expanding pie" vision of capitalism -- more for everyone, or win-win -- they frequently embrace the zero-sum philosophy of win-lose.

The Whole Foods store in Madison, Wisconsin was organized in the summer of 2002 by a group of young union organizers who hired into the store to organize it. Most of them quit right after the election. The union election was a wakeup call for Whole Foods leadership to refocus on the team member stakeholder. We had gotten out of balance and the pro-union vote was a symptom of it. We made major changes in 2003 to improve our benefits to our team members throughout the company. I'm happy to say that the team members in Madison collectively petitioned to remove the union from their store just over one year later and Whole Foods is once again 100% union free despite a few other union organization attempts over the past three years.

Our experience with unions in Madison and in other cities has helped make our company a better company. I think this illustrates one really valuable function that unions play in our society. They are a form of competition for the hearts and minds of your employees (team members). If you make the mistake of taking your team members for granted, treat them poorly, or have inferior pay and benefits then you are vulnerable to the competition from unions. The threat of unions can help a company improve, just like any other competitor does.

SUNNI: I don't know if you know that I'm part of the consumer privacy group CASPIAN. In addition to exposing the reality behind supermarket "loyalty" cards, we also challenge the increasing surveillance of consumers, through technology like RFID chips and the increasing databasification of every transaction. Whole Foods Market used to have a card, but it was discontinued -- what brought about its end? Are there any plans for a new one?

JOHN: We tried a card, but it was expensive to administer and wasn't popular with our customers. There is no plan to bring one back anytime soon.

SUNNI: What's your view on consumer privacy? Is it okay for companies to mine and crosslink data from people, then sell it to others? Is it okay for that information to be turned over to government agencies or contractors? Where do you see a line between providing good customer service and invading customers' privacy?

JOHN: I believe in consumer privacy. It is about basic trust between the retailer and the customer. We want what is best for our customers. Respecting their privacy comes with the territory, in my opinion.

SUNNI: Whole Foods Market is known for its excellent customer service. Many retailers see datamining and customer relationship management -- which involve differing types of customer monitoring -- as ways to provide better customer service. How does your company provide such good service without the snooping cards?

JOHN: We believe in treating all our customers with respect. Our team members are taught to give good service to everyone and not single out differing groups for special services. All our customers are equal and all should be respected. No discrimination.

SUNNI: You know, John, respect's a word that I don't see much in the supermarket industry news and literature I follow. And when I go shopping, I often don't feel like my business is respected -- it's more like I'm being tolerated, if that. It seems to me that many retailers have shifted away from providing quality goods and services toward raw consumerism. And in that environment, things like respect and customer service and privacy don't seem to matter. I don't think customer service itself is endangered -- Whole Foods Market is a good indicator it isn't -- but what about consumer privacy? Do you see any way for meaningful privacy to remain in today's computer-based marketplace?

JOHN: Not unless stringent privacy protection laws are passed.

SUNNI: I'd prefer that the market take it on, rather than more laws. Libertarians love to extol the virtues of free markets -- if people genuinely want certain things, a market will spring up to meet that demand, the thinking goes. But, the shackles of state regulation aside, the reality seems a bit more complicated than that. For example, I know that many individuals would happily exchange some degree of shopping convenience for greater privacy -- slower, old-fashioned cash registers that don't allow data-gathering, for example, or maybe needing to pay by cash instead of checks or credit/debit cards. But it's a very small market, that's also spread over the country. I think part of the small size is that many people simply aren't aware to what degree they're being tracked. What might it take for these ultra-niche markets, for lack of a better word, to start being served?

JOHN: That's the way capitalism works: entrepreneurs identify unmet market desires and needs and then fulfill the needs. Since needs and desires continually evolve there is always room for new entrepreneurs. Maybe there's an entrepreneurial opportunity for you here? Go for it!

SUNNI: [laughing] I think the last thing I need right now is another project! Or maybe I'm just having a hard time seeing myself as an entrepreneur. But, speaking of markets, you rode one -- the organic food niche -- on its rapid rise, both here in the U.S. and worldwide. How did you become interested in organic farming? What convinced you it's a better means of food production than the traditional -- not corporate -- farming methods?

JOHN: That question cannot be answered simply or persuasively to skeptics in only a couple of paragraphs. It would involve a detailed critique of our entire food production system and I'm not willing to do that today. Let me just make a few points on it and leave it.

SUNNI: Fair enough.

JOHN: The United States agricultural system is based upon the industrial model. It has adopted industrial techniques to maximize efficiency and productivity of agricultural production, which are the only values that are recognized within this particular system. If chemical fertilizers and pesticides increase productivity and lower costs, they are therefore "good". I'm not going to argue here or anywhere that increasing productivity and lowering costs are bad things in themselves. Producing food at lower costs is obviously a good thing. However, that is not the whole story here. There are other values in food production that are not recognized or valued in the industrial model. Some of these values include: the long-term health and fertility of the soil, the nutritional value and "life force value" of the food produced, the long-term sustainability of agriculture, the long-term effects on our health from small, but continual inputs of synthetic pesticides, the health and well-being of the farm workers, the purity and quality of our ground water, the health and well being of our livestock animals, and many other values. These other values are not seen or recognized in the price of the food produced under the industrial agricultural model. There is an information failure going on here. Many people intuitively recognize that organic agriculture partially corrects some of the flaws of the industrial system, even if they are not able to articulate well their reservations with the industrial model.

Defenders of the industrial agricultural model usually accuse organic proponents of being anti-scientific, irrational, against progress, etc. They seem to see themselves as Galileo standing against the Inquisition! I'm personally very pro-science and I'm happy to let science decide some of the arguments between the proponents of the industrial agricultural model and the organic agricultural model. Science is the best way we have to discover the truth. However, it is very important to realize that scientific knowledge often lags intuitive, experiential knowledge -- sometimes by many decades.

Let me give you just two examples on this: 1. Cigarettes. It took several decades for scientific knowledge to catch up to what the average person intuitively knew -- cigarettes are deadly and will eventually kill you. 2. Mad cow disease -- science initially said that the rendering process eliminated any risk of danger to livestock animals from eating the dead remains of other animals. However, intuition and common sense tell us that feeding ruminant animals (vegetarians) the dead remains of other livestock animals might have potentially unforeseen negative consequences. Turns out it did, and it's possible that millions of people have been exposed to mad cow disease this way. Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia have very similar symptoms to mad cow disease.

