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Beyond the Boycott: Telling Whole Foods and CEO John Mackey You Don’t Buy It

August 25, 2009


Two weeks ago, like now tens of thousands of others on Facebook, I ran across a post on Why You Should Boycott Whole Foods. If you’re like me, you may have experienced a deeply conflicted moment of some combination of shock, disgust, rage and, um…fear. Fear that you will now have to figure out where to get those admittedly pricey but picturesquely beautiful organic foods you’ve come to know and love and, for some of us, give your whole paycheck for.

I’m a stalwart soldier that can take a strong stand for what I believe in. The truth is though, I live in Berkeley, CA, the uber-progressive Republic rivaled only by my hometown of New York City for access to “whole foods” from places other than Whole Foods. As annoying as it might be, it won’t exactly be a hardship for me to go spend my dollars at Berkeley Bowl, Trader Joe’s and the stunning array of year-round weekly farmer’s markets.

But how true is that for thousands of us? Especially when Whole Foods is the only game in town—exactly what has made it such a national success—and exactly what I believe John Mackey was counting on when he wrote his now-infamous op-ed The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare.

Here’s another truth, sheepish as it may be: I Like Whole Foods. After kavetching like many about the high pricetag on everything from Abalone to Zinneas, and derisively calling it by its’ Whole Paycheck moniker every chance I could get, I surrendered to its wide open aisles, carefully stacked vine-ripened tomatoes and apparently happy-to-be-working-there-employees’ smiles. I do spend my whole paycheck, though not being able to afford health insurance frees up a little cash.

And since we’re on a truth roll: I like most of the eight points Mackey made in his piece. I certainly think they’re worth looking into. So I don’t think he’s evil and I definitely don’t think he’s stupid. In fact, I think he smartly calculated the risk of framing his plan as he did. I think John Mackey, like any businessman capable of building a $8B business did some accounting. He accounted for the risk of pissing off a central base. He accounted for sparking a firestorm at a critical point in the healthcare discourse, and I even think he accounted for some boycotts here and there. But he calculated that he would win. Why? Because:

  • Most Americans (myself included) have dwindled down to the attention span of a 140-character tweet.
  • Boycotts take time, patience and commitment to work. Understandably, we’re sorely lacking on most of that these days, and most impactfully:
  • Whole Foods IS the only game in town in too many places for a sustained boycott over an indefinite period of time.

So what to do? Something John Mackey hasn’t accounted for—take the Whole Foods Boycott to another level—tell Whole Foods “I Don’t Buy It.”

If given an invitation, they don’t respond meaningfully to the concerns of their offended core base and those impacted by his statements, we should all get together and go beyond the boycott. Sending peopleTO Whole Foods to SHOP, but DON’T BUY is an action that will get their attention. It’s time to increase the pressure and urgency on Whole Foods, leaving no doubt that we will not only withhold our dollars from them, but will take positive action to drain them of resources. But it’s also time for those of us pushing for change to do so in a way that actually seeks resolution, transforming the issue into an opportunity for real change: change that matters. Thus, any action taken should be thoughtful, respectful, measured and leveraged only if it is needed: if understanding where this is headed, Whole Foods won’t come to the table. Ignoring it away is not an option.

Just like it sounds, in a SHOP. DON’T BUY action, people would:

SHOP for groceries, then “pay” with a symbolic 60-Person bill and tell the cashier that their CEO, in effect, said this is acceptable:

  • that it’s OK that 60 people die every day without access to healthcare
  • that it’s OK that uninsured adults are 25% more likely to die prematurely
  • that it’s OK the lack of health insurance is the third leading cause of death for the near-elderly

Naturally they won’t accept the 60P so shoppers get to tell Whole Foods “I DON’T BUY It.”

  • DON’T BUY their food.
  • DON’T BUY their excuse for John Mackey’s irresponsible statements.
  • DON’T BUY any position that allows corporations to avoids responsibility for their leadership when offering a personal view under the banner of their brand.

Leave the store without the groceries.

This simple but powerful action can give us voice to acknowledge that, contrary to what Mackey suggests, healthcare IS a right. It is buying from Whole Foods that is a privilege.

