Brendan Walsh takes a fresh look at Conscious Capitalism – Whole Foods founder John Mackey’s clarion call to liberate the “heroic spirit of business” and assesses the impact that conscious capitalism is having on society
Political liberal John Mackey spent the counter-culture years of the 1960s studying eastern philosophy. He lived in communes in Austin, Texas, and, like many others in the community, he believed that business, and therefore all corporations, were essentially bad news.
That is until he went through what he refers to as his awakening; a time that saw him apply his passion for organic healthy food to business, in the form of the launch of SaferWay, a community health food store. SaferWay became successful and was renamed Whole Foods to reflect its core offering. Mackey still heads Whole Foods, the Fortune 300 retail giant which is worth $12.9bn (£8bn), operates in more than 380 stores and employs 84,000 team members worldwide.
Mackey joined forces with Raj Sisodia, a leader in the conscious capitalism movement, to challenge the way business is thought about, taught about and practised. The book has fuelled the growth of Conscious Capitalism Inc – a non-profit body dedicated to cultivating conscious capitalism which hosts an annual summit of chief executives, and attracts thousands of followers.
Mackey argues that conscious capitalism is “a way of thinking about business that is more conscious of its higher purpose, its impacts on the world, and the relationships it has with its various constituencies and stakeholders”. He sets out this vision in more practical terms with four key tenets. The first, Higher Purpose, is “…the starting point… being self-aware, recognising what makes the company truly unique, and discovering how the company can best serve”. Ultimately, this should drive all activity a business undertakes and be authentically felt in all corners of a commercial enterprise.
Stakeholder Orientation calls for relationships between stakeholders, who may be investors, customers, team members, communities, even competitors and government. They do not need to operate on the basis of trade-offs, but should be based on seeking out mutual benefits and synergies. Conscious Leadership outlines how an individual can evolve to make a more positive impact on the world through their organisation.
This can only be achieved through self-awareness and driven by the higher purpose set out in the first tenet. Finally, there is Conscious Culture – created through decentralisation, empowerment, innovation, and collaboration.
Becoming a Conscious Business
Mackey’s evolution from a 1960s liberal to one of the world’s most successful conscious capitalists is based on a deep understanding of free-enterprise thinkers and economists, and readers beware… his ideas rarely come in the form of pick-and-mix management tips. This school of thought requires a deep shift in perspective. Where traditional ideas of capitalism and profit-driven culture are entrenched in the workplace, it may be difficult to disrupt the status quo, especially when decisions don’t lead to quick gains for investors or executives.
For entrepreneurs, he argues, it comes more naturally, as they are more often driven by a higher purpose – “[entrepreneurs] solve problems by creatively envisioning different ways the world could and should be”. Some of Mackey’s more liberal suggestions, which range from cutting meat out of your diet and practising yoga, may be a step too far for some, but the success of Whole Foods provides a compelling argument.
Further anecdotes from Starbucks, Patagonia and Tata prove that huge amounts of value can be delivered to every stakeholder without sacrificing profits. What’s more, the millennials – those born between 1980 and 2000 – are already expecting to live, work and make their purchasing decisions in this conscious world. Mackey’s advice? Get on the train or get left behind.
Do it now…
In the spirit of the second tenet, Stakeholder Orientation, Mackey urges us to “bring together your whole system” – everyone who has a stake in what you do – and ask these fundamental questions:
- Why does the business exist?
- What value do we create?
- How can we create more value for our stakeholders?
- How can we transcend the trade-offs we currently tolerate?
These are just the starting points. Every aspect of the business needs to be closely examined in terms of the four tenets of conscious capitalism. Do it today. As Mackey says: “We have no time to waste.”