I believe that over the long term -- within my lifetime -- many and perhaps most of the claims that proponents of organic agricultural make will be vindicated by scientific research -- research which is now in either its very early stages or currently lacks the scientific methodologies to determine, such as the life force value or "chi" of various foods. Other claims that are intuitively obvious to me and many others will likely be proven, however. I fully expect science to show the importance of the connection between soil fertility and nutritional value of food. I expect science will eventually verify that organic foods are more nutritious, that continual inputs of low-grade synthetic pesticides have negative long-term health consequences, that eating factory farm livestock animals does not support long-term health and longevity, that farm workers at organic farms outlive farm workers at industrial farms, that pesticide runoff, and waste waters from livestock factory farms have deadly negative impacts on the water quality and the local ecosystems, etc. Consider the last one already scientifically proven. Livestock factory farms are environmental disasters.

Some of the criticisms of the industrial agricultural model will not be resolved by science. These are ethical criticisms. The best example is what we are doing to our livestock animals on the industrial factory farms. In the United States alone we slaughter over 10 billion livestock animals for food every single year! The great majority of these animals are raised in incredibly inhumane ways because this type of treatment maximizes productivity and lowers costs, and thus lowers costs to the consumer. But what about the animals? Do they count for nothing? Is it ethically right for a chicken or a pig to live its entire life in a very small cage, never seeing the sun or getting outdoors? I don't think it is right -- no matter how high the productivity is. Productivity and lower costs are not the only values that matter to me and to most other people.

In general, my answer is to let the market decide some of these questions. If people want to buy organic foods because they believe they are better for their personal health and better for the environment then they should have the right to do so. Whole Foods isn't seeking to make the industrial agricultural model illegal, but we do believe that there are millions of people who prefer the organic model for numerous reasons. We exist to fulfill those needs and desires of our customers. At the end of the day it isn't Whole Foods' duty and responsibility to prove anything about organic methods of agriculture. We're retailers and we exist to serve our customers to the best of our ability. Let the marketplace decide consumer preferences and let science continue to do its research to answer the unanswered questions.

SUNNI: A lot of food for thought there, John. What's your view of genetically modifying foods, both plant and animal? It seems to me that some opponents are overstating its potential danger, since many of our now-essential foods are the result of much more primitive genetic engineering -- going back thousands of years, sometimes.

JOHN: Another very complex question, Sunni. You're asking me the most difficult and complex questions that I have ever been asked in any interview before.

SUNNI: Thank you, John -- I take that as a high compliment!

JOHN: There are no simple answers to these questions. Just a few points here.

I disagree with the argument that the type of genetic engineering that is going on today is qualitatively the same as the evolution of various species through selective breeding in the past. Selective breeding always had built-in biological safeguards. There was always a certain kind of biological integrity to the species (the species barrier) that limited the ability to alter it. Genetic engineering changes this. Scientists are now able to combine genes from completely different species together with unforeseen, unknown, and unintended consequences. The risks definitely escalate now that the species barrier has been breached.

Should genetic engineering be illegal or banned? Many think so. I do not. However, there are serious ethical issues with genetic engineering that can't simply be dismissed as "anti-scientific" or "neo-Luddite". I don't believe we can allow just anything to go here. However, a detailed discussion is simply beyond the scope of this interview.

SUNNI: Sure; I understand that.

JOHN: Whole Foods has had a very consistent position on genetically engineered foods. Label them. Consumers, whether rightly or wrongly, are very concerned about GMOs. Don't they have the right to know whether they are eating them or not? We think they do and we support mandatory labeling so that consumers can make informed choices in the marketplace.

SUNNI: Some people see a significant portion of the environmental movement -- especially organic/sustainable farming and the position against genetic modification -- as being anti-technology or anti-progress. Another good example would be the relatively new elimination training idea -- that it's better for babies to go without diapers. The claim is that this method eliminates all the waste associated with diapers -- but it overlooks the increased likelihood of spreading disease, which of course is still a real problem in many third-world countries. Do you think the green movement is inherently anti-technology or -progress?

JOHN: Some greens are anti-technology and anti-progress -- don't forget anti-capitalist and anti-corporations too -- but I don't think this defines the entire movement. Mostly greens are concerned about environmental integrity and are deeply fearful about what the future may/will bring. Rather than seeing the future optimistically, they see it through the eyes of fear and of environmental decline. Virginia Postrel caught it well with her fabulous book The Future and its Enemies. There are in fact many things to be very concerned about and environmental integrity is certainly one of them. For those of us who love the natural world, who love farm animals, love whales, and who want to conserve and preserve wilderness around the world -- count me as yes on all of the above -- there is much that is going on that is very upsetting and needs to be changed. What sets me apart from many of the greens -- although I share their love for nature -- however, is that I believe that human freedom and free markets are critical components to the solution to our collective environmental challenges, while many of them believe they are the primary causes of our environmental problems. I believe a new paradigm is needed -- one that places freedom and capitalism as core values, but also recognizes that responsibility, care, and love must be core values as well. Many of our current environmental problems are simply the result of seeing nature through the eyes of the industrial metaphor -- lifeless and without intrinsic value, to be manipulated as we please. However, when we look through the eyes of love at other living beings, nature, and the larger-world environment we realize that we wish to conserve, nurture, and protect them -- and stop exploiting, manipulating, or destroying them.

SUNNI: Are there elements of it that you think are too extreme?

JOHN: Any element which uses violence to achieve its objectives is too extreme, in my opinion.

SUNNI: While visiting your ranch last year for a FLOW conference, I came across an article which described your transformation from vegetarian to vegan -- FastCompany has a very similar article online. I was impressed by a quote attributed to you, in which you said the best way to argue with an opponent is to completely understand his or her point of view. How often do you engage in that kind of pursuit, as you did with the duck woman?

JOHN: I continually do it. I'm committed to understanding, realizing, and experiencing truth. It is essential that we read books that disagree with our own personal viewpoints -- that challenge us, stretch us, upset us, and break us out of our comfortable world views, whatever they may be. I'm far less interested in being right or belonging to some school of thought than I am in personally learning and growing. Most people are afraid to open themselves to new ideas and new viewpoints because they are afraid it will require them to change. And they're right -- it will cause them to change. However, I enjoy this kind of change because I see it as personal growth. I became a vegan -- or almost a vegan, since I still eat eggs from my own chickens -- after I read the literature on animal welfare and animal rights. Many of my friends are unwilling to read these books because they literally don't wish to know what is going on. Why not? Because the knowledge may require them to change their diets and they aren't willing to take this risk. I desire to take these risks because I want to learn and grow.

