Whole Foods CEO John Mackey has put his foot in his mouth-this time about health care-but does a boycott make sense? Who knew that people who...
Whole Foods CEO John Mackey has put his foot in his mouth-this time about health care-but does a boycott make sense?Who knew that people who hunt for tofu pups and organic edamame in the aisles of Whole Foods Market don't respond well to op-eds quoting former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on the problem with socialism ("eventually you run out of other people's money")? Especially when the writer, Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey, suggests that health care is just a commodity.On August 12, Mackey argued very publicly in the Wall Street Journal op-ed pages that health care is not a right. "While all of us empathize with those who are sick, how can we say that all people have more of an intrinsic right to health care than they have to food or shelter?" he said. "Health care is a service that we all need, but just like food and shelter it is best provided through voluntary and mutually beneficial market exchanges."Mackey made the case against deeper government involvement and for more personal responsibility-including those kinds of personal lifestyle choices that motivate shopping in the aisles of a Whole Foods store. His philosophy seemed to go to the root of the "counter-cuisine," the idea that changing one's diet and one's buying habits might change the world.Despite the measured tone of Makey's article, some of the store's customers saw his stance as a bad case of brand dissonance-his views clashed with their conception of what the natural foods chain represents. They called Mackey an apostate and called for a boycott. "Whole Foods has built its brand with the dollars of deceived progressives," says the "Boycott Whole Foods" group on Facebook, which has, at the moment, over 28,000 members. (By comparison, Whole Foods Market has 121,000 fans).Whole Foods apologized and tried to clarify that the op-ed reflected only Mackey's opinions and not the official stance of the company. Not that the chain has to worry too much. One customer told The New York Times: "I'm just going to have to stop buying. But they have good meat, that's the problem, and good fish."Last week's editorial was hardly the first time Mackey has put his foot in his mouth. In 2005, he attacked rival Wild Oats under an anonymous online alias "Rahodeb"-possibly to lower its stock prices before Whole Foods moved to buy the rival natural foods chain. And he has made a name for himself by taking risks: the first Whole Foods stores sold coffee, beer, wine, and meat-in violation of some health food purists' ideals of crunchy Austin co-ops.But Whole Foods Market is still in a class of its own when it comes to promoting ideas about corporate sustainability. The real threat to meaningful health care reform has more to do with insurance companies, who are less concerned with "conscious capitalism" and are arguably harder to boycott. Whole Foods has built itself on image and its "pander[ing] to... customers' political prejudges" and Mackey should have been more careful with his brand. But the boycott movement feels like a distracting sideshow in the debate over the U.S. health care system.