MENU

Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

Whole Foods’ John Mackey on Amazon Merger: ‘A Meeting of the Souls.’

Why the “conscious capitalist” thinks we are headed for "a consumer utopia."

"We're going to reinvent the supermarket business as we know it," says John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, about his company's recent, controversial merger with online retailer Amazon.

If that happens, it means that Mackey will have reinvented the supermarket business twice in his own lifetime, as no individual has done more to revolutionize how Americans shop for groceries than he has since co-founding Whole Foods in 1980. Gone are the days of dreary, heavily processed, and strictly limited choices when it came to bread, produce, meats, and service. If we demand variety, freshness, and a sense of morality when we go shopping for dinner these days, it's in large part due to the triumph of Mackey's explicitly libertarian re-imagining of the great American supermarket.

Reason's Nick Gillespie caught up with him at LibertyCon, the annual conference of Students for Liberty, and talked with him about Whole Foods' recent, controversial merger with the online retailer Amazon, his belief that young Americans are more "conscious" about life and morality than past generations were, and his take on Donald Trump's presidency so far. "I will say that there are some things President Trump has done that I like and some things that I don't," says Mackey, the co-author of the 2013 best-seller Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business and last year's The Whole Foods Diet: The Lifesaving Plan for Health and Longevity. "I'm not a huge optimist about government solving our problems."

(Disclosure: Both Mackey and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos are donors to Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes Reason.)

Photo Credit: LINDSEY WASSON/REUTERS/Newscom. Kris Tripplaar/Sipa USA/Newscom.

Music: Massive by Podington Bear is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International License.

Edited by Mark McDaniel. Intro by Todd Krainin.

Subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Like us on Facebook.

Follow us on Twitter.

Subscribe to our podcast at iTunes.

The interview has been edited for clarity. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy. For an audio version, subscribe to the Reason Podcast.

Nick Gillespie: Are you optimistic about young people in general, or is it that there's a certain percentage ... Because it seems when you listen to young people talk or the way that they vote, etc., there's a certain amount of libertarian [inaudible] there, which is like, "We like capitalism," or, "We like freedom because it allows us to express our purpose in peaceful ways." But then there is a really resurgent or insurgent group of young people on college campuses and elsewhere who are kind of in a Bernie Sanders camp. How do you think that plays out?

John Mackey: It's a good question. And I think there's two trends that are going on. I definitely think there's a... Young people are idealistic. You know, the old saying that, "If you're not a socialist when you're 21, you've got no heart, and if you're not a capitalist by the time you're 30, you have no brains." And I still think that plays out. Young people, they came of age, they look around, they take for granted the prosperity, they take for granted the ethical moral progress that humanity's made. They look around and they say, "By God, it's not perfect. There's still racism. There's still poverty. There's still inequality. The whole thing is unfair."

So, they are susceptible to the siren call of any type of utopian answer that promises to fix it and make things better. But because they're not very experienced and they don't know history very well and they don't understand how, "The bad get on top." It's like I said, that utopian impulse of perfectionism is usually the enemy of the good. Usually they grow out of that, so I'm not going to be too disturbed when I hear utopian young people because I was one, and I grew out of it. And you're probably one, and you're probably going to grow out of it someday.

Gillespie: I'll grow out of this mustache first, but ...

Mackey: No, in all seriousness. But I also think people are ... Young people ... When I compare myself at the same age, if I go back a long time ago, 40-plus years, in a lot of ways they're more conscious and more awake than my generation was at the same period of time. So, I think there's reason for optimism, but of course ... I've seen the polls, too, and 51% said they think socialism is better than capitalism. That is a very disturbing statistic. Although, I tend to be somewhat skeptical of pretty much anything I read in the news because there's so much hunger for sensationalism, and headlines, and click bait, and things like that. Plus, I get so many lies told about me, it's hard for me to believe anything I read.

Gillespie: This seems like a good point to talk about the merger with Amazon. So, Whole Foods has merged with Amazon. Are you excited about that? And should consumers be excited about it?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Brian||

    I think it's time to burn the internet down.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    You are a lackey, Mackey!

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Seriously, though, great interview. I don't get Mackey's veganism, but I am happy he has seen the light and became a libertarian. Nick, shave that horrendous moustache.

  • Duke of url||

    He's just a cous cous capitalist.

  • NoVaNick||

    I will say that there are some things President Trump has done that I like

    Boycott of Whole Foods coming in 3, 2, 1...

  • Sevo||

    Just about hit "submit" when I looked upthread and saw I was late..
    BTW, the boycott after he dumped on O-care was all talk and no action in SF.

  • NoVaNick||

    Yeah, if I had a dime for every "boycott such and such company, they are fascists" I would be richer than Bezos and Makey combined.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    the boycott after he dumped on O-care was all talk and no action in SF.

