Whole Foods: Whole Food, Whole People, Whole Planet


Is it possible to succeed in industry without sacrificing your morals or cutting corners? In all facets of industry today, there are controversial business practices that are often linked to a company’s quest for monetary or competitive success. Some examples include Enron’s deceptive financial reports or companies like Nike and Reebok outsourcing manufacturing to pay a fraction of the price. These practices are often corrupt and immoral, but appear to be accepted in order to get ahead of the competition

Fortunately, there are some “good” companies built with strong morals that actually care more about their products, customers and employees than their profit margins. Today, these companies seem to be few and far between, but they are proof that it is possible to be successful while maintaining a clear conscience.

Whole Foods Market is one example of a “good” company, who has transformed its industry with ethically sound business practices. Current CEO John Mackey founded the natural and organic supermarket in Austin Texas in 1980. The organic market was originally staffed by 19 and today employs more than 73,000 “team members” in more than 340 stores throughout the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada.[1]

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Along the way, Whole Foods has climbed to number 264 on the Fortune top 500 companies and has been voted as one of the best 100 companies to work for, 15 consecutive years since the list’s inception.[2] Since 1980, Whole Foods has been the ideal company, never sacrificing quality or cutting corners.

In order to understand how a small organic store can transform into an elite brand, it is necessary to understand the pillars upon which Whole Foods was built: Whole Food, Whole People, Whole Planet.[3] Founder and Co-CEO John Mackey once said, “There’s no inherent reason why business cannot be ethical, socially responsible and profitable.”[4] Whole Foods business plan is extremely consumer and employee friendly. This is noticeable in Whole Foods diktat that reads, “We sell the highest quality natural and organic products available. We satisfy and delight our customers.”[5] Whole Foods offers more than organic products; it offers an experience that very few companies can offer.

This experience does not come without a price; the company is often made fun of with sayings like “Whole Food, Whole Paycheck” or “wholesome, healthy for the wholesome and wealthy.”[6] Nevertheless, Whole Foods sticks to its standards, only offering the best quality food available, even if it comes at a higher cost for the consumer. Since its inception, Whole Foods has expanded the organic customer base enormously. But, the company recognizes that its high quality products are not for everyone. The store location for Whole Foods is selective, typically operating stores in towns and cities with a large number of “college educated inhabitants.”[7] Typically, these people are part of the middle class, and tend to be more concerned with what type of food they consume, how it was grown and collected. Whole Foods makes a great effort to offer sustainable products. They pride themselves in offering the most natural products gathered from the most natural farming practices. Farms have to pass rigorous tests before their products are ever seen on Whole Foods shelves.

Another aspect of the Whole Foods experience is customer education. Whole Foods informs customers where their meat and produce come from and how it is raised and collected. Walking through Whole Foods, customers find signs describing the farm where the products come from and the practices and techniques used to raise or harvest the products. Other supermarkets might not know where the meat they are selling comes from. Whole Foods proudly displays this information. “Whole Foods introduced a new system of meat labeling developed with the Compassion in World Farming organization. The program subdivides meat products into five categories according to the treatment the animal received during rearing.”[8]

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Whole Foods goes to an extra effort to ensure their products are coming from the most natural source and wants you to know it. They overeducate their consumers on their products, justifying the high prices. Supermarket consultant David Livingston says, “Whole Foods has a talent for making people feel good about spending money.”[9]

Whole Foods institutes a number of unique services to cater to the customer. Whole Foods understands that today’s typical consumer does not have unlimited time. They offer typical programs like home delivery, hot or pre-assembled meals for people looking to eat healthy but are limited on time.[10] However, Whole Foods offers other services to improve customers shopping experiences.

Customers have the option to have a Whole Foods employee gather their shopping list while they wait in a massage area of the store.[11] There are training classes to teach customers how to use the food they purchase. Whole Foods has singles nights, wine tastings, catering and cooking schools that encourage healthy living.[12] These are just some of the intangible advantages that Whole Foods offers its customers.  Whole Foods tries to make shopping less of a duty and instead more fun and interactive.[13]

