John Mackey was a self-described hippie. Living in Austin, Texas, in the 1970s, Mackey looked the part. He sported a shaggy, curly mop of a hairdo and adorned his face with a horseshoe mustache. After dropping out of college, Mackey decided he wanted to take on corporate America, specifically targeting the tycoons controlling the food industry.
To do so, he launched a nonprofit, health food co-op, called SaferWay (a not-so-subtle jab at Kroger’s Safeway grocery chain). But over time, Mackey grew convinced his tiny co-op could not make a dent in how Americans eat. So Mackey began to think beyond the walls of his co-op. To change the industry, he’d need to launch a full-on grocery store.
Craig Weller, Renee Lawson Hardy, and John Mackey | Photo source: CNBC
In 1980, Mackey decided to approach his top rivals to gauge their interest in collaborating. He met with Craig Weller and Mark Skiles, owners of SaferWay’s competitor, Clarksville Natural Grocers.
“I pitched them, ‘Look, we’re going to open this first natural foods supermarket, one of the first natural foods supermarkets anywhere in the world, why don’t you do it with us?’”
Mackey saw his competitors as his potential allies. Mackey saw an opportunity for them not just to operate autonomously together but to actually cofound a bigger and better endeavor entirely.
So they did. They merged their stores under one roof and chose a new name—Whole Foods Market. The natural foods movement was born. Over the next 37 years, Whole Foods Market expanded to 460 stores across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
A few months ago, Amazon bought Whole Foods for $13.7 billion, marking the beginning of a new chapter. Love Whole Foods or hate it, in just a few decades, the healthy food movement graduated from tiny cooperatives catering primarily to young, hippie enclaves in Austin to the most innovative force in the food industry in the West. John Mackey’s healthy food vision is today officially mainstream thanks to his belief in collaboration.
John Mackey understood the power of thinking beyond. His philosophy is different from simply thinking big. Building great companies intrigued this industry pioneer but building something beyond his organizational boundaries intrigued him far more.
Jesus reminds us in clear language to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
To seek first as leaders of faith-based organizations is not easy. Because of how deeply entrenched we are in cultural values of winning, competition, and ownership, we regularly lose sight of how radical our organizations would be if we were truly to seek first the Kingdom of God. For many of us, we may tip our proverbial hats to working together with our rival nonprofits, but do very little in practice.
But if it is possible for a hippie-turned-mogul to link arms with his direct competitors; perhaps faith-based organizations can as well?
Since the Hobby Lobby case, there’s been lots of talk about what makes a corporation “religious,” if anything. Of course, corporations can’t really be religious, but their founders can and are, and they often express their religion in and through their corporations. Religion plays a big role in our country’s enterprises — in ways that may encourage you, discourage you, or both.
Regardless of whether I agree, disagree or am indifferent toward the faith of the owners, I will work to defend their right to make business decisions based on their convictions–even if that means my favorite Chipotle menu item will no longer be available.
From the Buddhist altar at your neighborhood nail salon to the landscape architect rocking an ichthus on his truck, religion-infused business is all around us!
Here are 6 ways corporations act religiously:
1. They give generously from their company’s profits.
Manoj Bhargava, the reclusive founder and owner of the billion-dollar enterprise 5 Hour Energy, is a deeply religious man. He spent his twenties as a monk in India, traveling between monasteries on a spiritual quest. To this day, Bhargava spends an hour each morning in meditation, and he says that while he has “made a lot of money in the West,” he does “not believe in much personal consumption.” Bhargava has committed 90 percent of his company’s profits to charity, primarily to Hindu charities in India.
Bhargava predicts that over the next 10 years the company will give away over $1 billion to charity. Similarly, Christian brothers and business owners in Memphis recently gave their entire $250 million company away to their charitable foundation.
2. They are guided by their sacred texts.
Talia Mashiach is the high-powered founder of Eved, an e-commerce company. She is also an Orthodox Jew who draws upon her faith to lead her business and her employees. Eved now employs 50 people and processes over $80 million annually in transactions. Like many entrepreneurs, she experiences the tensions of integrating her faith with her business, but she gleans guidance from the Torah, the Jewish holy book.
“We are so fortunate to have Torah as our guide,” said Mashiachat a gathering of Jewish female entrepreneurs. “My exposure to the outside world has made me understand and appreciate that so much more.”
This is true across the religious spectrum. Burger chain In-N-Outprints Bible verses on their cups and burger wrappers for the benefit of employees and customers. Islamic bank owners follow a wholly unique set of regulations because of prohibitions in the Koran against charging interest.
3. They close up shop to rest.
David Green is a busy man. He’s leading one of the world’s largest retail companies — Hobby Lobby — and is currently filling the news cycle because of his company’s recent victory in the Supreme Court.
One of the Hobby Lobby hallmarks is that it follows the Judeo-Christian tradition of Sabbath, a practice of regularly resting, no matter the busyness of the work.
“We keep our stores closed on Sundays, one of the week’s biggest shopping days so that our workers and their families can enjoy a day of rest,” said Green. In addition, Hobby Lobby also closes daily at 8 p.m. nationwide to allow employees to rest and enjoy time with family and friends.
