Almost 3 weeks ago Whole Foods CEO John Mackey wrote an editorial for the Wall Street Journal that was very critical of "ObamaCare." The libertarian leaning Mackey opened with a misquoted Margret Thatcher quote: "The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money," and the backlash from his progressive customer base was swift. They quickly called for a boycott of Whole Foods Markets and many jumped on board. There's a Whole Foods Boycott Facebook group that has swelled to over 30,000 members and some trade unions have even jumped on board.
On Friday Michael Pollan weighed in, urging people not to boycott whole foods. He explained that Mackey may be wrong on health care but he's right on food:
"John Mackey’s views on health care, much as I disagree with them, will not prevent me from shopping at Whole Foods... Whole Foods is not perfect, however if they were to disappear, the cause of improving Americans’ health by building an alternative food system, based on more fresh food, pastured and humanely raised meats and sustainable agriculture, would suffer... So Mackey is wrong on health care, but Whole Foods is often right about food, and their support for the farmers matters more to me than the political views of their founder. I haven’t examined the political views of all the retailers who feed me, but I can imagine having a lot of eating problems if I make them a litmus test."
I agree with Pollan, but think the reasons to boycott this boycott go beyond the merits of Whole Foods' commitment to sustainable agriculture. Personally, I disagree with Mackey and I am all for voting at the checkout but we should know what's on the ballot. As consumers we can influence a retailers operations but should we take it further? Should we be using our purchasing power to stifle a member of a business' right to exercise free speech? Isn't that what this boycott boils down to? What does this boycott aim to accomplish? Change Mackey's opinion, silence him?
Whole Foods Market, Inc. is a publicly traded company that employs a lot of people with a variety of political and religious views. Boycotting them because the company engages in some abhorrent activity is understandable but boycotting them because an employee publicly expresses a different political view than you is silly and irresponsible.
My friend Sara works at a Whole Foods in Boston and in the past few weeks she's told me about several people that have come into the store and literally yelled at her, reprimanding her for Mackey's political views. Like all of the employees of Whole Foods she has her own personal beliefs that are independent of the companies CEO. Because he is the founder and active face of the company, I think people have a tough time separating Mackey from the larger entity that is Whole Foods, but utlimately Whole Foods is more than John Mackey. Whole Foods is my friend Sara, it's the 50,000 other people that work there, it's the army of local organic farmers that stock the shelves, it's the customer base that cares about what they eat and where it comes from... these are the people that will be affected by the boycott, not Mackey's political opinion.
So, power to the people, but before you boycott: know who you are affecting & have a clear focus on what you are actually trying to accomplish.