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On Boycotting Whole Foods

By Matthew Yglesias on August 16, 2009 at 4:01 pm

"On Boycotting Whole Foods"

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For a number of years, the closest supermarket to my house was a Whole Foods. During that time, I shopped there a lot. Since October I’ve lived around the corner from a Safeway and have been pretty much “boycotting” Whole Foods ever since. Recently, however, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey piped up with a renewed expression of his longstanding right-wing political views leading to renewed Netroots interest in a Whole Foods boycott:

I am a Nashville area surgeon and a loyal customer of the Nashville Whole Foods ever since it first opened. This is true no longer. I was stunned and deeply disappointed to read Mr. Mackey’s right-wing propaganda piece in the WSJ. He has his right to speak his point of view. I have the right to take my money elsewhere.

I saw that link via my friend Tim Lee who tweeted “Do Daily Kos commenters really want a world where CEOs are expected to pander to their customers’ political prejudices?”

And I’ll admit that at first I was pretty dubious of this notion. After all, if you don’t want to buy products that are sold by businesses whose owners and managers are conservatives, you would basically have to stop buying everything. Corporate managers are more right-wing than the country as a whole, owners of stock are more right-wing than the country as a whole, and owners of small businesses are much more right-wing than the country as a whole. Democrats are backed by the exciting categories of unskilled workers, professionals, routine white collar workers, and people with part time jobs.

That said, there’s asking a CEO to pander to your prejudices, and there’s pressuring a CEO not to go out of his way to offend your prejudices. Corporate executives have a lot of social and political power in the United States, in a way that goes above and beyond the social and political power that stems directly from their wealth. The opinions of businessmen on political issues are taken very seriously by the press and by politicians on both sides of the aisle. Once upon a time perhaps union leaders exercised the same kind of sway, but these days all Republicans, most of the media, and some Democrats feel comfortable writing labor off as just an “interest group” while Warren Buffet and Bill Gates and Jack Welch are treated as all-purpose sages. One could easily imagine a world in which CEOs were reluctant to play the role of freelance political pundit out of fear of alienating their customer base. And it seems to me that that might very well be a nice world to live in.

At any rate, very few businesses go as far as Whole Foods in marketing their products specifically as part of a quasi-politicized left-wing lifestyle and few CEOs go as far as Mackey in public advocacy of political views that are only tangentially related to his business. If Whole Foods shareholders were to start to wonder whether having their corporate brand dragged into the health care debate is really a smart use of their assets, I would call that a good thing. More like this please, in other words.

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