Why I Won’t Be Boycotting Whole Foods


CEO John Mackey hates healthcare - and organic apples.

CEO John Mackey dislikes health care - and organic apples.

More than 13,000 people on Facebook have joined a boycott of Whole Foods, the grocery chain dedicated to organic and natural foods.  The boycott continues to pick-up steam and is being covered by the mainstream media, including the New York Times and the Associated Press (Google lists more than 125 articles on the boycott this morning).

The grocery chain’s crime?

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last week criticizing the Obama administration’s health care reform package.  Mackey’s greatest blunder, however, may have been his decision to quote Margaret Thatcher, the former conservative prime minister of Britain, at the top of his column: “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money,” Mackey quotes the Iron Lady as saying.

Nevermind that U.S. health care reform has nothing to with socialism.

Mackey’s op-ed has caused a sea-storm of protest – mostly from his own customers. Mackey clearly doesn’t have a great sense of who exactly his customers are – which by all accounts are liberal, green and wealthy.  They are also passionately supportive of universal health care.

You don’t find many die-in-the-wool conservatives shopping Whole Foods for organic celery sticks or hemp yoga t-shirts.  So why Mackey would choose to alienate his primary customer base by weighing in on the health care debate is anybody’s guess.  It’s an example of a CEO who is completely out of touch with those he serves.  And as a result, he’s created a public relations crisis for his company (and will probably lose the company millions of dollars).

“Here’s a thought: If you own a major supermarket chain that caters to a great deal of liberal-minded people with money, don’t rail against the evils of health care reform in the Wall Street Journal,” Brian Beulter wrote at TPM DC.

Hard to argue against that.

I disagree wholeheartedly with the rather limpid recommendations Mackey makes in his op-ed on how to reform health care, including tort reform to eliminate lawsuits against doctors who kill or harm their patients by negligence and reducing government regulation of private health insurance companies (because deregulation worked out so well in the financial sector).

“Mackey, playing to type, has offered a Whole Foods solution for health care: It makes the system even better for the rich and the young and the educated — the sort of people who shop at Whole Foods, in other words — and doesn’t do a lot for those who really need help,” Ezra Klein wrote in the Washington Post.

True, but I will not be boycotting my local Whole Foods supermarket (where my family shops each week).

Why?

Because Mackey should be free to express his political opinion without punishment.  And protesters should be free to vociferously disagree with him.  It’s called debate.  But a boycott?  Have we really gotten to the point in this caustic August that we’re going to penalize people we politically disagree with?

That’s rather harsh and unnecessary (and a bit shrill).

Whole Foods buys local produce, supports organic and sustainable farming, supports and raises money for local charities, provides employees with above average wages and benefits (compared to other supermarket chains), gives each worker health care coverage and provides delicious, fresh foods as an alternative to the processed, chemical-laden fare sold at many other grocery stores.  I support those things.

Whole Foods is a good company and one that practices corporate social responsibility.  While I disagree with Mackey on health care reform, I will do so without resorting to boycotting his stores.  So I’m boycotting the boycott – and I think other’s should do the same.

Let’s move away from the rudeness and partisan screaming to a more civil discourse.

And if Mackey and Whole Foods needs some crisis communications help – I know an excellent PR agency they can call.

11 Responses to “Why I Won’t Be Boycotting Whole Foods”

  1. Excellent, reasoned commentary.

    Jay

  2. George, as I recall, Whole Foods is a company that stopped selling live lobsters because it was “inhumane.”

    That was flaky, as is disregarding a single payer health care plan as a viable, money-saving, health-protecting alternative.

    We spend twice as much on health care than any other nation, but our health statistics trail those of countries with single-payer systems that spend a fraction of what we do.

    The status quo is killing small businesses, too. Premiums have risen more than 80 percent since 2002. Meantime, the profits of the largest health insurers increased by 400 percent in the same time frame (according to the latest Harper’s Index).

    Sometimes it’s as simple as choosing not to do business with someone anymore. After all, there are plenty of other options.

