NSL Blog

John Mackey CEO of Whole Foods on Conscious Capitalism

June 18, 2014

The purpose driven organisation - is a high performance organisation

The purpose driven organisation – is a high performance organisation

What is the purpose of business, or an organisation? And in No Straight Lines, I ask this question – How can we create better for our economies, organisations and societies – all at the same time. As currently it seems we always have to make a choice of one over the other, at the expense always to us. John Mackey CEO of Whold Foods demonstrates it does not have to be that way – and that better much better does not have to cost the earth.

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods says, “in my early twenties I thought business was fundamentally, basically, selfish and greedy, I mean, all about making money and profits and certainly not working for the collective good of society. I lived in a housing co-op for a couple of years. I was a member of three food co-ops at different times. So I really was, even in my very early ’20s, searching for a better way for society to be and for business to operate.

But I became disillusioned with that philosophy. When the co-op movement– I just found the co-ops were very politicized and, at least at that time, they seemed to be a lot more interested in what companies to boycott and which products not to sell than they were in terms of really creating a better customer experience. So I came to the conclusion that I thought I could do a better job. I thought I could create a store that created more value for the customers that we traded with and the people that work there.

He also argues, “If Adam Smith’s ethical philosophy had been synthesized into his economic philosophy, the world might be, probably would be, a very different place today.”

On purpose, which I think is a key issue and challenge today, Mackey says,

If you ask what the purpose of teachers is, educate people. If you ask what the purpose of a journalist is, hopefully you’ll get some answer to the truth is out there and we’re trying to uncover it. I’m not sure journalism hasn’t moved away from that purpose, but I would argue that could and should be its purpose. If you ask the purpose of architects, they design buildings. Engineers construct things. I mean, even lawyers promote, or at least taught in law school that they’re promoting a more just society.

Only business people the answer is the purpose of business is to make money. And it’s just not the right answer. And every business has the potential for some other higher purpose besides just making money. Of course, it has to make money just like my body has to make red blood cells if I’m going to live. But the purpose of my life is not to produce red blood cells. My purpose is more transcendent than that. Similarly, business has that purpose for some type of larger contribution to society. So business people need to begin thinking in those terms. And so purpose is a first tenant that we explain conscious capitalism with. It’s absolutely essential that business rediscover what its purpose is, why it exists. What is the value that it creating for other people? What is its contribution to the larger society?

He continues, “fulfilling the mission that we set for ourselves of helping people to live healthier lives, to hopefully reverse this obesity crisis we have in America. Whole Foods does feel this sense of responsibility to try to make a difference. And that filters through our team member base to our customers. We really are united around kind of our mission as an organization. That really makes a difference. Our culture’s very unique. We’re very decentralized. And I think one of the reasons people that know Whole Foods don’t freak out about a big chain coming– it’s not like a McDonald’s coming into a town or a Walmart or even a Starbucks.

Our stores are all unique. They’re all different. None of them look exactly the same as any other store because we don’t have a prototype that we just replicate and repeat over and over and over again. Each store is locally created to fit that community as best we can determine from the local people that we have there working there. So the people are very empowered in terms of the products that we pick. We do really focus on a lot of local products. We support local vendors. We even make loans to local vendors to help them be successful.

SXSW Interactive 2013: Conscious Capitalism, presented by Oracle from SXSW on Vimeo.

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