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Ear to the Ground

Can Whole Foods Repair Its Image?

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Posted on Aug 18, 2009
Facebook / Boycott Whole Foods

Turns out comparing unions to herpes and raving against health care reform in The Wall Street Journal isn’t great for business, at least when your business sells granola to progressives, hippies and other Truthdig readers. Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s efforts have earned him a boycott. Guess we’ll just have to get our gluten-free almond cookies elsewhere.

The Opinionator has a broad selection of reaction from the blogosphere. Top of its post is below.  —PS

New York Times:

Of all the sideshows to the Great 2009 Health Care Debate, the Whole Foods boycott may take the prize as the most unexpected.

Last Wednesday, John Mackey, the chief executive of Whole Foods, took to the pages of The Wall Street Journal to opine that “we clearly need health care reform,” but arguing against the solutions being put forward by the administration: “The last thing our country needs is a massive new health care entitlement that will create hundreds of billions of dollars of new unfunded deficits and move us much closer to a government takeover of our health care system.”

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, August 20, 2009 at 1:26 pm Link to this comment

Fat Freddy: ’... If you want to know more about Mackey’s philosophy and business model, read this article in the Libertarian magazine, Reason. It’s a three way debate between Milton Friedman, Whole Foods’ John Mackey, and Cypress Semiconductor’s T.J. Rodgers.’

The debate reveals that Mackey is capable of smarter, more subtle, more shall we say nuanced reasoning than his interlocutors.  I was particularly struck by Friedman’s simple-minded equivalencing of profit with bottom-line numbers.  Mackey is playing a deeper game, one in which he overcame the traditional models of the supermarket, the health food store, and the gourmet shop to acquire a considerable following, or at least customer base.  But part of his game is to build his business by appealing to the other than bottom-line sensibilities of his customers, and this lays him open to ideological difficulties when he contradicts their principles or prejudices.  As long as he was anti-union, these people didn’t seem to mind—they’re mostly too good for the unions—but coming out against Obama’s rather modest and compromised medical care plan seems to have been too much for them to stomach.

Mackey has written or said odder stuff, although I can’t point to anything offhand, and is implicated in a bit of restraint of trade here and there, but I believe the proposed boycott is more a transfer of frustrated anger than something specific to Whole Foods.  The people know they’re being screwed again, and maybe they’re not going to take it any more.  Mackey maybe should not have stuck his head up while they’re looking for something to hammer.

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By Sepharad, August 19, 2009 at 7:26 pm Link to this comment

We had a perfectly adequate Food For Thought store in Sebastopol for years, but when Whole Foods took over, my relentlessly curious husband checked out the new management’s super-conservative background and suggested we spend our food money elsewhere. Luckily for us there was about to be a choice, as our nearest neighbor had graduated from selling produce out of an old green truck next to Golden Gate Park and had opened a partly-organic supermarket in the area. Still, there were some things cheaper at Whole Foods—price of dry cereals, some supplements—so once in I while I went there. What impressed me was that whatever kind of a troglodyte was in control he took very good care of his employees. But one day, basket full of cereal, was standing in line listening to several ladies in expensive laid-back-looking hippie cloths, string bags full of expensive cheeses etc., congratulating themselves for shopping in such a mellow place, nice atmosphere for the kids, and could not resist chiming in “Yeah, but the guy getting the profits puts some of them in places only Karl Rove would go.” Consternation ensued.

Yes, that was gratuitous uncharitable behavior; yes, felt slight satisfaction and simultaneous shame pricking their bubble. But the fact is, information is there to be used. High employee morale is a very good, very important thing that adds greatly to the quality of life in the community—and high employee morale is not all that common (though our friend’s employees are equally chipper and own stock in his rapidly growing venture).

Another point is that in a democracy, people should be judged by other factors than their politics—there is a reason for a secret vote—but when the person being judged is politically active and public about their beliefs, you may or may not want to subsidize them.

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By 4Truth, August 19, 2009 at 5:23 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

You think you have a problem with Whole Foods company??  Well - they may be
worse (in actual fact) than any major grocery chain.  But let me tell ya: Wasting
food is BUILT INTO the mass distribution system.  Unless you grow all your own
food (and manage to conserve over 75% of it) - your just dreaming if you think
feeding 300 million people doesn’t involve massive waste. 

I live in a prosperous college town of about 120k population.  There’s both a
farmers market and food co-op.  Just saying fact: those two food sources serve
no more than 5% of the population.  The rest is supplied by a national grocery
chain and one state-wide chain: 6 huge stores serving “quadrants” of the city.
Canneries, factory farms and packaged foods corporations are the suppliers to all
6.  Repeating: there’s no way to pick-process-distribute foods on such a scale
without all the “attendant evils” (and potential evils).

