Whole Foods keeps alive the hip style and story of its countercultural beginnings as a 1970s natural foods store from Austin, Texas. To walk through its carefully crafted “user experience” is to be impressed by the authenticity of its products, exceptionally organic and brought to you by farmers with names and faces. For almost twenty years, the company has told customers, investors, and employees that it “believe[s] in a virtuous circle entwining the food chain, human beings and Mother Earth.” But the profit-driven ethic that has enabled it to operate more than 450 stores globally and eventually to be acquired by Amazon for $13.7 billion relied on less-than-virtuous business practices, many of which are now common knowledge: low employee wages and bad working conditions, antiunion campaigns, and supply chains that are often questionably organic or fair trade. “There’s no inherent reason why business cannot be ethical, socially responsible, and profitable,” Whole Foods founder John Mackey has repeated for decades. Sure, there’s no reason. It’s just too bad that Whole Foods isn’t.
Is Whole Foods a kind of morality tale, a story of what happens when a company that started with good intentions gets too big too fast? The moral, it seems, is that entrepreneurs should be wary lest pursuing success causes them to abandon their values. But the story of Whole Foods offers other lessons. John Mackey’s libertarianism never made him much of a candidate for reforming corporate capitalism anyway. He did not share the convictions of his erstwhile fellow food activists, who believed that conventional, chemical-laden agriculture was of one piece with, for example, the war in Vietnam and the structures of economic inequality. Mackey’s relentless pursuit of business growth shows instead how easily products with countercultural origins can be separated from the politics of democratic workplaces or socially responsible corporate governance.
We now know a lot more about both the history of Whole Foods and the particular cultural and political context in which the company started, thanks to Joshua Clark Davis’s thoroughly researched and well-told book. In From Head Shops to Whole Foods, Davis recounts the history of what he calls “activist entrepreneurs” and their experiments with a different kind of business, one marked by alternative products, collective decision-making, and cooperative ownership.