SUNNI: It seems to me that many libertarians fail in outreach in part because of a failure to understand the opponent's view, and that a large part of that originates in discounting the importance of emotions. Would you agree? Got any ideas for improvements there?

JOHN: I definitely agree! Libertarians would be well served to develop their Emotional Intelligence (check out Daniel Goleman's book with this same title). Many -- not all, of course -- libertarians are hyper-rationalists, who have not yet gotten in touch with their deeper feelings. Their hearts have not fully opened to the reality of love. They're afraid of their emotions, afraid to be lose control, and to be overwhelmed by their feelings. I personally agree with the philosopher David Hume who said, "Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions." Of course, the passions that I believe reason should be the slave of are love-based -- compassion, generosity, joy, and forgiveness -- not the fear-based emotions of envy, resentment, revenge, anger, and hatred. I believe that reason should be the slave of love. That's how I'm trying to live my life. This is a very difficult idea for many libertarians to accept because it means a shift in their consciousness. It means going beyond our ego-based reason, and most people are deeply addicted to their egos. When our hearts are open to the reality of love we are literally in a different -- I would argue higher -- state of consciousness. Love cannot be fully understood or grasped by the rational mind. It can only be experienced and when the rational mind is analyzing it and trying to understand it, then the actual experience of love is no longer present.

SUNNI: Yeah ... and I think fear plays into this, too. Many people have a fear of losing control, of indulging in feelings; some see that as weakness, while others probably think that if they give in, they won't be able to regain control. It's a hard balance for many people -- and especially for many libertarians, as you said. Speaking of balance, it wasn't that long ago that Whole Foods Market launched a new type of store that sounds to me like a blend of grocery shopping and entertainment. How's that effort going? How many more stores do you anticipate to upgrade?

JOHN: Our new store in downtown Austin is the largest and best store we've ever opened. It is doing very, very well for us. We will learn from our experiences with this store and continue improving both our new and existing stores. We constantly strive to continuously upgrade all of our stores. We try to improve every one of them continuously.

SUNNI: I don't remember whether it was in a news story or a personal email, but someone characterized that new store in Austin as being "scary". And I'll be honest, John, it doesn't sound like a store I'd like much. The Whole Foods Market press release, with its comment about the seafood department being "theater", doesn't have me eager to visit a store like the Austin one. Am I an old-fashioned curmudgeon who's going to be left behind with this new wave of shopping experience, or is this your vision for a new niche in the supermarket industry? [laughs]

JOHN: Well, you should visit the store first and then tell me what you think. I'm biased, of course, but I believe it is the finest food store in all of the United States. Sure, some people think it is too big and preferred the smaller old store. I first heard that 25 years ago when we relocated Safer Way -- 3,000 square feet -- to the first Whole Foods Market location -- 10,500 square feet. The best indication of customer satisfaction and dissatisfaction, however, is not anecdotal, but how people vote with their pocketbooks. They are voting very positively for the new larger store, which has broken a number of company sales records since it opened 2 months ago.

SUNNI: You're right -- can't argue with that! And I don't know when I'll be back in Austin, but when I am I'll check it out for myself. Guess your marketing copy just didn't work for me that time.

JOHN: Let me know when you next come to town so I can tour the store with you.

SUNNI: Will do -- and that's a very tempting justification for a road trip. The drive to Texas from here is mostly very scenic. I know that in addition to your corporate activism with Whole Foods Market, you recently started a new foundation, the Whole Planet Foundation. How's that going? I tried to find a web site for it, but was unable to ... is one forthcoming?

JOHN: The Whole Planet Foundation hasn't gone public yet. We will be doing our official public launch next October with a Global 5% Day at Whole Foods to initially fund it and the unveiling of the web site. All I'll say about it now is that we'll be working with the Grameen Bank and EARTH University to help empower poor people in all the communities that Whole Foods is currently trading with, beginning in Central America. I recommend reading Muhammed Yunnis' book Banker to the Poor, which tells the story of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh.

SUNNI: I remember hearing about that at the FLOW conference -- it is a fascinating and inspiring story. What sorts of things will the foundation be focusing on?

JOHN: Empowering poor people to better their lives and the lives of their families.

SUNNI: John, you're an excellent example of a pro-freedom person who's following his dream while apparently operating within the confines of a system that restricts many liberties. What advice would you give to other freedom-minded entrepreneurs who are just getting started?

JOHN: My advice is to follow your heart wherever it takes you. Choose love instead of fear. If you do, a wonderful life adventure awaits you!

SUNNI: Do you think working outside the state's channels -- not paying taxes, not bothering with licenses and inspections and such, among other things -- is a viable means of being effective?

JOHN: I think it is an excellent way to be fined, put out of business, and put in jail. I'm an entrepreneur and I don't wish to waste my limited time and energy fighting against issues that are less important to me. However, that's just my personal preference. Others may wish to resist idiotic regulations and laws more directly. To each his or her own.

SUNNI: What's your view of the short-term prospects -- 5 to 10 years -- for liberty?

JOHN: I'm not sure about the short-term prospects. However, the long-term prospects are excellent. Consider how the world was just 150 years ago. 150 years ago there was only one democracy in the entire world -- the United States. And the United States had legalized slavery, was committing genocide against the Native Americans, and women didn't have the right to vote. Now 150 years later, 60% of the nations of the world are democracies, slavery has been outlawed throughout the world, and women are increasingly empowered almost everywhere. Liberty has been on the rise. Look at Eastern Europe today versus 30 years ago -- liberty is well-rooted there now and that certainly wasn't the case when these countries were under the thumb of totalitarian communistic governments.

SUNNI: Yep, that's been amazing to see. Largely through ISIL, Lobo and I have made several friends in that part of the world, and although challenges are still there, it's always inspiring for me to think about what's happened -- and largely through peaceful activism. Here, a number of pro-freedom individuals think that Bush's actions are helping our cause, in that they're waking up a lot of people to the loss of liberty he's presided over. Do you see it that way?

JOHN: Bush has been a mixed bag for liberty in my opinion. The Patriot Act is a step back, of course. On the other hand I think it is difficult to argue that Afghanistan or Iraq had more liberty under the Taliban or Saddam than they have today.

SUNNI: Do you have any regrets regarding what it's taken for you to get where you are today?