These services are only possible by the Whole Foods employees who provide the service. Whole Foods doesn’t limit its perks to its customers; they have protocols to ensure that their employees or “team members” are satisfied as well. “All Whole Foods stores strive to be “happy” stores; the backbone of the company is its highly enforced culture of empowerment, everyone’s opinion counts.” “Hiring’s and firings are decided from the bottom up, and rule breaking is encouraged if excellence can result.”[14] Whole Foods practices “no-secrets management” where employees have the ability to see what their colleagues are earning. Whole Foods workers earn a “solid living wage, the lowest earners average $13.15 an hour and receive benefits and health care.”[15] Additionally, CEO John Mackey “set up a fund to help employees cope with emergencies connected with health, family and personal problems.” Executive compensation is also capped so that no executive makes more than 14 times the employee average.[16] The perks and benefits that team members receive have resulted in Whole Foods placing 32nd in Fortunes Top 100 Companies to Work For in 2012.[17]

Whole Foods continues to operate as a person rather than machine. Co-President Walter Robb reflects this notion as he encourages people to think of a Whole Foods store as a “she, like a yacht or a sports car, not a he.” It makes the store and company softer, more rounded, more curved and more welcoming.”[18]

Whole Foods only sells natural organic sustainable food, they offer their customers with luxury services to make their shopping experience not just easy but enjoyable, and they treat their employees with respect and pay solid living wages. The company and its business practices are very attentive to all facets their business effects.

In no way does this imply that Whole Foods is perfect.  In fact, Whole Foods has recently been scrutinized for some of its business practices. Whole Foods prides itself on using small local organic farms because support for small business and local farms means less transportation cost and pollution. Others disagree, saying, “Almost all the organic food in this country comes out of California. And five or six big farms dominate the whole (organic) industry.”[19] Is the information that Whole Foods delivers to its customers false on this point?

Perhaps the most publicized critique of Whole Foods was in 2006 when   Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan criticized Whole Foods for moving from small local farms to these big industrial farms in his agriculture expose The Omnivore’s Dilemma.[20]  Pollan argues that buying from big organic farms is detrimental to the local sustainable food movement. Pollan blasts Whole Foods for misleading customers by falsely claiming that all their food comes from local farmers. The advertising seems to suggest that these “local farms” are small family owned farms and that buying from Whole Foods supports them. However, Pollan claims that these farms make up only a small percentage of Whole Foods inventory.

CEO John Mackey addressed the criticism by writing a letter to Pollan. In the letter, Mackey applauded “Pollan’s efforts to educate the public but expressed disappointment that Pollan didn’t seriously research Whole Foods practices before publishing his book.”[21] Pollan and Mackey exchanged several letters that were eventually published, discussing Whole Food’s role in the organic food industry. The debate culminated in 2007 when the two met at an open forum in front of a public audience. As a result of the letters, Mackey introduced five new corporate wide initiatives to enhance Whole Foods support of the environment and local agriculture community.[22] The initiatives included setting aside a $10 million annual budget to promote local agriculture, stricter standards on animal rearing practices, and a greater focus on communicating and educating customer’s about locally produced products.[23] This is evidence that Whole Foods is dedicated towards supporting and improving the world and responding constructively to valid criticism.

Many CEO’s would not respond to criticism as Mackey did. Mackey’s ability to listen to criticism and implement changes to improve his company is impressive. But, it is not surprising considering the philosophies he built his company around. Mackey’s business model is closely aligned with philosopher Edward Freeman’s stakeholder theory. Mackey runs Whole Foods by considering all components of the company, from the customer, employee, and community, all the way down to the truck that delivers the products. Freeman said, that it is a company’s social responsibility to look at all the moving parts rather than solely profit. For Mackey, nothing is too small to be ignored.[24]

Freeman argued that there are four managerial problems in business.  The “problem of meaning” says that people want to have a sense of purpose, that their contributions are meaningful. Two, the “problem of careers,” if work does not generate meaning, there’s a separation between work and self, which leads to tension. Three, the “problem of change,“ that explains that people are hesitant to accept change or change their ways. Finally, the problem of leadership, which says that businesses require a leader and that proper leadership can solve the first three problems.[25]

Mackey’s leadership is fundamental to Whole Foods success and responsible for Mackey solving and or alleviating the problems of meaning, career and change. Whole Foods encourages its employees to feel empowered and gives everyone a voice in the company. This allows employees to have a sense of meaning and purpose, which eliminates the need for workers to separate their personal life with their professional life. Mackey’s leadership and ability to respond to criticism inspires his employees. The result is a well-run successful company that should be emulated.

