Whole Foods Market: Serving a Higher Purpose


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In conducting my research, I found several definitions of utilitarianism. For this paper, I will use the following definition: “utilitarianism states we ought to make the world as good as we can by making the lives of people as good as we can” (Bykvist, 1). Given this broad definition, we must define what is “good.” If the results of one’s actions create more benefits than alternative actions would, he or she is making the world and the lives of people good. Utilitarianism weighs the outcomes of each possible action in any given situation and it holds the view that “the goal of both personal ethics and public policy is to bring about a preponderance of benefit over harm to all who are affected by human actions” (Darity, 2008). Throughout my paper I will use a utilitarian lens to look at Whole Foods Markets (Whole Foods). More specifically I will examine: how does organic food agriculture and consumption create good in the world and in the lives of people? If organic food is determined to be utilitarian through my findings, in addition to selling natural and organic food, how does Whole Foods work to make the world as good as it can by making the lives of people as good as it can?

Whole Foods is the world’s largest retailer of natural and organic foods. It follows a business model that the CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey, describes as “conscious capitalism”: a business model “that more consciously works for the common good instead of depending solely on the ‘invisible hand’ to generate positive results for society” (Koehn, Miller, 21). Whole Foods is a product of the counterculture movement in the 1960s. During the 1960s and 1970s, “for a growing group of people concerned about the environmental effects of industrialization, organic agriculture held enormous appeal” (Koehn, Miller, 6). This trend continues today: world organic food sales double from 2002 to 2008, increasing from $23 billion to $52 billion (Welsh, 2013). Mackey “believed that the initiatives of new organics entrepreneurs, many supported by Whole Foods, in tandem with the rise in consumer consciousness would lead to an ethical revolution in the agricultural industry” (Koehn, Miller, 20).

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In addition to its strong commitment to creating an ethical revolution by promoting and distributing natural and organic food, Whole Foods is focused on making both the lives of people and world as a whole better off, as demonstrated by its seven core values. These core values include: (1) Selling the highest-quality natural and organic products available, (2) satisfying and delighting customers; (3) supporting team member happiness and excellence; (4) creating wealth through profits and growth; (5) caring about communities and the environment; (6) creating ongoing win-win partnerships with its suppliers, and (7) promoting health of its stakeholders through healthy eating education (Mackey, Sisodia 43). Although each of Whole Foods’ core values exemplify Whole Foods’ commitment to conscious capitalism and to creating good, I will focus on two of Whole Foods’ core values in this paper: the quality of the products Whole Foods sells and Whole Foods’ impact on communities and the environment. Using a utilitarian lens, I will examine Whole Foods’ business model and the role that organic food plays in this model. fAlthough a customer may go to Whole Foods to be more environmentally friendly or for the customer experience, the primary reason a customer goes to Whole Foods is to buy food. Thus, the foundation of Whole Foods’ business is its supply of high quality natural and organic products. However, Whole Foods is committed to selling more than just food: it is devoted to educating its customers on what they are consuming and the implications behind what they are eating. Consider the company’s purpose, as stated by Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods: “We are not so much retailers with a mission as missionaries who retail. The stores are our canvas upon which we paint our deeper purpose of bringing whole foods and greater health to the world” (Mackey, Sisodia, 43). Underpinning this purpose described by Rubb is organic food production.

Organic farming used to be commonplace before chemical fertilizers were introduced. As a result of chemical and mechanical advances, food production became industrialized in the 19th century and “economies of scale allowed large, specialized commercial farms to dominate many areas of American agriculture” (Koehn, Miller, 4). The organic movement is an effort to return to high quality food production and to create more good than conventional farming (“factory farming” or industrialized farming). In contrast to conventional farming, organic food agriculture creates good by promoting “environmentally, socially, and economically sound production[s] of food…working with the natural properties of plants, animals, and the landscape, organic farmers aim to optimize quality in all aspects of agriculture and the environment” (Singer, Mason, 199). Essentially, organic food agriculture is a battle against the industrialized farming that is polluting our bodies and environment with chemicals: “organic farming, by definition, does not use environmentally harmful chemicals that may contaminate rain and groundwater” (“Organic Food FAQs,” 2013).

