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Whole Foods CEO Makes Case for Capitalism

By Amanda Morad | February 26, 2013

John Mackey, President & CEO of Whole Foods Market
Photo by Alex Perry

"Capitalism is the greatest economic system in the world, but we're in danger of losing it," said John Mackey, co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market. Mackey addressed a full house of 560 at Regent University's Executive Leadership Series luncheon on Tuesday, Feb. 26. Held each month, ELS brings together businessmen and women in Hampton Roads to hear from business and leadership experts.

"We can probably eliminate abject poverty in the next 50 years if we continue to promote principles of economic freedom," Mackey explained. Unfortunately, "capitalism is often blamed for the world's problems when it in fact holds many of the solutions."

In light of this realization, Mackey co-authored the new book, Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business, which presents fundamental principles to help businesses prosper financially while generating value and promoting integrity, compassion and global responsibility.

Mackey's case for capitalism is rooted in historical evidence. "Humanity has been dirt poor for most of its history," he said, citing statistics that show a 1000 percent income increase per capita since the Industrial Revolution. When the Declaration of Independence was signed, 85 percent of the world lived on less than $1 a day. That number today, with an equivalent $1, is 16 percent.

"Business people are the heroes of humanity's story, not the villains," Mackey argued. He said that the current approval rating for big business in the United States is just 19 percent, "yet business is transforming our lives and allowing humans to flourish more than they've ever flourished before."

This flourishing, however, is directly proportionate to the level of economic freedom a society has, Mackey said. Once the reigning nation on the Economic Freedom Index, the United States fell to No. 3 around the year 2000 and has since taken a plummet to No. 18. "As economic freedom declines in this nation, so does our prosperity, because the two are completely intertwined," he explained.

Though business is often portrayed in the media and intellectual arenas as selfish, greedy and exploitative, "business people create value for the people who trade with them," Mackey said. These traders include customers, employees, suppliers and investors.

Most business people agree with Mackey's statement, but according to him, businesses do not effectively defend the principles of capitalism. Many excuse greed and exploitation as a trade-off for the good business brings to society.

But Mackey argued the need for a new defense: "We have to create a fundamental argument for capitalism that is ethical—one that relies on what is good and true and beautiful." Drawing principles from his book, he outlined what that argument might look like.

"The first tenet of conscious capitalism is higher purpose," he explained. "Every business has to make money, but that doesn't mean that's its purpose. ... If we're going to improve capitalism's approval rating, it's going to start with businesses articulating their purpose."

Second, Mackey suggested, "conscious businesses must create value for every stakeholder." This is a principle he's walked out as Whole Foods' leader: the company sits at No. 32 on Fortune's list of 100 best places to work.

"Business is not a zero-sum game," Mackey explained. "Everyone can win. In fact, if they're not, you're not conducting business intelligently."

The third tenet of conscious capitalism is leadership. "Conscious leadership has to result from the right motivation," Mackey said. "We need leaders who are servants; who have higher emotional, spiritual and system intelligence."

These leaders create a culture of love, care and compassion in their organizations in order to promote human flourishing, he explained. These organizations are T.A.C.T.I.L.E., promoting Trust, Authenticity, Caring, Transparency, Integrity, Learning, and Egalitarianism.

"If we can create these kinds of organizations, we can transform the world in the 21st century," Mackey claimed. "We can create a paradise of wealth through business, and that is part of the human destiny."

Mackey closed by encouraging the audience to look to the younger generation. "I have great hope for our future in America because I have hope in the young," he said. "They are finally starting to realize that you can do good and do well."

Learn more about ELS and register for the next luncheon, the South Hampton Roads Mayor's Forum, to be held Monday, March 18, 2013.


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