Chick-fil-A also closes their doors on Sundays to honor the Sabbath. Many Jewish business owners close on Saturdays, in accordance to the Jewish observation of Sabbath. They close despite some customer frustration and despite Saturday being the biggest commercial day of the week.
Photo credit: The Federalist
4. They share their religious views with their customers.
The magazine rack at Whole Foods does not resemble many other grocers. Alongside magazines like Modern Farmer, Yoga, andVegNews, Whole Food stocks Shambhala Sun, “today’s best-selling and most widely-read Buddhist magazine.” Notably, other prominent religious magazines — like Christianity Today, Tablet,and Islamique — do not line Whole Foods’ bamboo shelves.
John Mackey, founder and CEO of Whole Foods, described his spiritual convictions in his book, Conscious Capitalism. He regularly cites the importance of spirituality, spending time “with Buddha in the morning,” and meditation. He exhorts other businesses to embrace his vision of lifting “humanity to new heights of emotional and spiritual well-being” through conscious business.
Likewise, the Marriott hotel chain — founded and owned by a Mormon family — stocks their holy book, The Book of Mormon, in each of their hotel rooms worldwide. Norm Miller, owner and CEO of Interstate Battery, even goes as far to share his faith testimony on the company’s web site. The Hindu owners of a nail salon in my neighborhood actually display a religious shrine spanning the back wall of the boutique.
5. They infuse their companies with partying.
Dov Charney is the consummate party animal. For years, Charney’s let-loose hedonism infused his company, American Apparel. He has since been fired, though he is not going out quietly. Charney lauds American Apparel’s use of “sexually charged visual and oral communications” in their provocative ads and campaigns. He has been known to conduct board meetings in his underwear and throws lavish parties for his friends and employees, attempting to become the “Hugh Hefner of retailing.”
“What’s important to me is that everybody is experiencing pleasure. That’s what I’m into,” Charney wrote, channeling his inner Aristippus, the Greek philosopher attributed to pioneering hedonism.
American Apparel is not alone in infusing hedonism — a religious persuasion that elevates pleasure as the chief and sole goal for humanity — into their companies. Hooters, Axe, and Vegas’ “what happens here, stays here” casino industry all thrive on hedonistic impulses.
6. They help their brethren.
David Neeleman created JetBlue to disrupt the airline industry, and this father of nine did not hide his Mormon convictions as he did so. He regularly charters flights to fly Mormons and potential Mormons to church conferences. According to an article fromSoftware Advice, he employs many Mormon stay-at-home moms out of their corporate office in Utah, allowing these mothers to have flexible work hours and to work from home.
Like most Mormons, Neeleman spent two years in missions — his assignment was in Rio de Janiero — and he credits this experience as foundational to his business.
“People do a better job if they respect the leader of the company,”said Neeleman. “I learned that on my mission — the value of people and how to truly appreciate them.”
At Tyson Foods, the company employs over one hundred chaplains to provide counseling and compassionate care to their employees “regardless of their religious or spiritual affiliation.”
When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of religious liberty earlier this month, the Court acknowledged the impossibility of business leaders checking their values at the door.
“Any suggestion that for-profit corporations are incapable of exercising religion because their purpose is simply to make money flies in the face of modern corporate law,” reads the syllabus of the ruling.
How business leaders practice their religion will increasingly become a public discussion, particularly when these religious practices collide with hot-button cultural issues (like birth control and abortion). Meanwhile, business leaders like David Green and Manoj Bhargava and Talia Mashiach will continue to bring their faith to their work, seeking to effectively navigate the tensions of being religious in our diverse public square.
(Originally posted at OnFaith)
This isn’t your typical ill-fitting tee shirt. It’s American Apparel.
As an owner of two American Apparel tees, I can affirm these shirts fit well. We know they fashion comfortable garb, but we also know their clothes are “crafted with pride in the USA.”
Out of the limelight, a financial services company lurks in mystery. We see Western Union signs everywhere, but I’m guessing like me, you’ve never been a customer. Earlier this year, I pitched TOMS Shoes vs. Whole Foods in a corporate do-gooder analysis. Today’s matchup? American Apparel vs. Western Union.
Activists flock to American Apparel (AA) products, drawn to their fashion-forward designs and ethical business practices. AA lauds how they “pioneer industry standards of social and environmental responsibility in the workplace.” They pay their factory workers well and give back to Los Angeles, their home city. They construct quality products.
If that was the whole story, I would hail their greatness. But it’s not. They do some things well, but their problems plunge deeper than even the deepest of their v-neck man tees.
Frankly, the more I learn about American Apparel, the less I like. As a person of faith, I find AA’s blatant disregard for decency appalling. The New York Times described their marketing as “sexually charged.” AA categorizes it as “provocative.” It’s sadly ironic they are a clothing company because their ads feature very little of it. This edginess appeals to their customers, but it isn’t winsome. It’s willfully vulgar. “Controversial as [our marketing] may be, we’ll continue to give our core audience what they crave,” their website flaunts.