    If I shopped there regularly as you do, it might be harder to boycott Whole Foods. I prefer the Woburn Marketbasket anyhow.

  3. Hi Tim:
    I don’t disregard any of your thoughts and comments on our health care situation. I happen to favor a government-run universal health care system in the U.S. for many of the reasons you state.

    While I understand we all make political decisions with every purchase, I don’t think a boycott of Whole Foods is justified because the CEO has a conservative view on how to reform our system. A boycott for holding a political opinion – shared by millions – seems rather draconian – and undemocratic – to me.

    But if you decide to boycott Whole Foods make sure you vet out the political views of the Market Basket CEO before you start spending money there…

  4. What ever happened to the separation of Supermarkets and State?

    As far as I’m concerned, the boycotters and Mackey deserve each other. Since “Organic” food is no better than conventionally grown food, it might be in everyone’s best interest to shop at Market Basket.

    See Article:

    “There is no evidence that organically produced foods are nutritionally superior to conventionally produced foodstuffs, according to a study published July 29 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.”

    http://bit.ly/EKC65

  5. That’s not the only reason why you buy organic foods, John. You buy them to protect the environment. Organic foods are grown without pumping harmful chemicals, pesticides and inorganic fertilizers into the soil and ground water.

    Also note that the study you linked to only discusses the similarities of nutrients found in conventional and organic fruits and vegetables – it didn’t talk about the things you aren’t getting when you eat organic foods – like chemicals and pesticides found in many conventional foods.

    Here’s a link to the ABC story on the same study:

    http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Healthday/Story?id=8206608&page=2

  6. I have equal amounts of disagreement with both Mackey and those who would use his views on health care as motivation to boycott his business.

    Here’s the rub – as a CEO of a major food retailer with high visibility amongst those people in positions of power (i.e., wealthy upper-middle-class Americans), he does have some influence in overall “power sphere” of American politics.

    Unfortunately, he apparently never engages with them in any way, else he wouldn’t have said what he said. As you pointed out, his best and most loyal customers happen to be those most vociferously in favor of health care reform.

    The person – or persons – who should bear the blame on this one are his PR advisors, who apparently didn’t stop to think that maybe pissing off your best customer is a bad idea in a down economy.

    Bottom line is that, as an American business leader with a “horse in the race” on the health care debate, Mackey has every right to express his opinion on this topic; he just needed to have someone with the stones to say “Umm… this is a bad idea” and re-directed his fervor towards a more pertinent subject that wouldn’t offend his core customers, like the organic food debate articulated in this space above.

  7. Great points. You must be one of those “PR gurus” I’ve been hearing so much about 🙂

  8. I never shopped Whole Foods in my life until last week. Outside a store, I saw a bunch of wild people holding signs. A lot of women with mustaches and men with squeaky voices. I supposed it was some big promotion for a new store or something. So I figured there must be something good.

    Wow. I bought all kinds of cool stuff. And I didn’t need anything. I just bought stuff and gave it away to my family and friends. And the air conditioning in the store was great, nice and cold. After I finished my snacks, I just threw the wrappers out the window, which is pretty cool too.

    I am now hooked on Whole Foods.

    Thanks all for the campaign!

  9. BTW.

    Socialized government healthcare – to insure the 25 million illegal aliens in the US – would lead the US faster to ruin, which is what liberals want because they hate the US and its history.

    The polls prove it – most Americans don’t want government run health care.

    The people who want it had never heard of “health care” before until Al Gore invented it a few years ago. Or was that the Internet, I forget?

  10. I am a Democrat BTW.

  11. Hi Paul:
    That’s too bad for the Democrats. It’s nice to have such reasoned, well-informed commentary on my blog. I especially like how you craftily included the assertion that “illegal aliens” (what planet exactly?) are included in Obama’s healthcare proposal – when, in fact, there is no such provision.

    I’m leaving your comments up despite a strong desire to delete them to showcase how misinformation can spread like a virus and how groupthink “liberals hate the U.S.” is rampant in many circles.

    I’m glad you like Whole Foods. I do, too.

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