JOHN: Not too many regrets. My life has so far been an incredibly wonderful adventure and it's getting better all the time. I am truly living a happy dream and wish the same for everyone else.

SUNNI: I believe you once told me that you enjoy hiking. What's been your best hiking trip so far?

JOHN: I through-hiked the entire Appalachian Trail in 2002. I took off 4.5 months from work to do it. That was the most fun. In terms of the most beautiful hike, I would have to say that last summer when we hiked the High Sierra portion of the Pacific Crest Trail wins the prize.

SUNNI: Wow ... both sound great. What other kinds of things do you enjoy in your leisure time?

JOHN: Besides long-distance hiking I love hanging out with my wife and my friends. I love reading and discovering and playing with new ideas. I love to play games of all types. I love music. I love cooking and eating good food. I love children. I love animals. I love a lot of things!

SUNNI: [laughing] I never would have guessed, John! No wonder you have few regrets. Who are some of the people who inspire, delight, and/or motivate you?

JOHN: That depends greatly upon the category of activity we might be talking about. The person I admire most in the world is my wife, Deborah. She is my main inspiration. When I was younger, my father was my mentor in business and in life. There are many, many others.

SUNNI: I know I've taken a lot of your time, John, and I appreciate every minute of it ... Before I go, is there anything else you'd like to share with my readers? Other projects I didn't mention, words of wisdom ...?

JOHN: The same advice I gave above: My advice is to follow your heart wherever it takes you. Choose love instead of fear. If you do, a wonderful life adventure awaits you! Carpe diem!

SUNNI: Thank you very much for all your time today, John. It's been very stimulating and thought-provoking talking with you, and I hope our trails cross in person again soon.

JOHN: It's been fun. Take care.

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tina says …

Thank you John for keeping it real!

Kunal Mukherjee says …

Dear John For all the right reasons, you are right. You make a far better ambassador for honest capitalism than those whose idea of 'social responsibility' is limited to maximising profits for shareholders. To say that social responsibility is the charter of the government and the individual alone, the latter including investors, who, it is presumed, will part with a fraction of their profits for the common good, is actually a form of rhetoric meant to disguise the sheer greed for which capitalism is reviled in those parts of the world riven by inequity and emaciated children. Actually there is no contradiction between philantrophy by individuals and that by corporate organisations, which essentially are groups of individuals working for a purpose. There is no shortage of needs to improve the human condition. I am sure your employees would rather work in your company than the one producing semi-conductors with the aim of rewarding its investors. At the end of the day, they would feel good that their work, apart from sustaining them and their families, also helps those less fortunate or assists the community in improving its services and environment whereever it is. In some way they know it enriches them and transforms their lives beyond the mundane. I wish more entrepreneurs would include in their mission objective a similar 5% for philantrophy clause. I am confident they will not lack investors when they launch their first IPO. Thank you for the clarity and humanity of your arguments. Kunal

new customer says …

i have been shopping at whole foods market for a little under a year, now and i have to say i will not shop any where else. The core values and atmosphere of all your stores is unbelievable every one of your employees have taken time out to help me in every way to make my shopping experience a great one i really love your company and everything you guys stand for thank you for opening me up to a life of healthy and organic living thank you, Life long "new customer"

Scott McCarter says …

I had a personal experience of customer delight while shopping at Whole Foods last week. I was deciding between 2 brands of cookies but one did not have a price. When I asked a team member what the box of cookies costs, I was given a free box of cookies instead of what would have happened at any other (shareholder value first) grocery store: "price check on aisle 5." The cookies taste great; I'll be eating many more.

bryan amstutz says …

The world should wake up. John knows how to run a business. Thanks for the blog! Great idea!

Marc Linch says …

I am the managing director and part ownwer of a speciality food store in Colchester in the UK, and totally subscribe to the ethos of John Mackey. It has always been my view that profit is a by-product of a good business. Our philsophy has always been very similar in that we are genuinely motivated by offering quality rather than being driven by the negative (and hopefully self destructive)policy of most supermarkets of being driven purely by price! I look forward with great anticipation of the new London flagship whole foods store, and look forward to the inevitable decline of the UK's era of total supermarket dominance!

meesalikeu says …

john i am totally in agreement with the question of defining leftist and engaging the new business paradigm, which makes you wonder why whole foods has not yet come to cleveland. we can only wait and wonder when that will happen? makes clear business sense that it be soon.

Alexandra Schutz says …

Mr. Mackey, I've worked as a Whole Foods Team Member in the past and am a customer today. Despite what I perceive to be numerous smart and responsible WFM business practices though, I'm puzzled as to why its stores continue to sell products such as veal and foie gras that seemingly contradict many of the values you espoused above. Would shoppers have to stop buying these products altogether for Whole Foods to discontinue selling them? Thanks

Rick Birken says …

Mr. Mackey, If you practiced what you apparently preach, perhaps we could celebrate you. But I am a long time veteran of the natural foods industry, so I have personal knowledge of how you have destroyed all innovation in the field. By exercising your vision of monopoly capitalism, a decision forced on you by no coercive agency of government, you have forced from the marketplace the cleaner products which were gaining an increasing market share in smaller stores. Since you have driven most of the quality smaller stores out of business or into the supplement business, and have driven out the innovators of the industry who were forced to sell to people without knowledge of or commitment to the natural foods industry, consumers now have no place to go to learn about the products which are considered the best. Your employees are completely ignorant about what they sell. Have you ever tried to learn anything a bout a product at your stores? Because I have a depth of knowledge, I know that the answers one gets to questions at your stores are usually erroneous or you get a honest "gee, I don't know." There is no customer service at your stores because they are too busy and crowded, which is good for you, but precludes your employees from having the time to gain the knowledge that comes from the give and take with customers and suppliers and from reading the literature. You have also degraded the products on the shelf. The trend before Whole Foods bought everyone out was for products to achieve better taste by using better quality ingredients. Now, they just add organic sugar to everything. Your baked products are a cornucopia of white flour and sugar. You have wonderful supplements on the shelf, but your employees don't know anything about their proper use. And as for supporting organics, most of your produce is not organic, and is put side by side to be repolluted by commercial produce. If you truly believed in organic and in your stated principle that you aren't in this primarily for money, you wouldn't sell commercial at all since you don't believe in it. You would let people shop for it elsewhere. And as for your supposedly anti-government and anti-union viewpoints being principled, you just want to make the most money possible. You have supplied me with many employees who were breathless to escape your corporate culture. The problem was, they were usually ignorant and shared your belief that employees should know nothing about the products they sell. After all, they were trained by you. And what all you corporatists, or what Mussolini called fascists, forget is that corporations are instruments of government. There is no corporation in nature. It's an institution created by government to shield people like you from the harmful consequences of their actions. People can sue your corporation for whatever evil it does, but your personal fortune is protected by the government security apparatus you claim to not want to pay taxes to support. While I don't believe Whole Foods is the worst culprit out there, by far, you benefit from the same government protection that allows industrial farming to pollute our world without consequence to the individuals making the decisions. As for your anti-union stance, unions aren't there to serve the corporation and its managers. The goal of unions is to make managers obsolete by elevating the confidence level of the people who actually do the work so they will eventually overthrow the management class completely and elect their own managers. That is freedom and democracy applied to the authoritarian system that has always governed our corporatist system. You are anti-union because they threaten your wealth and status, not because you have any philosophical disagreement with the goals of the union movement. It is just part of the Rise of the Common Man that has been going on for centuries, slowly breaking the monopoly on education and priviledge enjoyed by self-appointed bullies such as kings, dukes, and corporate CEOs. You are the Microsoft of the natural foods industry; quit the pretense that profit isn't your primary goal. It's a good dodge, but those who know the industry more intimately know you are one of the bad actors, not one of the good guys. Yes, you are successful, and no, you're not evil--you've done a lot more good than almost every other large corporate monopolist. But you should cop to the downside, too, especially since you claim to be a libertarian. A libertarian would oppose large corporations for the same reason they oppose large government--an excessive concentration of coercive power.

