Whole Foods: The gold standard for a conscious company

I have been a Whole Foods fan for years, and as a foodie and believer in quality food and products, I love the brand and will go out of my way to shop there.
Not only is Whole Foods Market an incredible place to shop, but it’s also an incredible example of a very successful business that is committed to a higher purpose. After doing some more digging, I wanted to share how the company’s philosophy has inspired me to think differently, and give you more insight into this visionary philosophy called “Conscious Capitalism”. For those that don’t know about Whole Foods, it is a chain of grocery stores, with an organic and natural food focus, that started in Austin and has grown into a huge success story. Next month it celebrates 30 years with almost 300 stores across North America as well as a few locations in the U.K.

I was recently encouraged to read an essay by John Mackey, co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods, that explains how he approaches this. Mackey discusses the branding problem that corporations have, with the stigma of being money-focused, greedy and selfish. He explains it doesn’t have to be this way. He talks about an eco-system where all stakeholders benefit and thrive (customers, employees, suppliers, partners, investors, and the larger community). This is about creating the type of environment where negative or environmental impact is minimized and there is a higher purpose. He explains that the best way to maximize profits over the long term is not to make them a primary goal of the business. He believes that management’s role is to optimize the health and value of the entire system.

One of the things that struck me about this is that we are all looking for a purpose to our lives, whether we admit it or not. What Mackey hits on is what can happen if a team can align around the values and purpose of a business. Powerful things will happen and employees will have a greater commitment to the business.

So let’s take a look at Whole Foods core values:
• Selling the highest quality natural and organic product available
• Satisfying and delighting customers
• Supporting team member happiness and excellence
• Creating wealth through profits and growth
• Caring about our communities and environment
• Creating ongoing win-win partnerships with our suppliers
• Promoting the health of our stakeholders through healthy eating education

As I dug further into the essay some things struck me about this bigger picture way of thinking:
• 5% of after tax profits are donated to non-profit organizations (mainly in local communities where the stores are located)
• Whole Planet Foundation helps small businesses in developing countries by providing micro loans
• The environment is a silent stakeholder and Whole Foods has led the way, in many respects due to the size and volume of meat products sold. They are at the forefront of supporting organic and sustainable agriculture (selling grass fed beef (thank you!!) and sustainably harvested seafood.
• Another welcome bi-product of supporting organic food is that it creates healthy soil and preserves the integrity of meat and dairy by prohibiting the use of antibiotics and artificial hormones. This provides consumers with an alternative to the dreadful “factory farming”.
• Whole Foods have created animal compassion standards, refusing to sell Blue Fin tuna, live lobsters, foie gras or veal from tethered calves. (THANK YOU!)
• Whole Foods are committed to reducing energy needs and use solar energy. They have created “Green Teams” that are empowered to find ways to reduce the company’s environmental impact.

So it is possible for a business to have the goals of a non-profit and create a system that benefits so much more than just investors. This proves that having a deeper, more transcendent purpose is highly energizing for all stakeholders. Last week they just announced $2.2 billion in sales for their third quarter 2010, an increase of 15%.

Are you inspired yet? There are a lot of things we all can do, whether you are a business owner or CEO, employee or consultant, to help businesses reach their full growth potential, while also helping communities and the planet. The bigger picture and a deeper purpose is something all companies should consider if they want long-term success.

You may be interested to read:
Conscious Capitalism: Creating a New Paradigm for Business, by John Mackey
http://www.flowidealism.org/2007/Downloads/Conscious-Capitalism_JM.pdf
Firms of Endearment: The Pursuit of Purpose and Profit, David Wolfe, Rajendra Sisodia and Jagdish Sheth
Whole Foods Market: http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/company/corevalues.php

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