Great CEO blogging from John Mackey

Journalist Michael Pollan and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey are having a wonderful public dialog about the organic supermarket chain living up to its values. The first Whole Foods response to the Omnivore’s Dilemma was good — it acknowledged Pollan’s critique, and provided substantive information about Whole Foods’ role in the growth of organic food, and some decent information about Whole Foods support for local agriculture. But it also read like it was written by 10 people in 30 drafts, with old-school marketing folk giving it a few good swipes with the marketing-speak polishing rag. It didn’t acknowldge room for improvement — it focused on defending Whole Foods history and policies. The bit about animal treatment standards sounded particularly phoney and substance-free.
Pollan wrote back with a respectful letter, re-asserting some of his criticisms about local suppliers and the treatment of animials in the name of shared values, and encouraging Whole Foods to use its power to lead. Mackey’s latest response to Pollan’s letter is much better in substance and in tone. Whole Foods is making substantive changes in response to Pollan’s critique. Mackey acknowledges that it has been hard for them to find suppliers who treat animals well. So Whole Foods hired someone to be in charge of sourcing meat from farms with better standards. They have also created a financing arm to supply low-cost credit to farmers who want to supply Whole Foods. Mackey also acknowledges that the move to regional distribution has lost some suppliers, and Whole Foods is increasing the charter for individual stores to buy locally.
Mackey’s letter also sounds more human, and more like a manager taking responsibility for his business. This is what Mackey says in response to the report that some Bay area farmers stopped selling to Whole Foods. “Whole Foods Market would like to try working again with any of the Bay Area farmers you know who are unhappy with Whole Foods Market and no longer sell to us. Please encourage them to contact our Northern California and Pacific Northwest Produce Director, Karen Christensen, at 415-307-5337 about selling directly into our stores again. You’ve also got my e-mail address. Please encourage those farmers to contact me directly via e-mail (but don’t give my e-mail address out to anyone else, please) if they don’t want to talk to Karen. I want to talk to them. Thanks.”
In the second letter, Mackey answers the question about sourcing food internationally in terms of values. The first letter described the long distance sourcing policy as simple response to customer demand. Customers want asparagus in December, so we need to supply them. The second letter explains that organic food production offers farmers in poor countries better income, healthier working conditions without toxic pesticides, and improves soil degraded by non-organic market agriculture. One might disagree with the result on balance — the costs of subsidized transport, vs. the benefits of organic agriculture around the world — but the answer has integrity.
Mackey still doesn’t answer Pollan’s question — what is the share of local food in dollars, not just in number of farms. You’d expect to see a larger number of local farms, but that doesn’t say anything about the proportion of food they offer.
Overall, though, this is a great example of blogs supporting meaningful public dialog, and, if Whole Foods does what they say, using the conversation to make the world a bit better.

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