Mike says …

John, I appreciate your comments and am VERY impressed by this blog! It was a nice surprise to stumble across it... The one big thing that bothers me about Whole Foods is your insane expansion. Your stores are getting bigger, and you are opening them in more markets, even internationally. This whole process seems to be constantly accelerating. What needs to be considered, I think, is that organic and/or locally produced grocery items are already available in many of these places. Where I live, for instance, Bozeman, MT, we have many frequently-used local outlets where people can buy these sorts of products. There is an independently owned and managed grocery co-op, a weekly farmer's market, another small, indepently owned natural foods store, and a Hutterite colony that markets their crops. In addition, several local butchers own their own shops and retail local, grassfed beef and bison, ranged poultry, and they also, of course, pack out game brought in by hunters. I am concerned with the effects of opening Whole Foods markets in places like these. Siting a new and massive store like your recent Bellevue, WA one in places where locally-owned, smaller, and community-minded stores are already established seems to contradict your corporate value that respects locality. As you stated in your interview with Sunni, Whole Foods strives to create unique stores based on their location. But really how unique are they? It would be meaningful to hear what percentage of your products at an average store originate within a certain distance from the store itself. Likewise, it would be interesting to know exactly how many of your products are supplied by national and international distributors, and if certain products of your 365 brand have multiple sites of production, or if they are completely standardized. As you said, many people intuitively reach conclusions about the healthfulness and sustainability of foods and production processes. It seems intuitively to me, that the mass standardization of food retailing in this country through an industrial distribution system that awards increased economy of scale is really what drives industrial agriculture as you described it. And as you surely know, many "organically grown" foods are produced on gigantic, monocropped, environmentally devestated swaths of land, regardless of whether or not chemicals are used. How come Whole Foods Market wasn't satisfied with its growth 5, 10, or 15 years ago? How do you reconcile your value of preserving locality while you seemingly destroy it by (potentially) driving out pre-existing business, increasing standardization and limiting the options of consumers?

A proud capitalist says …

Well I have to respond to some of Mr. Birken’s comments. First, if Mr. Birken had any good ideas of his own, he would start his own capitalist business and make it a success. But instead he has to live in an unrealistic “purist” society in his own mind. Most corporations, such as Whole Foods Market, did not start out as the businesses that they now have become. Yes, they do sometimes buy out smaller businesses that they feel are a compliment to what they are doing. None of these smaller businesses are FORCED to sell out. If they had the vision to become larger, then they would build up their businesses to become whatever they wanted them to become. Mr. Birken’s love of the unions is obvious. I have no use for them at this point in time. They are the epitome of fear and intimidation. Mr. Birken states that “the goal of unions is to make managers obsolete by elevating the confidence level of the people who actually do the work so they will eventually overthrow the management class completely and elect their own managers.” He says that is FREEDOM...What an idiotic statement. Unions want to overthrow a business so that they can be in power! ? Why don’t they just start their own businesses?! I actually HATE the modern day unions. A good manager will bring out the best in his/her employees in any business. They don’t need to be overthrown. All Mr. Birken can do is to keep saying how bad corporations are for society. Why don’t you just go live somewhere else, Mr. Birken? Somewhere in the world where you are totally alone with your thoughts, not in the real world. Find a good place where you can catch and grow your own food and not worry about how bad stores like Whole Foods are to you and the perfect society in your own little mind! I would bet that Mr. Birken hates Wal-Mart too. His mentality says that Wal-Mart and other corporations destroy the other small businesses in the community. Wal-Mart started with ONE MAN’S vision! Yeah, a capitalist vision. He saw the vision of his business and watched it become one of the biggest businesses in the world. I applaud people with this kind of vision, not want to destroy it and take it down. I like the idea that I could start a small business that would be bought out by a larger business. Or that I could continue on with my ideas and buy out other businesses. I don’t see anything wrong with that way of growing a business. There is room for all sizes of businesses, small and large. When a large business comes in a new neighborhood, like a Whole Foods Market, I believe it is the job of the small business to continuously keep offering special services and products that will still keep his business special from the larger, so called competitor. Lots of businesses become complacent and don’t continue to grow and this is what sometimes actually puts them out of business, not the larger corporation. Running and growing a successful business takes an enourmous amount of hard work and energy. But nothing could be more rewarding for a small business person than to see his/her idea grow and prosper. There is room for ALL kinds of business in our, thank goodness capitalist, country called the good ole USA! I’m glad Whole Foods Market has moved into my neighborhood.

