Did John Mackey’s Media March Cost Him the Whole Foods Chairmanship?

John Mackey has continued espousing a philosophy that doesn’t jibe with many of his customers’. Fast Company first questioned him about it in November. Now he’s stepping down as Whole Foods’ Chairman.

John Mackey


Since Whole Foods CEO John Mackey wrote his now-infamous op-ed in The Wall Street Journal about health care this summer, he’s been a target. It’s unclear whether his own conscious consumers or media heat–first cranked up in mid November for the December issue of Fast Company and in the last few days in The New Yorker and Reason–led him to announce via his blog on Christmas Eve that he was relinquishing his role as Chairman of the Whole Foods board. But something clearly got to him.

“I have held the Chairman title since Whole Foods Market’s beginning in 1978, but the reality is that today it is merely a title with no authority or responsibilities,” Mackey wrote under the misleadingly benign headline “Latest 8k Filing.” “Despite this shift in responsibilities, Whole Foods, along with many
other companies with combined CEO/Chairman roles, has been targeted by corporate governance activists for several years now seeking a
separation of these roles,” Mackey went on to say, adding, “The members of the Board and E-Team tried to talk me out of giving up
the title; however, I don’t believe it is in the best interest of our
company or our stakeholders to devote any more time or resources to
fight this misperception over a title any longer.”

In December, Fast Company looked into the quasi-hippie’s efforts to reshape capitalism, and came up questioning whether his ideals match his actions. Mackey just landed on the January cover of Reason and also snagged a feature in The New Yorker.

In Fast Company‘s piece, Danielle Sacks examines how Whole Foods’ success and growth is leading to the compromise of the very values it was built on—produce is typically flown in from other continents, rather than purchased locally, and Ceres ranked the company’s environmental record among the lowest of corporations. And even while Mackey himself said, to the Journal, that his company sells “a bunch of junk,” he stands by his product.

“If I get run over by a truck later today, I will have already in my life made a difference in helping many people,” he says. “Customers are better off because millions of people are eating in a way they never would have had we never existed.” That may very well be true, but as he continues to explain his ideals to Fast Company–the four pillars that support the “higher purpose” of conscious capitalism are the good, the true, the beautiful, and the heroic, and he commends Berkshire Hathaway for pursuing “the beautiful”–it’s easy to lose sight of his actual goals.

The Q and A in libertarian Reason was, unsurprisingly, the most kind to Mackey, giving him the chance to explain how “conscious capitalism” will fix the world’s problems. “The best way to think about business is in terms of a complex system with stakeholders who are interdependent: customers, employees, suppliers, investors in the larger community,” he tells Reason. “Capitalism is creating value for all of these people, creating value for customers, creating value for employees by providing jobs, creating values for our society through taxes, creating value for investors. It’s creating prosperity. It’s wonderful, and yet how poorly we do articulating that.”


Regarding Mackey’s evolution as a public figure, he tells the New Yorker that he had to “grow up,” and not “embarrass the company,” saying, specifically, “I can’t have affairs with women. One of the things that happened was you have more money and you have more opportunities for such things. And those are sort of off-limits. You can’t do that. Think of Mark Sanford, in South Carolina.”

Sorting through Mackey’s ideals, actions, and thoughts is a hefty task, but one thing’s for sure: The man’s got some entertaining things to say. We just wonder whether his board was as entertained as we were.