Sunday, 23 August 2009

Whole Foods in a whole lot of mess

Whole Foods Market Inc. has found itself embroiled in the most controversial and topical debate in America, the debate over President Barack Obama's health care reforms, thanks to an op-ed piece written by the upscale grocery retailer's co-founder and CEO, John Mackey, published in the Wall Street Journal on August 11th, 2009. Mr. Mackey (a proponent of the free market...well, I can only assume that he is one if he's choosing to begin his article with a quotation by Margaret Thatcher) lays out, in his concise essay, the arguments against and some alternatives to the president's reform proposals.

While he doesn't actually come out and say it, the gist of what is spelt out by Mr. Mackey is that the American people do not have an 'intrinsic right to health care'. It's a polarizing topic so to take one side or the other in this debate is a no-win situation...either way, you'll be sure to piss people off. Of course, it's critical for every American to be engaged in this process because health care reforms affect every single one of them. However, now that Whole Foods has gone and mixed commerce with politics, there have been protests against the chain outside several branches, including in Washington DC and New York. What's noteworthy about these protests is that they're being staged by former loyal customers of the company; consumers who have long endured the higher prices at Whole Foods because they viewed the company's corporate values to be aligned with their own (e.g. liberals who assuaged their environmental guilt by purchasing biodegradable detergents and organically-grown produce...myself included, back when I used to lived in NY, the above Whole Foods store on W24th and 7th was my local haunt!). It is a place where high-minded liberals (i.e. people who are for universal health care and the proposed reforms) go to shop and thus, it is not surprising that a great segment of this demographic might feel betrayed by John Mackey's stance.

Considering that Wholes Foods has long promoted and distinguished itself as a grocery chain with a social conscience, I respect Mr. Mackey for taking a position so publicly. He co-founded Wholes Foods on his principles and convictions and look at how much they have grown since the first store opened in 1980. With 276 locations and approximately $7.9 billion USD in revenue in 2008, John Mackey is putting his money where his mouth is...and even his critics can't argue with some of his logic, as illustrated in the essay:

'Unfortunately many of our health-care problems are self-inflicted: two-thirds of Americans are now overweight and one-third are obese. Most of the diseases that kill us and account for about 70% of all health-care spending—heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and obesity—are mostly preventable through proper diet, exercise, not smoking, minimal alcohol consumption and other healthy lifestyle choices'.

As a dear friend of mine living in NY (a person without any health insurance, mind you) tells me, why should they have to pay for the careless choices of other people when they themselves have consciously made lifestyle choices to minimize the need for health care. Of course, eating well and exercising and not smoking or drinking all contribute to your wellbeing but these lifestyle choices cannot account for those who require medical attention, whether it's short-term or long-term, due to accidents, assault or impairing conditions due to genetics. Without more comprehensive universal health care, individuals or households that, for whatever reason, do not have health insurance will be left behind in a two-tier system. What it boils down to is how comfortable a society is with the concept of 'survival of the fittest', or, in this case, 'survival of the richest'.

Which brings us back to Mr. Mackey. Will Whole Foods survive through this controversy? Without a doubt. The question is will its core of socially-conscious and principled customers be able to feel as good about themselves when they fork over $9 for buffalo mozzarella when they know that the man at the top of this 'food chain' doesn't want his tax dollars to go towards providing health care for those who need it the most?

Read John Mackey's WSJ op-ed piece for yourselves.

No comments:

Post a Comment