Marie Germain, Brand Coach says …

Hello John: I have been drilling our new shared paradigm in audiences and clients' minds for awhile. In my own words and from my original thoughts. Yours are excellently expressed in your blog with Sunni and have validated and further fertilized mine. I am so thankful for your presence in our business environment. I believe you will become a major force in business in the next few years and I hope your efforts will not abate. I have been sending leaders to view your blog in the last few months to gain perspective. (I have joined the blog myself). There are many disciples of this NEW capitalist democracy (in my world I call it a NEW Brand World). Indeed this needs to enter our business discourse daily and filter our actions--especially on Wall Street. These individuals suffer from the greatest level of fear (a la Maslow's hierarchy of needs) and need to learn that profits can emanate from other than a Machiavellian viewpoint. You (and Whole Foods) are the poster boy. I am so thankful that you are succeeding in business and as a moralist. I have tried contacting you today (wrong time zone) to obtain your New Business Paradigm graphic to send out to business leaders and perhaps to post on our sites with all credit to you. Would you please send it to me ASAP with permission to publish and/or present at speaking engagements? I am a Brand Coach to CEOs here in Canada and your ideas will resonate (or surprise) with our Canadian leaders. WE have to start somewhere. Marie Germain, Brand Coach

Brian Johnson says …

Brilliant. Simply brilliant. The discussion on putting customer happiness first reminds me of one of my absolute favorite passages from Viktor Frankl’s "Man's Search for Meaning": "Again and again I therefore admonish my students in Europe and America: Don't aim at success -- the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run -- in the long-run, I say! -- success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it." Yours in changing the world through conscious capitalism, - Brian Johnson Philosopher & CEO | Zaadz, Inc.

Cynthia says …

Dear John, I am doing a report on Whole Foods Markets for a management class. We have to choose a major food service company and discuss its management style. While I (like others who have posted) am suspicious of most super-stores as an infringement of our freedom, and consider them a form of unjust power, I think of all the companies to chose from, Whole Foods is the most ethical. I was wondering if you could post a little more on your specific management style. Has it changed over the years as the company has grown? What kind of training do employees get? One more question, do you hire registered dietitians? I study dietetics at school and am curious about the role of registered dietitians in the health food industry. Thanks for speaking to us:) Cynthia

Linda Corbin says …

Oh how I wish Whole Foods was in Montana!! Moving from Las Vegas to here I lost Whole Foods and Trader Joe's and it's a terrible thing!! I work part time at a sandwich chain ( having to do with underground trains) and low pay, high employee turnover is the norm).....in just about every retail business because teenagers are the ones who get the jobs and so the employers don't care if the pay is low and neither do the kids...BUT the EXPECTATIONS of employee performance by the EMPLOYER are those that would be done by experienced employees who should be paid a decent living wage. The whole retail arena is a mess and always has been, and it's getting worse everywhere (except maybe Whole Foods, I don't know, I've never worked there and couldn't afford to shop there....thenk god for Trader Joe's)!!

Binky McFarland says …

I must echo the sentiments of the previous post!! I recently moved back to Montana (I grew up here), and I am floundering without a Whole Foods. While I agree with the view that we in Montana should support our local organic farmers and ranchers, I also believe that natural foods stores should have a responsibility to their customers as well. Here in Helena, we have one main natural foods store, where a close friend has worked for over a year. The things I have learned about this store have shocked and saddened me. Among other things, the store seems to feel that not only should it make a profit, but it feels free to charge as much for products as possible and still have people willing to shell out. I understand that in a small locally-owned business, overhead is high, and things cost more than in a large chain, but I also know that even among other locally-owned natural foods stores in Montana, our local store charges as much as $5.00 more for a bottle of shampoo. In my opinion, part of caring about people's health is recognizing that not everyone is willing (or able) to pay 3 to 4 times more per pound for organic produce, meat and poultry. Personally, I would rather know that I and my children are eating and living in a healthy manner, in the most financially responsible way we can, than simply support a local store out of some misguided feeling of obligation. While I know that, even if Whole Foods comes to Montana, you would start in Missoula or Bozeman, I still say, we would welcome you here in Helena!!

Phil Town says …

I'm an investor in Whole Foods precisely because the CEO has values I like, a big, audacious goal I like, products I like and growth I like. When I invest I do so as if I am buying the entire business and the CEO is working directly for me. When I read his responses here I am proud of the guy who is running my business ... but I am dismayed at the ignorance displayed in some of the comments above. Clearly there are still people in the world who forget that adults are capable of making their own decisions about where to spend their money and because of that, Whole Foods can not force another business to fail without the local community voting with their dollars in an overwhelming way for that result. If Whole Foods goes to Bozeman and the citizens of Bozeman prefer to shop there over the established businesses, shouldn't Whole Foods be praised for providing more of what people want (since if they were providing less, they would fail to compete successfully there)? Mr. Birken seems to believe that Whole Foods' success (and the failure of competitive stores), rather than being the result of many individuals voting with their money, is the product of some sort of coercive event, but what sort of forceful event he doesn't say. And he can't because there isn't one. He laments that we ignorant consumers are being duped by Whole Foods ... but are we really so stupid? How would Mr. Birken know? Perhaps we like the products, the beautiful stores and the wonderfully friendly staff and that's why we spend our money there. Perhaps Mr. Birken feels he knows what people should eat and how and where they should shop better than the people themselves. Others besides Mr. Birken have had similar, if more comprehensive, thoughts: Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Che, Pol Pot, Osama and tyrants in every age believed they knew what was best for their fellows, too. They took action that we can truthfully describe as coercive: they put a gun to your head and if you didn't do what they said (or sometimes even if you did) they shot you. Perhaps Mr. Birkin should remember what force and coercion really are and be thankful that these words in his mouth are only metaphorical expressions he uses to explain what he doesn't understand. Phil Town www.philtown.typepad.com

Jeff Mowatt says …

Dear John, I read your interview with great interest because similar ideals have formed a great part of my life, especially in recent time. Perhaps you'll be surprised to learn that something very congruent has existed as a formal economic paradigm for the past decade. It began with a whitepaper for the elimination of poverty through people-centered economics subbmitted to the steering committee to re-elect the US President in 1996 and although published freely currently sits in the Clinton Presidential library where it has been filed and forgotten. Last year I registered P-CED as company limited by guarantee with no shareholders in the UK. The paper's author and founder of P-CED, Terry Hallman is no stranger to the anathema raised by the S-word, though I'll openly admit to being a socialist in my ideals. I'm not convinced that there's not other reasons for this work having been effectively suppressed. Though to some degree in the world of social enterprise, many have built careers on the back of what this original paper proposed, and I'd assume they have a vested interest in not making it known, there might be darker reasons. It may have something to do with him blocking a USAID funded project that he'd proposed, on the grounds that 10% of the fund was to be placed in the pocket of a foreign government official. As he said at the time "The money belongs to every US taxpayer including me, it's destined for those in extreme poverty, and you're not having it" Though this might be seen by most of us as an act of a patriot, it's fairly obvious that it take two to tango, so perhaps he's also rubbed others up the wrong way. Anyway, FWIW all this can be found at www.p-ced.com/index.shtml We've invested much of our recent efforts out in Ukraine in the past 3 years, where hopefully we're doing something to develop democratic freedom and advance social and economic justice. Regards, Jeff Mowatt People-Centered Economic Development