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Volma's avatar

By Volma, August 19, 2009 at 3:54 pm Link to this comment

Instead of subsidizing the ruling class, through corporate welfare, buy out’s making the rich richer, why not spend our own hard earned tax dollars on our own citizen????The ruling class has taken jobs out of the US to make larger profits, have cut out every benefit they can to save money for them, they have no interest or concern in the American’s who serve them…The good ole USA has been systematically destroyed from within by the ruling classes…Mackey is just another cut throat member of the ruling class, with a gimmick, targeting the affluent liberals in their quest to out liberal their neighbors….Whole Foods is a over priced, elitist store not for hippies, but for yuppies…If you really want to go organic, join a coop, bring your own bags, they are not as pretty but at least they are honest…Fat Freddy is a paid blogging/comment tool for Whole Foods, this is pretty clear, I wouldn’t be surprised if he weren’t actually the Mackey himself… Libertarians are fascist capital elitists, that can’t wait to go back to slavery, they are not the good guys, nor are they liberal in any way shape or form….Don’t give your hard earned money to a fraud, a sham, a opportunist, deceptive business model called Whole Foods…

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Fat Freddy's avatar

By Fat Freddy, August 19, 2009 at 10:38 am Link to this comment

• Remove the legal obstacles that slow the creation of high-deductible health insurance plans and health savings accounts (HSAs). The combination of high-deductible health insurance and HSAs is one solution that could solve many of our health-care problems. For example, Whole Foods Market pays 100% of the premiums for all our team members who work 30 hours or more per week (about 89% of all team members) for our high-deductible health-insurance plan. We also provide up to $1,800 per year in additional health-care dollars through deposits into employees’ Personal Wellness Accounts to spend as they choose on their own health and wellness.

Money not spent in one year rolls over to the next and grows over time. Our team members therefore spend their own health-care dollars until the annual deductible is covered (about $2,500) and the insurance plan kicks in. This creates incentives to spend the first $2,500 more carefully. Our plan’s costs are much lower than typical health insurance, while providing a very high degree of worker satisfaction.

• Equalize the tax laws so that that employer-provided health insurance and individually owned health insurance have the same tax benefits. Now employer health insurance benefits are fully tax deductible, but individual health insurance is not. This is unfair.

• Repeal all state laws which prevent insurance companies from competing across state lines. We should all have the legal right to purchase health insurance from any insurance company in any state and we should be able use that insurance wherever we live. Health insurance should be portable.

If I’m not mistaken, this is what has caused the boycott of Whole Foods. I find nothing wrong with these statements, and I support single payer. At least, nothing worth boycotting over. There are some flaws in the logic and the effect they will have if applied to the entire country. What works for Whole Foods, isn’t necessarily going to work for others.

For instance, his statement about “equalizing the tax laws” regarding health insurance is impractical. Big businesses get a tax deduction. This is different from a tax credit. Tax deductions are only good if you itemize your deductions. Most Americans don’t itemize, they opt for the standard deduction, which is about $7,800. So, any itemized deductions up to $7,800 are essentially meaningless. And even then, you get to not pay taxes on that amount of money. If you pay a 33% tax rate, you get 33% of the deduction.

If you want to know more about Mackey’s philosophy and business model, read this article in the Libertarian magazine, Reason. It’s a three way debate between Milton Friedman, Whole Foods’ John Mackey, and Cypress Semiconductor’s T.J. Rodgers.

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, August 19, 2009 at 8:52 am Link to this comment

No, the cooperative business model is not utopian, not a panacea.  However, contemplating it and maybe doing something about it beats a fatuous trust in the nobility of the management of Whole Foods.

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Fat Freddy's avatar

By Fat Freddy, August 19, 2009 at 7:07 am Link to this comment


If you want “progressive” stores, start forming cooperatives.  Don’t expect capitalists to do your progressive thing for you.

There are good co-ops and bad co-ops. Be careful what you wish for.




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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, August 19, 2009 at 6:43 am Link to this comment

I am kind of surprised that people were not already aware of the Whole Foods business model and the philosophy and character of its leadership, which have been openly displayed for all to see (mostly) since its inception.  So, what is the boycott supposed to accomplish? 

If you want “progressive” stores, start forming cooperatives.  Don’t expect capitalists to do your progressive thing for you.

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Fat Freddy's avatar

By Fat Freddy, August 19, 2009 at 4:54 am Link to this comment

Aren’t boycotts a bit antiquated? There’s a better way.

Corporations rely on stockholders and investors just as much as consumers.

More and more Americans are invested in the stock market though their 401(k)s.

Instead of putting all of your money into, say, a Vanguard S&P 500 indexed, no load mutual fund or a Treasury based money market account, take 10-20% out and use it to invest in the corporations you want. This way, not only do you get to “punish” the companies you don’t like, you get to “reward” the companies you do like. Say, a company like this:

But, do your homework first!

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By bane-richter, August 19, 2009 at 4:23 am Link to this comment

Drive them out of business, by patronizing other establishments. When the press asks, ” Are they ok again?”

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By ron jeremy, August 19, 2009 at 2:47 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

everyone should stop shopping at whole foods.  i worked there for about a month in santa monica.  i was so disgusted by the way they employees and lied to the public.  in short, the recylcing bins were all dumped into the dumpster and the ‘food donated to the homeless shelters’ was all thrown in the trash at the end of the day.  they are nothing but a big box destroyer of small business, among other horrible things

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By ChaoticGood, August 19, 2009 at 1:29 am Link to this comment

It is sad to see that “Whole Foods” is just another scam cooked up by someone who doesn’t believe in anything that Whole Foods is supposed to stand for. Many Corporations are run by craven, greedy megalomaniacs who have marketing departments that shield us from the truth about their true motivations.  No suprise here, but many liberal “hippies”, environmentalists and wholesome food afficionados must be feeling like they have been played as fools.

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