Going beyond the boycott—which is hard to measure the impact of, potentially loses steam and often devolves into angry protest because people want to DO something—each of us can say “Whole Foods, I’m commited to take action because…

I don’t buy it that Mackey benignly used scare tactic phrases “socialism” and “government takeover.”

I don’t buy it that healthcare is something that every American shouldn’t have access to because “a careful reading of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will not reveal any intrinsic right…”

I don’t buy it “that every American adult is responsible for his or her own health” even though a flawed system has sold access to healthcare from under the feet of 47 million people.

I don’t buy it “voluntary, tax-deductible donation” is sufficient to address that lack of access, and

I don’t buy it that even if “many of our health-care problems are self-inflicted” for the many reasons–systemic, market-driven, lack of information–that may be true, 60 people should die everyday.

And I don’t buy it for Whole Foods to explain this away as “personal opinions” because Mackey used his access and status as CEO to make his surprisingly irresponsible and self-serving statements, branding it “The Whole Foods Alternative…”

We can leverage our commitment to action for a more satisfying resolution to the betrayal of our trust in shared values. Now that their CEO has publicly stood against so many, what will Whole Foods stand for? In the absence of a meaningful response to their leader’s maybe personal, likely uninformed, but still irresponsible statements, love Whole Foods as we may—-in fact because we love them—-we need to hold them accountable. An organized, nonviolent Shop, Don’t Buy action can do that.

Finally, Mr. Mackey, I acknowledge that your “eight reforms” might work. But this is no longer only about lowering costs, it’s about life and our inalienable Rights—as a careful reading of the Declaration of Independence does reveal—to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. None of those are possible without our health. You’ve got good ideas but you didn’t have to slap us with them. Relationship repair starts with conversations. Can we talk?

Some powers that be, naysayers, talking heads and even John Mackey may believe Whole Foods can just wait out a boycott and continue business as usual without significant impact on their bottom line.

I don’t buy it. And you shouldn’t either.

Get details on Shop. Don’t Buy:

copyright MMIX. angel Kyodo williams

angel Kyodo williams is a maverick teacher, author, social visionary
and founder of Center for Transformative Change. she posts, tweets &
blogs on all things change. permission granted to retweet, repost,
repaste & repeat with contact information intact.

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Note: The above essay was modified from the original written 8/25/09 —aKw

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul permalink
    August 31, 2009 9:34 am

    Back in 2008, this Whole Foods, CEO John Mackey (how old is this kid?), was caught posting negative comments (trash talk) about a competitor on Yahoo Finance message boards in an effort to push down the stock price. So now I am suppose to take this loser seriously? Please, snore, snore.

    It’s funny we hear Republicans say that they do not want “faceless bureaucrats” making medical decisions but they have no problem with “private sector” “faceless bureaucrats” daily declining medical coverage and financially ruining good hard working people (honestly where can they go with a pre-condition). And who says that the “private sector” is always right, do we forget failures like Long-Term Capital, WorldCom, Global Crossing, Enron, Tyco, AIG and Lehman Brothers. Of course the federal government will destroy heathcare by getting involved, Oh but wait, Medicare and Medicaid and our military men and women and the Senate and Congress get the best heathcare in the world, and oh, that’s right, its run by our federal government. I can understand why some may think that the federal government will fail, if you look at the past eight years as a current history, with failures like the financial meltdown and Katrina but the facts is they can and if we support them they will succeed.

    How does shouting down to stop the conversation of the healthcare debate at town hall meetings, endears them to anyone. Especially when the organizations that are telling them where to go and what to do and say are Republicans political operatives, not real grassroots. How does shouting someone down or chasing them out like a “lynch mob” advanced the debate, it does not. So I think the American people will see through all of this and know, like the teabagger, the birthers, these lynch mobs types AKA “screamers” are just the same, people who have to resort to these tactics because they have no leadership to articulate what they real want. It’s easy to pickup a bus load of people who hate, and that’s all I been seeing, they hate and can’t debate. Too bad.