Lynda Mostyn says …

You go John Mackey!! And while you're going, please come to Northwest Arkansas and become a neighbor of other like-minded visionary entrepreneurs such as J.B, Hunt, the trucking mogul; Don Tyson, founder of Tyson Foods; Red Hudson, founder of Hudson foods (that sold out to Tyson a few years back); and the family and business heirs of Sam Walton who founded that little discount chain WalMart. Little known to most, Northwest Arkansas has the second fastest growth rate of any region in the country, just behind the Las Vegas area. We're growing in leaps and bounds every year because a preponderance of the citizenry here believes in the same ideals you do, and our city and state governments support entrepreneurialism. As a community, we have never been "afraid" of WalMart putting small shopkeepers out of business; we were delighted that the competition of WalMart made the small shopkeepers offer specialized, personal services that WalMart couldn't or didn't offer because of its size and focus. Because the area has attracted people from so many larger metropolitan areas, and has done so very quietly but rapidly, we are lagging behind in our retail offerings. That's just now beginning to change. We have people from Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago and elsewhere, all crying out for a Whole Foods Market. We're not afraid that you'll put our local farmers out of business with their roadside produce stands; we're grateful that you might create a need for these farmers to produce different, bigger, cheaper or better produce or offer additional services in order to compete with you. We applaud your success, understanding that your increasing demand is also increasing your need to supply, which will ultimately provide an alternative location for local farmers to market their wares. The bottom line is that consumers get the quality and convenience they desire and entrepreneurs who are willing to compete, innovate and improve score big profits! So come on Whole Foods! You'll be right at home in Pinnacle Hills.

Max Farley says …

John, Thank you for your ideas. I believe interaction is true growth. Learning through our experiences creates unspeakable feelings. Your stores have helped me in my battle with Crohn's disease. Max Farley

Q8doc says …

Mr Mackey: I love your stores and your business philosophy! I just learned you were traded on Nasdaq. Unfortunately, I don't buy stocks over $50/share. You know why. Why don't you split your stock at $80/share so I and other small investors will be more able and willing to buy a few more 100 share blocks? It'll make the you and the other major shareholders happy in the long run as well.

Bill Jones says …

In February I will have been with Whole Foods five years. They have been wonderful years. With a position of high visibility comments from customers are heard every day. "You have the friendliest employees," "The food is fantastic, the way it's presented is fantastic." and many similiar comments. We have been picketed by the retail union. I stood outside on the sidewalk with the pickets to speak on behalf of the company. It was explained that the union is not out there for altruistic reasons. They want the union dues. The three stores presently in New York City represent more than 1,600 employees. That's a lot of union dues. The union is a business. They cannot get any more than Whole Foods gives in negotiations. But team members already make more than what the union could get as a starting rate. And nothing is taken from our paychecks to get it. Health benefits are fantastic. Respect for employee input, response to employee suggestions for better service are all part of the daily life at Whole Foods. Stock options, gainsharing and complimentary lunch coupons for positive customer comments make team members happy. Two core values are customer satisfaction and team member happiness. They are symbiotic. There are many customers who have their favorite team members and will shop only when the team member is working. Several of us socialize with customers outside the store. Customers bring members of their families in to meet us. From John Mackey to the newest hire to the newest customer visiting Whole Foods this is "grocery store done right."---Bill Jones

Gloria Schwartz says …

But the unfortunate circumstance is that there will always be Wal-Marts for the simple fact that some cannot afford the Whole Food and the customer service it provides and so the Wal-Marts of the world who rip off their employees will always be needed but kudos to those that fought them and won. I love your philosophy, I love what you believe, as do I, when you make your spouse happy you make yourself happy and it goes with everything. A good virus that needs to be spread.

Ravi Dykema says …

John, you write, " We measure our success on how well we meet the needs and desires of all of these various stakeholders. All must flourish or we aren't succeeding as a business." Stakeholders are: "customers; team members; investors; vendors; community; and environment." I think you are failing in one important area. Let me explain. In addition to shopping in your store in Boulder, Colorado, I publish a holistic magazine that exactly targets your shoppers. I (and my 400+ advertisers) depend on your company's generosity, which is: your stores' offering my free magazine to their customers in a free media display area near the front of their stores. All your Colorado stores have extended this generosity till now. This community has flourished because of it: 400 small businesspeople have flourished, and around 150,000 readers (among them many of your employess) have been inspired to lead healthier lives because of the articles they read in my magazine. Yesterday I learned that two new Whole Foods Markets in Denver will offer no space to free print media. I think this hurts your stakeholders, and so your company. In particular this hurts your customers, your team members, and your community. My magazine, and many others who are also excluded, educate and inspire these stakeholders: first, about healthy and responsible living, but also about their own communities--the people who ARE the vitality and the creativity of this town; the people who offer their expertise to help others; the people who ARE creating the world that your words so eloquenty evoke. Please reconsider this decision, or ask your store managers to reconsider if the decision was theirs. And I thank you for your heartfulness and for your intellectual brilliance. Both have inspired me to write this. Ravi Dykema

Matt says …

To John, I come to you from your West Vancouver store, and have to agree with a lot of your philosophies and innovative ideas. This is because everything happens at the store level, right at that intereaction between the customer and the worker. As the team member, we don't work for the money, thats for living, we work for the values that we hold onto, and thats making people happy. So one could agree with what you were saying about team member happiness, which is important. Whole foods treats us with respect, and dignity. With this dignity, we take joy in carrying out happy forms of customer service. Unions, long ago were a neccessary evil in Germany, America and other communities as they coped with industrialization, when it was a new sphere of influence, they were created so the worker could get fair pay and a decent wage. Back then they were neccessary for healthier working conditions, as people were dying under poor work conditions. This is not the case today, as one could see them working against progress, as long as the worker is treated fairly. To be honest, I am happy to say that whole foods has treated us fairly, and with dignity and respect. We can see the beauty and effect that our displays and our service give the customer, they are happy to shop with us. So I give you a real thumbs up for what you have created. My only contention is this, and its our higher prices, customers often find the prices upsurdly high, and how do we interact with these people to offer them price sensitive products. Its hard sometimes when they compare shopping at whole foods like shopping at a high end car dealership rather than a mainstream automotive dealership like say toyota. How can we reach that demographic, could we institute some form of price sensitive products, and give them pamphlets that tell them about our pricing? One has to say something, whole foods is a great company, and our service is given with happiness and respect for our custuomers. One can find a gracefulness in this interaction, and wholefoods makes this possible. To the customers of wholefoods, we should congratulate and thank them for their support of us. Hopefully the cycle willl always continue with their blessings

