My Exclusive Interview with Whole Foods Co-CEO John Mackey – Part 2

By on January 25, 2013 with 2 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

Here’s the second part of my interview with Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey, whose book Conscious Capitalism calls on corporations to find a higher purpose than profit in their enterprises. Click here to see yesterday’s introduction and Q&A with John Mackey.


Wayne Pacelle: It’s difficult to build a discussion around a single factor, since there are so many interrelated forces that shape our world, but I am quite sure that capitalism has not made the world better for animals. So many people and businesses view animals as property and treat them like things, whether it’s in factory farming, the fur trade, the wildlife trade, or so many other sectors of the animal economy. 

John Mackey: The economic system reflects the consciousness of the people who are in it. Unfortunately, the free enterprise capitalist system has allowed us to exploit animals more thoroughly than ever before. Animals didn’t have any rights, any value in the era of industrialism. But as people’s consciousness evolves, conscious capitalism has the potential to radically improve conditions for animals. Communications tools for The HSUS are dramatically superior to those 25 years ago. Now we can link together with people throughout the world, and this has enabled people to learn about our issues and pass on information faster. There is more transparency; bad things cannot be hidden away. Great progress can be made, perhaps not as fast as we would like, but I see great evolution occurring. It’s the fault of the consciousness of human beings and as that consciousness evolves higher so will our treatment of animals. 

John Mackey, Co-CEO of Whole Foods Market

WP: Isn’t factory farming an example of a form of agriculture divorced from so many of our core values in society?

JM: Factory farming is an example of less conscious livestock raising. It recognizes only one value: make money by increasing production for lower cost. However, we can create other alternatives that make money. It’s not that the motive is wrong, but it is too narrow – not conscious enough. The practitioners of capitalism are evolving and so will their treatment of animals, especially with the help of organizations such as The HSUS.

Slavery was legal in nearly half of the states 150 years ago – 14 of 29 states – in 1863. Women did not have the right to vote anywhere in the world 100 years ago. Colonialism was a primary force in creating the world map that we knew, even as recently as 75 years ago. We had racial segregation not long ago. Twenty five years ago, half the world still thought communism was the right way to organize ourselves politically. These are all examples of consciousness evolving. In 1910, only 9 percent of adults in America had a high school degree – today it’s 85 percent, and 40 percent have college degrees. Even though our educational system has major defects, it’s an example of rising consciousness. Every ten years, the Flynn effect, measuring our IQ, has gone up 4 percent.

WP: You are a vegan, and Whole Foods Market provides so many products valued by vegans. You also sell meat, but you were the first supermarket to adopt the Global Animal Partnership standards for livestock welfare, creating a multi-tiered rating system for animal products so consumers can get more information about welfare standards and make more conscious choices.

JM: That’s what the market wants. However, we are also leading our customers and teaching them to eat fewer animal foods. When I got started 35 years ago, organic hardly existed, and now it’s growing every year and it’s seen throughout the marketplace. We have a much greater percentage of vegans today; 35 years ago it was an unfamiliar term, and you were considered enlightened if you were a lacto-ovo vegetarian. Today, for me, if you are lacto-ovo, you are not enlightened about what’s happening with dairy cows or laying hens.

WP: That has to cost a company a lot of money.

JM: We may be sacrificing some short-term profits, but we are also differentiating ourselves in the market. It will eventually be good for WFM, because millions of people will see that we have authenticity and that we won’t sit still on this important issue. We will continue to raise our standards higher over time. We want a race to the top, whereas factory farming is a race to the bottom.

WP: Do you see any conflict between your personal beliefs about veganism and your company’s commerce in animal products?

JM: I really don’t. I get criticized on this quite a bit – people call me a hypocrite. But I believe that diet represents an individual choice at this point, with each individual purchasing and consuming products according to his or her conscience. I do that in my life, and I encourage my friends to go vegan. I have personally converted many, many people, and it’s my goal to have everyone exhibit higher consciousness through their eating choices, whether or not they are vegan. WFM has come up with principles of healthy eating and we recommend predominately plant-based diets.

What the abolitionists leave out of the equation is that most people go through a gradual evolution in their consciousness. As people become more conscious, they will grow and evolve their diets. Sometimes people feel so guilty – they don’t want to know – and they walk away from a harsh video or a stern lecture. The five-step GAP program allows people to start looking at it. It allows people to change at a pace that is normal and natural. This is a better strategy for changing consciousness, from my perspective.

WP: Is it working as an economic model?

JM: It’s progressing a bit slower than I would like. It is raising prices in the meat department. People who are conscious are eating fewer animal foods, and the people who are less conscious tend to also prefer less expensive choices. On the other hand, it is the right thing to do and I’m confident that over the long-term it will be quite successful. Given our collective consciousness at WFM, we cannot sell factory farmed products because there is too much cruelty.

WP: Your book is a manifesto and a learning manual for business leaders. I think that it also provides guidance to nonprofit leaders and boards. What are some of the key principles for these leaders to pay attention to in their work?

JM: I am on five nonprofit boards. I’ve thought a lot about this. The nonprofit sector can teach the profit sector about higher purpose, that’s the great intellectual capital it offers. The problem for nonprofits is they are not as efficient, effective, professional, and skilled as they should be. They have a tendency to limp along based on the level of funds that they receive, whether they are effective or not. Nonprofits need greater accountability and greater effectiveness, and business can help. I do believe that businesses and nonprofits need to partner. Our Whole Planet Foundation works with hundreds of microfinance groups all over the world. We will drop those that are not that effective.

WP: Why are you a board member of The HSUS? What attracts you to invest your time and money in the organization?

JM: I am glad to be on the board. When I first joined The HSUS team I had no idea of the tremendous scope of its activities. It has remarkably far-reaching and diverse programs, with global impacts. It is, most of all, an effective nonprofit organization, with a high degree of professionalism and a real sense of strategy. Every organization, including The HSUS, has limited funds and can’t do everything. At The HSUS, you leverage your resources and conduct effective legal, information and education, and corporate campaigns. It is by far the most effective animal protection organization in the world, and may be more effective than the combined efforts of most of the other groups.

Farm Animals, Wildlife/Marine Mammals

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