Article by Isaac Chotiner at The New Yorker
Image by Luca Dalge on Unsplash
In 1980, John Mackey co-founded Whole Foods Market, which combined the ethos of natural-foods stores with the larger range of offerings found in traditional supermarkets. The first store was located in Austin, Texas, but the company quickly expanded; it now has more than five hundred stores. In 2017, Amazon purchased Whole Foods for nearly fourteen billion dollars.
Mackey, who remains C.E.O., may be understood as a forerunner to the archetypal tech founder, combining a countercultural style with a hostility to regulation. As the face of Whole Foods, Mackey is particularly known for his early promotion of humane animal treatment, his opposition to government-funded health care, and his skepticism of the science behind global warming. Nick Paumgarten, who profiled Mackey for The New Yorker in 2010, referred to him as a “rare bird,” specifically a “right-wing hippie.”
Last year, Whole Foods clashed with workers who demanded hazard pay and expanded sick leave during the pandemic. In March of 2020, Amazon announced that it would provide two weeks of paid sick leave to employees diagnosed with covid-19 but declined to expand the policy further. Whole Foods offered hazard pay to workers that month but discontinued it in May. Numerous workers also filed lawsuits over what they claimed was discrimination by the company, after they were sent home or otherwise punished for wearing Black Lives Matter masks and apparel. (A federal judge recently ruled in favor of Whole Foods.)
In the fall of 2020, Mackey published “Conscious Leadership: Elevating Humanity Through Business,” a book that describes his philosophical approach to business and offers an account of the difficulties of running a large company. I spoke by phone with Mackey in September, shortly after “Conscious Leadership” was published. In my conversation with Mackey, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed his relationship with Jeff Bezos, how Whole Foods has approached worker safety during the pandemic, and why Mackey wants to steer clear of conversations about politics.