Valerie says …

Dear John, I know you probably won't remember me, but I was the food buyer at Prana House when you and Renee started "Safer Way" Foods. Regarding your financial challenges in your first year, I remember that you learned quickly the difficulties in succeeding while trying to offer something unique in the market. I'll never forget your anger when I bought bananas for Prana House during the store's opening week. Seems they were offered below your cost in order to attract customers. Little did I know! I'm glad you and Renee succeeded. I enjoy shopping at Whole Foods. I love the atmosphere in the store - it reminds me of Austin, even when I am shopping in Dallas. However, I am concerned that Whole Foods may have strayed from its original intent. I would like to see more local and organic products, even if there is loss of variety. My priority would be local, organic and sustainable practices, with minimal transportation. That said, I still prefer Whole Foods Market. While it may not be perfect, it is still way above the typical grocery chain which offers few products that are not highly processed and offers little or no service. Please tell me that Whole Foods won't be going to self serve check out! Belated congratulations. Valerie Dalton

Elaine of Reno says …

Wow, I am so impressed to find a large company that believes in the same philosophy as me. So often the bottom line is $'s and forget who gets you there, the customers and the employees. Being the owner of two service oriented companies, I know that it is 'Customers First', or you will soon be out of business. I am looking forward to a store opening here soon, so that I may see what these stores are all about.

Wendy Achatz says …

Hi John, I loved reading your interview. (out loud to my vegan teenage daughters). Eight years ago my kids were the only vegetarians in their school- now they have ‘turned on’ dozens of others to more than just vegetarianism. They lead by quiet, peaceful, non-condemning example. Just like your business. W.F.M. has been a great example to us and how we run our business. (Although we have a long way to go.) We provide your stores in the Mid-west with our great pies. In 1998 your buyers helped to educate us on the dangers of hydrogenated oils. Since then my husband and I formulated our own blend of all natural shortening. We feel this has helped us to improve our product and has opened our eyes to other dangerous things that do not belong in the human food chain, like high fructose corn syrup, artificial preservatives, colorings, bleach, G.M.O.’s etc… As a food producer I thank you for being a great business example and modeling responsibility. I also thank W.F.M. for purchasing our pies and keeping 80 plus Achatz Handmade Pie employees working and hundreds of Michigan farmers as well! Wendy Achatz- Co-Founder- Achatz Handmade Pie Co.

Nick Wilson says …

John, this may sound like a weird and blunt question, but would you have any interest in being the Libertarian Party's presidential candidate in 2008? You seem to be one of very few libertarians that could be taken seriously enough by the public and the media to give the party a good showing. Not only that, but I think you could clear up a lot of misconceptions about libertarianism, and change the course of the LP, which will remain a hopeless cause until we get candidates with background and serious name recognition. Whole Foods is widely recognized as a good and well-run business, and your story about how you became a libertarian would resonate with small and big business owners around the world (including myself), and with the public. Personally, I'm very dissatisfied with the LP - it's too radical and the party establishment often shuns those who are not as radical as them. I'm part of the Libertarian Reform Caucus (http://www.ReformTheLP.org), which is working to make the party become a real political party, with realistic solutions and practical reforms that could turn the LP into a sellable product. Check it out if you are interested. You sound a bit disatisfied with the movement as well. Anyway, seriously, you should seriously consider a candidacy in 2008. Thanks for your time (and for your great business).

Menno Troyer says …

Hi John, My name is Menno Troyer. I am the Libertarian Party candidate for State Representative, Florida House District 69. First I want to say that I, too, would really like to see you running as the LP candidate for president in 2008. The LP needs someone who brings fresh vision to the Party, and has a message that will resonate with the masses. I am a hardcore Libertarian who is strongly opposed to any attempt at diluting the classic LP platform, but I do believe that we need to start over by focusing on issues that the people care about the most, and present the Libertarian answers to those issues in a compelling way. Please consider running in 2008. You have this classic Libertarian's vote! I have to say your views are quite refreshing and thought provoking. Thanks to you, I am now beginning to understand for the first time how a business can and should focus on a variety of objectives rather than just long-term profits, without hurting long-term profitability, in fact enhancing it. Thank you for sharing your enlightened views.

Tammie Umbel says …

Hello Mr. John: This is quite an impressive interview. I must say that I agree with most of what you had to say. We live and learn. My company does the best it can for the benefit of everyone. However, in order to do so we must apply certain business formulas that others might misunderstand. Obviously the price that we pay for most products today are farce. And it is very difficult for a natural skin care company with goods made in the US to compete with a lot of the cheap chemical stuff coming out of China. We have a lot of room left to grow. PS. I shop at one of your stores all the time. As a mother of 11 young children, can we have like a buyers club or something? Tammie Umbel, CEO Shea Terra Organics www.sheaterraorganics.com

Barbara Durfee says …

I have shopped at Whole Food while living in Texas. Of course John, you believe in capitalism. You have created a store with excellent products that I and most people I know can not afford to purchase on any regular basis at your stores. What middle class family can possibly afford to do so? More and more, day by day capitalism, especially noted in the alternative health care industry and whole food business, subjugates the lower and middle class to inferior products that endanger our health. BTW, if I need vitamins the last place I shop is Whole Foods, Wild Oats and the like. Anyone who does throws their money away. Internet shopping is where its at for value.

Ken Dryden says …

When I invest I do so as if I am buying the entire business and the CEO is working directly for me. When I read his responses here I am proud of the guy who is running my business ... but I am dismayed at the ignorance displayed in some of the comments above. Clearly there are still people in the world who forget that adults are capable of making their own decisions about where to spend their money and because of that, Whole Foods can not force another business to fail without the local community voting with their dollars in an overwhelming way for that result. - Ken Dryden http://racestreet.org