Wednesday, October 22, 2008

John Mackey

There's a popular and lazily accepted myth that capitalism is all about greed and not much else. This is kind of like saying motoring is all about combustion, or that farming is all about photosynthesis. Greed, or self-interest, is an important element of the human condition, hence its importance in capitalism or any type of human institution. But capitalism is more than a system that revolves around greed. It's founded upon people reaching their goals, greedy or otherwise, by satisfying the desires of others.

John Mackey, my hero of note this week, is a successful capitalist whose business decision-making is guided by both self-interest and altruism. Mackey co-founded Whole Foods in 1980 after finding some success with his initial organic foods store, Safer Way. Ever since, Mackey has been driven by his ambition and his personal vision for improving the world to grow a niche grocery store into a Fortune 500 company. Even disregarding his attempts to modulate capitalism with consciousness, his company's success proves that Mackey has made the world a better place. Whole Foods has improved the lives of millions by offering organic and high-quality food, often sourced locally (but not exclusively so) and tailored to the increasingly discriminating tastes of urban, middle class shoppers.

Mackey is a long-time vegetarian and an animal-rights activist who believes strongly in many contemporary environmental causes. Many of these causes have become integrated into Whole Foods business practices, though not completely. While Whole Foods sells a wide variety of meats to his personal distaste, his commitment to animal welfare has has shown through in the implementation of animal treatment standards for vendors. Where does personal preference end and business acumen begin? It's hard to say. Mackey is a strong believer in organic produce - the selection found at his stores is evidence of this - but in one interview Mackey admits that if the buying public turned away from organic, Whole Foods would abandon organic to stay in business. He honors the value - and respects the power - of consumer choice.

Mackey believes in capitalism as a force for good, but argues for businesses to play a more active role in both marketing the market system and contributing to society in ways that go beyond providing goods and services. This is an important challenge to the Friedman orthodoxy as well as a bridge between the modern liberal sentiments of the western middle classes and classical liberal economic doctrine. In my opinion Mackey serves as an excellent ambassador for capitalism as well as an exemplar of that system's great potential.

The Guardian
"grist" interview
"60 Minutes" interview
Mackey's "conscious capitalism" vs Bill Gates vision of philanthropy
Criticism from the left

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