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Did John Mackey Create a CSR Nightmare for Whole Foods?

Did Whole Foods CEO John Mackey cause a brand reputation, CSR nightmare for the company with his Wall Street Journal op-ed against healthcare reform?

In my work in Corporate Social Responsibility and sustainable business, Whole Foods has always been a company to benchmark against.  They were one of the first major retailers to offset 100% of their energy use with wind energy credits; voluntarily stop using plastic bags company-wide; join the Non-GMO Project’s Product Verification Program; and develop a certification program, the Whole Trade Guarantee, in partnership with non-profits.  Plus, the company has received a plethora of sustainability and environmental awards and recognition.  So I was just wondering…with a track record like that, can a renegade CEO damage the company’s brand reputation as a socially responsible company?  Well, John Mackey, co-founder and chief executive of Whole Foods, is sure giving it the old college try.

In the past, it was discovered that Mackey was bashing Wild Oats Markets; praising Whole Foods; and even defending his haircut under the name “Rahodeb” online in Yahoo Finance stock forums.  According to the company, Mackey had been trolling online forums for at least eight years.  Yikes!  Where’s the transparency?  Fortunately, this was only a minor blemish on the Whole Foods brand.

But Mackey’s latest op-ed in the Wall Street Journal criticizing current health care reform proposals, has me scratching my head and wondering, “Could the CEO be that out of touch with his consumer base?”  Come on…we all know the folks strolling up and down the Whole Foods grocery aisles are more liberal then not and most likely support Obama’s health care reform strategy.  What was Mackey thinking!?  And who in the Whole Foods communications/public affairs department thought this was a good idea?  Unless – they didn’t know about it, which is even more disturbing.

Hey, I’m a John Mackey fan.  I believe he is a revolutionary in ethical business, and perhaps with that title “revolutionary” comes rebel.  I get it.  I understand he wants to express his opinion on the matter, but whether Mackey likes it or not, he is the face of Whole Foods.  It may not always be fair, but it is the reality.  And even though it is Mackey’s own personal views he wrote about, the public doesn’t differentiate between the CEO and the company.  Plus, it’s a little hard to believe that the op-ed is all Mackey when the title is “The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare”.

Consumers are angry and expressing their disagreement with Mackey the only way they know how by boycotting his company.  The Boycott Whole Foods campaign even has their own group on Facebook with almost 30,000 members, and organized protests are taking place around the country.  I’ve been on the company-end of a consumer campaign, and it is not fun.  I’m sure the Whole Foods communications/public affairs folks are working over time.  My advice to them is to engage in the dialogue with their customers and be as honest and transparent as possible.  Will the Whole Foods brand re-gain its socially responsible stature?  Only time will tell.

What do you think?  Did John Mackey’s op-ed affect your opinion of Whole Foods?

Photo by JOE M500 at Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Written by Cindy Hoots

With more than 10 years experience working for a major Fortune 500 company, Cindy specializes in socially and environmentally responsible business strategies. She has developed successful corporate communications and stakeholder engagement strategies on contentious sustainability issues and has worked with a number of NGOs and activist organizations on how to effectively partner with multinational companies. Cindy frequently writes about topics ranging from what is corporate social responsibility to sustainable supply chain and measuring a company's environmental impact. She believes business plays a vital role in the health of our communities and our planet.

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