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John Mackey, founder and co-chief executive officer of Whole Food Markets, says that capitalism must have a sound ethical foundation based on Judeo-Christian values.
Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman
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BY DAN ZEHR
AUSTIN, Texas--John Mackey defies most labels, but "unabashed capitalist" is one of the few that sticks.
In "Conscious Capitalism," Mackey's first book, the founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods Markets Inc. offers nothing less than a full-throated psalm for the power of free markets to create value and lift humanity.
Yet at its core, and true to Mackey's ability to avoid those hard-and-fast labels, the book also delivers a pointed critique on how capitalism can lead business astray if its practice isn't grounded in a sound ethical foundation.
"If everybody is always calculating what's to their advantage, and no one comes with generosity, or kindness, or compassion, or forgiveness--higher virtues--your society starts to break down," Mackey said in an interview at his company's Austin headquarters. "I actually think that's what's happening in America right now."
For much of American industrial history, Mackey said, free-market capitalism was underpinned by a sense of Judeo-Christian values. A sense of empathy and care softened the cold, hard forces of self-interest.
But that ethical underpinning has eroded, Mackey said. And with that decline, the trust in both public and private institutions has evaporated.
Mackey and his co-author, Bentley University marketing professor Raj Sisodia, wrote "Conscious Capitalism" as a guidebook for rediscovering that higher purpose. As humanity has evolved, their argument goes, so also must business evolve to integrate the needs of all the stakeholders.
Conscious business leaders don't think in terms of win and lose, they write, but in creative terms that "deliver multiple kinds of value simultaneously." While it's a marked change from how many business leaders think today, Mackey admitted, it has become second nature as a guiding principle at Whole Foods.
"I can do this very quickly," he said. "I quickly run through every one of the major stakeholders and say, 'Is this creating more value for them? Is somebody losing here?' And if somebody is losing, then really we haven't been creative enough, and probably it's not a good decision."
Once, underpinned by an ethics of compassion and care, capitalism created more value for humanity than any other political or economic framework in history, he said. As business rediscovers a higher sense of purpose--one that seeks to create value for employees, suppliers, investors and customers alike --it can create value for all stakeholders, Mackey said.
"In a way, our book is a criticism of capitalism," Mackey said. "It's basically saying, 'If it's not going to disappear, it's going to have to go higher. It's going to have to get to a higher level of consciousness, and the practitioners of it are going to need to be more conscious as well.' "