    Not surprising, I wouldn't expect SF limousine liberals to be able to handle shopping elbow to elbow with the unwashed masses at Kroger or Safeway instead of Whole Foods for more than a week or so.

  • NoVaNick||

    Give them time and the progs will decide that GMOs, food preservatives and pesticides are a good thing, just like they did with vaccines.

  • Eidde||

    Maybe they'll think of innovations like being cheap.

    Thrift is a virtue, isn't it?

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Thrift is a virtue, isn't it?

    Yeah, but not as virtuous as paying twice as much for organic shit in order to prove to everyone poorer than you how much better you are than them.

  • JoeBlow123||

    Whole Foods has got some good shit man. May be expensive but their food is better than what you can get at a local grocery store.

  • Mickey Rat||

    Not touching on Whole Foods recent revamp of their supply chain and the stocking proble ms it has caused?

  • Sevo||

    Locally, they seem to be giving more authority to the store managers; some stores have X and not others.
    And some of the hippy-dippy, local, organic, glutten-free, vegan 'meat-like' products have disappeared from our closest store.

  • Mark22||

    If we demand variety, freshness, and a sense of morality when we go shopping for dinner these days, it's in large part due to the triumph of Mackey's explicitly libertarian re-imagining of the great American supermarket.

    I didn't know that selling overpriced organic crap to gullible anti-science progressives was somehow associated with libertarianism.

  • Eidde||

    It's associated with libertarian *donors.*

  • Mark22||

    You need to put "libertarian" in quotes there.

  • ||

    I didn't know that selling overpriced organic crap to gullible anti-science progressives was somehow associated with libertarianism.

    Wouldn't selling any old thing to whomever is willing to pay the highest price you can get be fundamentally libertarian?

  • Eidde||

    Defending their rights (absent force or fraud) would be libertarian.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    I will defend their right to buy overpriced "organic, GMO free, carbon free, [insert additional buzzwords here]" shit that isn't actually demonstrably better than anything else regardless of how stupid I think they are for falling for BS pseudo science.

  • ||

    ^ This.

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    I would guess the carbon free groceries would be mostly in the salt and water sections of the food aisle.

  • Mark22||

    Wouldn't selling any old thing to whomever is willing to pay the highest price you can get be fundamentally libertarian?

    No, it's simply profit maximizing. Most businesses seek to maximize profits, even those run by progressives or governments. There is nothing specifically libertarian about profit maximization.

    So far, I have seen nothing that suggests that Mackey is a libertarian, rather than a typical businessman with progressive leanings. Even his skepticism of government doesn't make him libertarian because plenty of progressives and socialists are skeptical of big, intrusive government, they simply see it as the best available solution.

  • ||

    So - which would be more "libertarian" - agreeing to sell people things they want to buy from you, or telling them you're not going to sell them those things because you don't approve of their choices?

  • Emotional Opposition Animal||

    There's nothing unlibertarian about refusing to sell something to someone in a competitive market. Someone who wants to buy the things Mackey disapproves of can go to another store which will happily sell it to them.

  • wareagle||

    what does either choice have to do with being libertarian? The former is the typical business person. For that matter, so is the latter though I've never understood chasing customers away. The unlibertarian would be the latter on steroids - telling you that you can't have those things period.

  • Mark22||

    Neither is more or less libertarian than the other. Libertarianism is about rejecting government coercion, not about private choices.

  • Echospinner||

    I agree and the interview means nothing except for marketing.

    Whole Foods and Amazon. There is small profit margin in food.

    Perhaps Amazon bought up an upscale chain because they think they can turn around the business. Why food? Because food. Amazon wants to be the market for everything.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Wut.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    "a consumer utopia."

    Sounds a little Shadowrun to me.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Speaking of which...

  • Weigel's Cock Ring||

    Both Mackey and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos are donors to Reason Foundation

    No kidding!

  • Mark22||

    Well, that certainly explains Shikha.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    If we demand variety, freshness, and a sense of morality chance to virtue signal when we go shopping for dinner these days...

    FTFY.

  • JoeBlow123||

    "Whole Foods was being harassed by shareholder activists who were trying to take over our board, and they had anti-campaign against me in the media. And they were doing other things, which if I had more time, and off the record I'll someday tell you about ... But they were putting a lot of pressure on our company to go up for sale."

    Investment bankers... aka the devil. Dudes are such trash.

  • Mark22||

    They made Mackey a billionaire and bought a large part of the company, and now they actually want to tell him how he should run their business! How dare they!

  • JoeBlow123||

    This is not even close to true. Activist investors swoop in and try to force the company leadership to perform actions that are not warranted just so they can have the stock move up (or down) and make some money off of it. It is the definition of short term thinking and dismantlement of assets. Investment bankers are trash.

    I suppose they have a role in society to dismantle wounded companies, but no one likes parasites and bacteria even if they are needed in the cycle of life.