  2. jan alixander permalink
    September 2, 2009 9:55 am

    we have alternatives here. we have local upscale (organic) markets: PACIFIC, Olivers, and others. Plus.. always support farmer’s markets. Not to mention Raleys and other markets DO carry organic meat and chicken. It is easy to NOT SHOP at assHOLE foods.

    • September 3, 2009 4:21 pm

      hi Jan,

      i’ll be posting the rationale later tonight, but the difference with this action is that it doesn’t just withhold money from WF, it actually “reclaims” the money we’ve already spent there by drawing on their resources. at WF’s size, a boycott of less than tens of thousands of people *every day* is a leak akin to a trickle. this action would be like a giant gushing hole. fewer people are required to participate to drain greater resources and we stand up for what we believe in by walking in to WF.

      that said, to be clear, i believe the most valuable path is to first ask WF to address the issues on the table. action (even a boycott) without an effort to negotiate is coercive and shuts meaningful dialogue down rather than opening it up.

  3. September 2, 2009 12:15 pm

    I’m sorry but the idea “that every American adult is responsible for his or her own health” and for that matter actions, crimes, and even thoughts is TRUE! The idea that no one owns anyone one anything they haven’t earned is what one gets from a careful reading of the works of every Founding Fathers – especially Ben Franklin. One is responsible for one’s own life as an adult, and that includes one’s health. Letting the government decided will often lead to decisions that seem like a nice idea at first but lead to Orwellian consequences.

    If you want to live in a system where the philosophy and culture is different and that leaders do believe in molly coddling their people’s health but otherwise have a free market you are free to move to England or Canada. If you’re some far left commie who wants everything equal and handed on a silver platter then move to Cuba, I hear the weather’s quite nice.

    • September 3, 2009 4:34 pm

      the weather is quite nice in Cuba, but that aside, i’m all for getting what one earns–IF that happens in a just and fair society which we do not currently. if we consider that much of America was built on the backs of people of color that were either enslaved, indentured servants, free labor through incarceration or underpaid immigrant labor, we recognize that America has not “earned” all of what it believes it owns. the systemic issues that keep poor people poor and wealthy people wealthy (yes, there are exceptions) makes “what one earns” lopsided to begin with.

      but that isn’t what is at issue here, neither is “letting the government decide.” even when i had health insurance, everything was decided for me by the administrative watchkeepers. let’s be honest–as long as money is the bottom line, that will always be the case–someone else is going to make decisions for you in the interest of their pockets.

      if your health insurance is working for you, great. you should get to keep it.

      i don’t actually care much for western medicine, and, we should all have access, when and should it be needed. in a society as great as America hopes to be, it shouldn’t allow 22,000 people per year, that’s 60 real live people per day, to die. period.

      anything less is uncivilized.

  4. daniel royer permalink
    September 4, 2009 2:36 pm

    well for this article, you sound like a Obama fan. I’m not so you better do your research on what’s really going to happened to our economy when your dollar pays for more people sitting on there ass collecting government checks to sit around and drink beer all day. this health plan stink like you know what. and for the fact is people die everyday for many other things, so if though people don’t want to take care of them selves thats too bad for them. your saying we should help the people that do drugs, smoke and drink and not eat good. what kind of sense is that??? you people need to realize the more you listen to the government the more your going to give them control of our lives!!! before you make a statement know your facts on both sides. i work hard for my money, why should i involuntary give my money to some one that is a leach to the system. also im 35 i have not ever had health insurance, i go to the gym regularly and eat right, i’m work hard to keep my self fit, why cant others do the same. and to the comment of color building this country, get off your self. we all had a roll in the build this country, regardless of what the roll was we all had a hand in build and making sacrifices. yes some were less fortunate but that has been the case for every country, empire, tribe, state, religion, and anything you can think of. so get off the race crap or poor me attitude. it’s always been the survival of the fittest in avery species, since the beginning of time. what makes you think it’s going to be different now??? until the equation of money/ profit is taken out of the program, nothing will change. its funny when there a crisis everybody help each other !!! but when things good people are slashing others neck to get ahead.

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