Whole Foods has never sacrificed their morals during their climb to the top. When they were criticized, Whole Foods did not waver, they faced the problem head on and used the criticism as an opportunity to improve their company. Whole Foods ability to see the whole picture and pay attention to all aspects of their business, both internal and external, is responsible for their success.


[1] “Fast Facts – Whole Foods Market Newsroom.” Whole Foods Market. Whole Foods, n.d. Web. 22 Nov. 2012. <http://media.wholefoodsmarket.com/fast-facts/&gt;.

[2] IBID

[3] Fioroni, M . and Titterton, G. (2009) Brand Storming: managing brands in the era of complexity. Palgrave. 181.

[4] Maloney, Field. “The Dark Secrets of the Organic-food Movement.” Slate.com. Slate Magazine, 17 Mar. 2006. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2006/03/is_whole_foods_wholesome.html&gt;.

[5] Zimbalist/Austin, Kristina. “Whole Foods: Green Giant.” Time. Time, 20 Apr. 2006. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1185523-1,00.html&gt;.

[6] Maloney, Field. “The Dark Secrets of the Organic-food Movement.” Slate.com. Slate Magazine, 17 Mar. 2006. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2006/03/is_whole_foods_wholesome.html&gt;.

[7] Zimbalist/Austin, Kristina. “Whole Foods: Green Giant.” Time. Time, 20 Apr. 2006. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1185523-1,00.html&gt;.

[8] Fioroni, M . and Titterton, G. (2009) Brand Storming: managing brands in the era of complexity. Palgrave. 186.

[9] “Focus on Environment, Health Pays off for Whole Foods Market.” Tampabay.com. Ed. Susan Thurston. Tampa Bay Times, 2 Nov. 2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <http://www.tampabay.com/news/business/retail/focus-on-environment-health-pays-off-for-whole-foods-market/1259536&gt;.

[10]  Fioroni, M . and Titterton, G. (2009) Brand Storming: managing brands in the era of complexity. Palgrave. 185.

[11] IBID

[12] Zimbalist/Austin, Kristina. “Whole Foods: Green Giant.” Time. Time, 20 Apr. 2006. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1185523-1,00.html&gt;.

[13] Fioroni, M . and Titterton, G. (2009) Brand Storming: managing brands in the era of complexity. Palgrave. 185.

[14] Zimbalist/Austin, Kristina. “Whole Foods: Green Giant.” Time. Time, 20 Apr. 2006. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1185523-1,00.html&gt;.

[15] Maloney, Field. “The Dark Secrets of the Organic-food Movement.” Slate.com. Slate Magazine, 17 Mar. 2006. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2006/03/is_whole_foods_wholesome.html&gt;.

[16]  Fioroni, M . and Titterton, G. (2009) Brand Storming: managing brands in the era of complexity. Palgrave. 188.

[17] “100 Best Companies to Work For 2012: Full List.” CNNMoney. Cable News Network, 6 Feb. 2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/best-companies/2012/full_list/&gt;.

[18] Zimbalist/Austin, Kristina. “Whole Foods: Green Giant.” Time. Time, 20 Apr. 2006. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1185523-1,00.html&gt;.

[19] Maloney, Field. “The Dark Secrets of the Organic-food Movement.” Slate.com. Slate Magazine, 17 Mar. 2006. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2006/03/is_whole_foods_wholesome.html&gt;.

[20] Pollan, Michael. “My Letter to Whole Foods.” Michael Pollan. N.p., 14 June 2006. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <http://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/my-letter-to-whole-foods/&gt;.

[21] “Omnivore’s Dilemma Author Michael PollanvsWhole Foods CEO John Mackey.” Om Organics Features. Om Organics, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <http://www.omorganics.org/page.php?pageid=217&gt;.

[22] “Omnivore’s Dilemma Author Michael PollanvsWhole Foods CEO John Mackey.” Om Organics Features. Om Organics, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <http://www.omorganics.org/page.php?pageid=217&gt;.

[23] Roberts, David. “New Initiatives From Whole Foods.” New Initiatives From Whole Foods. Grist, 30 June 2006. Web. 22 Nov. 2012. <http://grist.org/article/new-initiatives-from-whole-foods/&gt;.

[24] Business Ethics Quarterly , Vol. 10, No. 1, Globalization and the Ethics of Business (Jan., 2000), pp. 169-180

[25] Business Ethics Quarterly , Vol. 10, No. 1, Globalization and the Ethics of Business (Jan., 2000), pp. 169-180

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