In case you missed it, Joe Nocera managed to sneak a mash note to Whole Foods CEO John Mackey into Saturday's Times. In Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan had some bad things to say about the industrialization of organic food in general, and Whole Foods in particular. Mackey responded with an open letter to Pollan, Pollan responded in kind, and the whole thing rendered Harding v. Kerrigan levels of buzz, at least in the world of people who agonize about the future of organic foods. Nocera's take "A_Tussle, of Sorts, over Organics
," is a remarkable document:
Like most people in my demographic group, I greatly enjoy shopping at Whole Foods. But until I'd read the exchange, I'd never really thought much about organic food as a business. After a little investigation, though, I think I now understand why Whole Foods is such an appealing store for so many people -- and why it's so important for Mr. Mackey to have his company viewed as one of the good guys.
Last year, in an article in Reason magazine, Mr. Mackey argued that making customers happy was far more important than maximizing profits. He also added a far more radical note: he believed in a form of capitalism, he said, ''that more consciously works for the common good instead of depending solely on the 'invisible hand' to generate positive results for society.'' A values-driven capitalism, in other words.
To his credit, Nocera identifies that the key to Whole Foods is making its customers feel good about themselves, but the difference between righteous marketing and marketing righteousness seems to elude him:
''The appeal of Whole Foods is that it is a place where food is celebrated, food is romanced, food is presented in a fashion that is in opposition to how it is sold in the vast majority of supermarkets,'' said Bill Bishop, the president of Willard Bishop Consulting, a food retail consultant. Organic goods are a crucial component of that ''differentiation,'' he added, because the very term has acquired a kind of magical aura -- a halo effect, in which the customer feels virtuous just by walking into the store.
Not surprisingly, the tussle has a happy ending:
Which brings me back to Mr. Mackey's exchange with Mr. Pollan. Mr. Pollan responded to Mr. Mackey's open letter with a post of his own, in which he stressed that the company had largely turned its back on local organic farmers. Mr. Mackey, in turn, wrote another lengthy open letter, in which he defended the company's record in dealing with local farmers -- but he also vowed to do better.
And sure enough, he has. The company is now allowing its store managers to do business directly with more local farmers, and is also putting aside $10 million, which will be used to make small loans to local farmers. Will it be more expensive to work directly with farmers instead of routing everything through the regional distribution center? Of course it will.
But for Whole Foods, no money will ever be better spent.
As tussles go, this reminds me of the scene in Out of Sight where a still-credible Jennifer Lopez subdues a frisky Isiah Washington with a collapsable baton, saying "You wanted to tussle. We just tussled." Using this many column inches in America's paper of record to equate the health of the environment with the health of Whole Foods' business model calls for a gift basket, at the very least.