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Monday, 04 January 2010 04:25

John Mackey Tarnishes Whole Foods' Rep Once Again, But This Time He's Relying on Stupidity, Not Libertarianism

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by Meg White

John Mackey is ruffling feathers again, except this time he wants to take the whole planet down with him.

Self-professed "big fan" of the Whole Foods CEO, Waylon Lewis wrote that John Mackey is "finally losing me." Well, if it wasn't the anti-healthcare reform, union-busting, greenwashing Wal-Mart-ism that broke Lewis, what could it be?

Turns out the latest moral indignation over Mackey's behavior is that he's a climate change denier. This was revealed in a profile published in The New Yorker this weekend, in a trip to Mackey's study (emphasis mine):

One of the books on the list was “Heaven and Earth: Global Warming -- the Missing Science,” a skeptical take on climate change. Mackey told me that he agrees with the book’s assertion that, as he put it, “no scientific consensus exists” regarding the causes of climate change; he added, with a candor you could call bold or reckless, that it would be a pity to allow “hysteria about global warming” to cause us “to raise taxes and increase regulation, and in turn lower our standard of living and lead to an increase in poverty.” One would imagine that, on this score, many of his customers, to say nothing of most climate scientists, might disagree. He also said, “Historically, prosperity tends to correlate to warmer temperatures.”

Of course, there's no need for me to point out that little or "no scientific consensus exists" about any developing theory, but that doesn't mean said theory has no merit. Or for me to bring up the fact that millions are living in lowered standards of living, and poverty is increasing every day because of pollution in low-income areas. As for the idea that “prosperity tends to correlate to warmer temperatures,” the island nation of Fiji might disagree. Whether or not Mackey can hear their cries over the muffled din of the overseas transport of the millions of plastic water bottles sold by Fiji water each year, I couldn't say.

Of course, this is not the Whole Foods CEO's first foray into the political. In his infamous op-ed against "Obamacare" this fall, Mackey revealed himself to the larger public to be quite different from the benevolent organic foods retailer many thought him to be. Though the op-ed spawned bad press and a boycott, no real change seemed to come of it.

Granted, it's likely that such loose talk cost Mackey his position as chair of Whole Foods Market Inc. After years of lobbying from the activist investor organization CtW Investment Group, which referred to Mackey's "undisciplined behavior" as putting "brand reputation at risk," the company decided to separate the position of CEO and chair. Yet, not only will Mackey retain his CEO title, he will remain a member on the same board he chaired up until last month.

His anti-healthcare reform argument relied upon those favorite all-American values of independence and self-reliance, steeped in a hefty helping of Libertarianism. But this latest political snafu putting Mackey at odds with his customer base is one born out of ignorance, stupidity or both.

The mere fact that the rest of Mackey's study is portrayed in The New Yorker's article as filled with anti-Keynesian tracts and Ayn Rand novels illustrates that he's given himself up to the cult of the individual. And in his case, that particular cult is devoted to one specific individual: John Mackey.

It sometimes sounds as if he believed that, if every company had him at the helm, there would be no need for unions or health-care reform, and that therefore every company should have someone like him, and that therefore there should be no unions or health-care reform. In other words, because he runs a business a certain way, others will, can, and should, and so the safeguards that have evolved over the generations to protect against human venality -- against, say, greedy, bullying bosses -- are no longer necessary. The logic is as sound as the presumption is preposterous.

I respect both responsible CEOs and dedicated Libertarians when they stick to their guns. But Mackey's stance on climate change is more akin to his devotion to "Grofian breathing" than his views on the role of government. If Mackey is truly wedded to the notion of pursuing self interest, his opposition to climate change action is self-defeating and just downright dumb.

Now I'm not saying that all those who question climate change are "stupid." Some are talented scientists who simply want more time to conduct research on the subject. Others, such as Exxon CEOs, are cravenly smart to create the bad science upon which other deniers often base their claims. Judgment aside, they are looking after personal futures, basing actions upon self interest as proscribed by Rand and others.

But Mackey himself has no good, self-interested reason to deny climate change. On a purely profits-based level, his company could come back from the boycott he precipitated earlier this year by trumpeting the cause of climate change.

If organic industry heavyweights such as Mackey involved themselves in the climate change debate, pesticide-free farming could become the norm, increasing availability of safer, healthier produce. Mackey could help bring an end to feedlot and factory farming, one of the most significant contributors to pollution worldwide.

But much like his views on healthcare, Mackey's thoughts on global warming are inconsistent with his company's supposed values, the most obvious of which being the commitment to "caring about our communities & our environment." Taking it a step further, however, Whole Foods may not be able to continue "selling the highest quality natural and organic products available" if climate change isn't addressed. Already, droughts and extreme weather threaten our world's breadbaskets. How is the company's commitment to educating their customers to be achieved by a man who advocates pseudoscience?

As if to counter his assertion that the world would be better off if everyone was more like him, the New Yorker piece goes on to point out some flaws in Mackey's worldview, chiefly that many of us can't afford to eat at Whole Foods. There are some who cannot afford to eat anything but fast food. And still others who cannot afford to eat anything at all (and food pantries are filled with some of the least nutritious items on the shelf: canned foods). Others can't afford the preventive care that will keep them from getting sick. And some people who lead a healthy lifestyle will still end up bankrupted by healthcare costs.

And that's where living in a community comes in. We supposedly elevate CEOs to the levels they now occupy because of their strengths as consistent leaders who look after the interests of their company, stockholders and customers. And at every turn, Mackey seems to be indicating that he has no interest in such an arrangement.