Mainstream factory farming poses major threats to the environment. Consider Tyson Foods, for instance. There is a Tyson Foods plant in Missouri where about a million chickens are processed each week and hundreds of thousands of tons of wastewater are discharged every day (Singer, Mason 32). Tyson acknowledged that it knew about the discharges and agreed to pay a $7.5 million fine: “Tyson produces chicken cheaply because it passes many costs on to others. Some is paid by those who have to buy bottled water because their drinking water is polluted. Some is paid by people who want to enjoy a natural environment” (Singer, Mason 32). Though conventional farming enables consumers to purchase cheaper food, conventional farming’s mission to produce the cheapest food creates many issues and the externalities it creates tend to outweigh the benefits. In looking at this from a utilitarian perspective, conventional farming is not the best solution to farming because it creates more costs than alternative ways of farming do, such as organic farming.

The purpose of organic farming is to create a healthier alternative to this industrialized farming, to better people’s health and the environment by not using toxic chemicals. Due to the fact that organic farming is more environmentally sustainable and it provides a healthier alterative to industrialized farming, it betters off society and creates good. Though a study by the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2012 found that organic food is not more nutritional than inorganic food, the study proved that organics do have some safety advantages over conventional foods due to the lower levels of chemicals found in organic food. Another study conducted by a Consumers Union research team confirmed this report: in a study comparing the level of pesticide residue on organically grown and conventionally grown food, 73 percent of conventionally grown foods were found to have pesticide residue, compared with 23 percent of organically grown foods (Singer, Mason, 200).

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Beyond creating good by selling organic food, Whole Foods serves a higher purpose “to teach people that what they put in their bodies makes a difference, not only to their health and to that of the people who supply the food, but also to the health of the planet as a whole” (Mackey, Sisodia, 48). For example, “the environment benefits through Whole Foods promotion of organic foods and also from in-house practices like putting solar panels on the roofs of its stores to power its lighting and reduce greenhouse emissions” (Singer, Mason, 182). Additionally, Whole Foods is working to lessen the high environmental and human health impacts from heavy meat eating by educating customers and employees, improving the conditions of livestock animals, and developing sources of animal foods that have been raised in non-factory-farm conditions (Mackey, Sisodia, 144).

This commitment to a higher purpose stems from John Mackey’s belief in conscious capitalism and stakeholderism. He believes “a responsible business benefits not only its shareholders, but all its stakeholders, a term that includes customers, employees, suppliers, the local community, and the environment” (Singer, Mason, 182). Animals are even considered stakeholders. In addition to providing better quality food, Whole Foods aims to make the world as good as it can through its focus on its stakeholders. For example, in 1999 “Whole Foods discontinued the sale of Chilean sea bass because the stocks were being overfished” (Singer, Mason, 181). In this example, rather than continuing to sell an item that was profitable, Whole Foods remained committed to its stakeholders and its higher purpose. In contrast to this, conventional farming is consumed solely with turning a profit: “the real ethical issue about factory farming’s treatment of animals isn’t whether the producers are good or bad guys, but that the system seems to recognize animal suffering only when it interferes with profitability (Singer, Mason, 54).

As more people learn about the environmental and health impacts of organic farming, organic food sales will continue to rise (organic food sales doubled globally from 2002-2008 and future growth estimates range from 10-15% annually) (Welsh, 2013). As a result, some people fear that the scale of Whole Foods’ operations is a threat to the integrity of the organic food it sells. Will the rise of “the industrial organic farm” jeopardize the integrity of organic food? Possibly. However, the USDA regulations on organic food are very strict and there is no gray area: “when a grower or processor is ‘certified organic,’ a USDA accredited public or private organization has verified that the business meets or exceeds the standards set forth in the USDA Organic Rule” (“Organic Food FAQs,” 2013). According to Mackey, Whole Foods remains committed to selling natural and organic food of the utmost integrity. He believes that large corporations can be both “conscious” of their stakeholders and increase its profits. He stated in a January 2013 NPR interview, “a conscious business is one who understands, one, that it has a higher purpose besides just making money, and number two, it understands how these stakeholders are connected together in a larger business system” (NPR, 2013). This higher purpose is a key reason why Whole Foods is a utilitarian company.