  • Fairbanks||

    When one gets an ownership share in a business they get to decide what is warranted and whether they want their investment value to rise in the short term or any other term. Or do you think someone else should be able to make those calls?

  • Red Tony||

    True, but if you want your company solvent for the long term maybe you wouldn't be happy with investment bankers trying to make a quick short-term buck.

  • Mark22||

    True, but if you want your company solvent for the long term maybe you wouldn't be happy with investment bankers trying to make a quick short-term buck.

    If you want the company "solvent for the long term", either don't issue stock at all, retain a controlling percentage of ownership, or issue non-voting stock.

    If you sell a majority of voting stock, you don't get to run the company anymore, except at the leisure of the majority of shareholders.

  • Mark22||

    Activist investors swoop in and try to force the company leadership to perform actions that are not warranted

    If activist investors "swoop in", i.e., buy large parts of a company, then whatever they want is "warranted": they own the company.

    I suppose they have a role in society to dismantle wounded companies, but no one likes parasites and bacteria even if they are needed in the cycle of life.

    Congratulations! You pretty much hit the NSDAP propaganda language spot on!

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    Why didn't Mackey get asked if he was considering a run for the Presidency. He's got my vote as of this moment.

  • flyfishnevada||

    Great! My free-range, organic, grass-fed whatchamacallit will show up on my doorstep a day later than promised, in a box that looks like it barely survived a bombing and when I open it, I'll actually have received a cheap Chinese knock-off.

  • Mark22||

    If you're wondering what kind of "libertarian" Mackey is, he tells you in Mother Jones:

    John Mackey: I reject the premise that liberal and libertarian values are necessarily in conflict. In fact, I often self-identify as a "classical liberal." I am pro-choice, favor legalizing gay marriages, protecting our environment, enforcing strict animal welfare protection laws (I've been an ethical vegan for 10 years), marijuana legalization, having a welfare safety net for our poorest or disabled citizens, and a radically reduced defense budget and military presence around the world. However, I'm also a conscious capitalist—I believe economic freedom and entrepreneurship are the best ways to end poverty, increase prosperity, and evolve humanity upward. I believe that all forms of socialism have been proven over time to result in a loss of both economic and civil liberties, with increasing poverty. The truth is that I don't fit into a simple ideological box. I read widely on issues, try to think carefully about them, and then I make up my own mind.

    He shares some policy preferences with libertarians, but policy preferences don't make you a libertarian. He's basically a moderate progressive.

  • George B||

    Good interview. I hope the marriage works out for everybody. Meantime, I would suggest two things: Stop the gross harm to the world with the anti-GMOs crusade and cut back on the sanctimonious signs all over the stores. I don't know whether Mr. Mackey is sincere about GMOs or whether it's another marketing ploy, but it's time to check out the science on GMOs and on organic foods.

  • geo||

    "young Americans are more "conscious" about life and morality " If that were true then they would not be doing any business with Amazon. Amazon has made it more and more difficult for smaller businesses, and is one of the most amoral unethical companies I have ever done business with. After they closed my seller account because I was too small, I stopped doing business with them completely. If you have ever had a service problem with Amazon you will find that not only do they make it nearly impossible to talk to them, most of their customer service people are scripted idiots that cannot do anything but quote the answers they have been given to use. Currently, the grocery division is a joke, selling bananas for $4 per pound and 4 to 5 days for shipping which means they will be spoiled when they arrive. Whole Foods is likewise a very heavy-handed company to do business with and lately has been forcing out the smaller local suppliers and forcing larger suppliers to pay for shelf space. It is not the grocery business of the past but instead is merely a pay-to-play racket that puts the risk on smaller companies. I will never do business with either company again.

  • ThomasD||

    Paying for shelf space, and search results is exactly what this merger is about.

    Libertarian my ass. These are the new robber barrons talking like they are trust busters.

  • Mark22||

    Libertarian my ass. These are the new robber barrons talking like they are trust busters.

    They may be hypocrites and leftists, but they are not "robber barons". The robber barons were 19th century railroad and industrial tycoon whose wealth depended on government-issued monopolies and benefits.

  • ThomasD||

    The railroad barrons, yes.

    Steel and oil? No.

  • JovaniFashions||

    Very exciting business move!

  • prediksi singapore||

    Ini bahkan tidak mendekati benar. Investor aktifis menukik dan mencoba untuk memaksa pimpinan perusahaan untuk melakukan tindakan yang tidak dijamin hanya agar mereka dapat memiliki saham naik (atau turun) dan menghasilkan uang dari itu. Ini adalah definisi pemikiran jangka pendek dan pembongkaran aset. Para bankir investasi adalah sampah.

    Saya kira mereka memiliki peran dalam masyarakat untuk membongkar perusahaan yang terluka, tetapi tidak ada yang suka parasit dan bakteri bahkan jika mereka dibutuhkan dalam siklus kehidupan.

  • prediksifajar||

    prediksi toto sydney

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online