Though the scale of Whole Foods’ operations could pose a threat to the integrity of the food it sells, the size of Whole Foods’ business could actually create an opportunity and help to pave a path towards a broader adaptation of organic agriculture. For example, “Whole Foods’ huge sales of organic bananas led Dole to convert significant amounts of its Central American farmland to organic production, while the demand for organic eggs and dairy products helped the Organic Valley cooperative take on new organic farmers” (Singer, Mason, 181). By maintaining its higher purpose, Whole Foods’ could have the ability to spread not only awareness of the organic food agriculture but also its core values and beliefs. As Mackey once asked, why is it supposed to be bad to put an ethically responsible business in the mainstream? (Singer, Mason, 183).

In addition to the potential threats of a larger, industrialized organic food industry, the high price of organic food is one of the most debated issues surrounding Whole Foods and other organic food suppliers. While many people may call Whole Foods “Whole Paycheck” and organic food does tend to be pricier than conventional food, many believe that the higher price is worth it. If you look at this using a utilitarian approach, organic farming is worth this higher cost because it creates long term benefits (good) for society. In comparison, the toxic chemicals used in conventional farming create long term environmental and health costs. For those who still aren’t convinced that these higher prices are justifiable, rest assured; with more players entering the game, increased competition in the organic food industry might drive down prices. According to the Whole Foods website, “larger retailers, like Whole Foods Market, are emerging with the capacity to buy and sell organic products at higher volumes, which leads to lower prices for organic food products” (“Organic Food FAQs,” 2013). In addition, according to Mackey, in 2007 “Americans spent only 8% of their disposable income on food, less than any other contemporary society and less than U.S. consumers had 30 or 40 years earlier. If American consumers bought only organic products, he claimed, they would spend about 15% of their incomes on food, about the same fraction as Europeans in 2007 did” (Koehn & Miller, 20). Maybe Americans will start to become more conscious consumers.

While it might be easy for a corporation to simply write their core values in their financial statements in order to impress their stakeholders or shareholders and then ignore them, Whole Foods walks, talks and breathes its core values. Whole Foods goes above and beyond its peers to demonstrate its commitment to its core values and remains devoted to a higher purpose of promoting the health and environmental implications of organic and natural food. In doing so, Whole Foods follows a utilitarian model: it promotes and distributes organic food, a type of food that creates more benefits to our environment and health than alternative actions (conventional food). While organic food might be more expensive than conventional food and still contains residues of chemicals, it is clear that organic farming is more utilitarian than factory farming. Organic food makes the world better rather than destroying our environment and creating health issues, both of which result from the use of chemical fertilizers used in the industrialized production of food. At the core of Whole Foods’ utilitarianism is Whole Foods’ focus on being a conscious business. Rather than focusing on making a profit like mainstream food corporations, Whole Foods serves its stakeholders in order to make the world as good as it can by making the lives of people as good as it can through promoting and distributing healthier, more environmentally sustainable food.

References (Work Cited and Used in Preliminary Research)

Andre, Claire, and Manuel Velasquez. “Utilitarian Ethics.” Utilitarian Ethics. Web. 18 Nov. 2013. <http://www.scu.edu/ethics/publications/iie/v2n1/calculating.html&gt;.

Denning, S. (2013). Ten drivers of radical management in the “creative economy”. Strategy & Leadership, 41(6), 18-30. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/SL-08-2013-0065

Koehn, Nancy F., and Katherine Miller. “John Mackey and Whole Foods Market.” Harvard Business School (2007).

Mackey, John, Sisodia, Rajendra. Conscious Capitalism : Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business Review Press, 2013.

Singer, Peter, and Jim Mason. The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. [Emmaus, Pa.]: Rodale, 2006. Print.

“Utilitarianism.” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Ed. William Darity, Jr. Vol. 8. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2008. 552-554. Global Issues In Context. Gale. Bucknell University. 19 Nov. 2013 <http://find.galegroup.com/gic/start.do?prodId=GIC&gt;.

Watson, Stephanie. “Organic Food No More Nutritious than Conventionally Grown Food.” Harvard Health Blog RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2013. <http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/organic-food-no-more-nutritious-than-conventionally-grown-food-201209055264&gt;.

Welsh, Jennifer. “Is Organic Food All It’s Cracked Up To Be?” Business Insider. N.p., 13 May 2013. Web. 19 Nov. 2013. <http://www.businessinsider.com/which-is-better-organic-or-traditional-food-2013-5&gt;.

“Whole Foods Founder John Mackey On Fascism And ‘Conscious Capitalism'” Interview by Steve Inskeep. NPR. N.p., 16 Jan. 2013. Web. 16 Nov. 2013. <http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=169413848&gt;.

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