Their (lack of) corporate values start at the top. Founder and CEO, Dov Charney is a real class-act. He’s called the “Hugh Hefner of retailing, decorating his stores with covers of Penthouse magazine” and he shamelessly and unapologetically exploits his female employees. Call me a prude, but I think AA cheapens women. From their leadership to their marketing, AA distills the value of women down to their dimensions. And that, to me, flies in the face of good American business and true social responsibility.
Speaking of being American, their worshiped manufacturing process drips with arrogance. I believe in free markets and believe healthy market economies are the “best broken system” to continue to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty globally. AA positions their advertising as if the only way to run an ethical company is to hire American laborers. It’s not. That’s bad economics and it flies in the face of great global companies like Gap and Apple that use global manufacturing facilities to create great jobs in developing countries.
It’s fine for companies to tout their Americanism–and for consumers to buy local–but don’t suggest companies which do otherwise are villains. This protectionist tone incites Americans (both progressives and conservatives, which baffles me on both counts, but that’s another topic) against our global neighbors. Since when is helping provide jobs for poor people in other countries unAmerican (or unChristian, for that matter)?
Western Union pops up in the worst places. Their outlets populate seamy strip malls and dimly lit corner stores. I associate these Western Union outlets with pawn shops, money lenders and liquor stores, retailers that victimize on the chronic poverty found in these neighborhoods. While it may have been fair to accuse Western Union of this twenty years ago, it isn’t any longer.
On an evening drive recently, I did a quick stop at Western Union with my friend Clarisse, a Congolese refugee. We pulled up to a gas station and she jumped out. A minute later, she slid back in the car. Transaction complete: She had just sent $50 to her aging mother in Brazzaville, Congo. That $50 was her mother’s only income that week.
Later in the evening, her mom called. The money had arrived. Today, over $200 million will change hands though over one million transactions, just like the $50 Clarisse sent to her mom. Western Union sustains families through these transactions. In Haiti, over half of the national income comes through these transactions–remittances–and has been a lifeblood for millions of struggling families. They’re safely transmitting billions of dollars to and from remote places like Congo, Somalia and Laos. And, they’re doing so with transparency in their pricing.
They have outlets in every country in the entire world. They treat and pay their 7,000 employees well. And, they give generously, granting over $70M to innovative nonprofits that “connect families with economic opportunity,” aligning closely with the heartbeat of Western Union’s core business. These agencies include many top microfinance organizations (before you think I’m biased, they haven’t given to HOPE yet, but hopefully someday!). Western Union understands their unique contribution to the world–safely transmitting money globally between loved ones–and they promote human flourishing through the opportunities they create.
It is a charade to claim American Apparel is a socially conscious company. They quietly erode the worth of women and loudly abhor real American values. Still, Christians line up to print their graphics on these “ethically manufactured” tees. In contrast, Western Union makes the world a dramatically better place for poor families with very little fanfare. This match-up isn’t even a contest: Western Union scores a first-round knockout.
TOMS Shoes defines cool. These hip slip-ons are the garnishment of urban hipsters, but even much-less-cool folks like me love when companies give back. The winning equation for TOMS has been the “buy one get one” approach they pioneered: You buy slick kicks…and poor kids get free shoes. This equation has propelled TOMS to corporate superstar status.
All companies practice and celebrate their do-goodism. There’s even a cumbersome title for it–corporate social responsibility (CSR). Analyzing corporate charity models is one of my hobbies. Today’s doing good battle is between TOMS Shoes, the hipster heavyweight, and Whole Foods Market, the granola momma’s utopia.
TOMS: Lots of good, but some areas that could be tweaked. Please: Don’t chuck your TOMS at me just yet. Hear me out.
The good: They connect their product–shoes–to their charity–shoes for poor kids. Rather than supporting something entirely unrelated, like well-drilling in Africa (leave well-drilling to Aquafina and Dasani), TOMS’ charitable endeavors are a foot-in-shoe fit, you might say, with their business.
Needs Improvement: First, though fabulously intended, I’m in the choir of skeptics about the impact of distributing free shoes to poor kids. In short, giving away free stuff, whether its TOMS Shoes, school supplies, or castaway Super Bowl t-shirts, almost always has a negative long-term impact on local economies.
Second, their social mission is sold as an add-on to their business. Like many other companies, they slice off a share of revenue and use that to fund charity. Giving is a good thing, don’t get me wrong, but companies like TOMS celebrate the toppings rather than the sundae itself. They splash a “charity cherry” on top of their business, but often neglect to acknowledge the core contribution they make to society: Providing meaningful jobs and cool shoes to our world.
Whole Foods Market: Though much more nuanced than TOMS, their approach to doing good is “best in class.”
The good: On a recent trip to Whole Foods to buy a bouquet of flowers for Alli, I left deeply impressed with the way their charitable efforts are woven into their core business: Selling healthy, fresh groceries. Rather than highlight their food donations, or the food relief agencies they could financially support, they celebrate the livelihoods they support across the globe and the nutritious goods they provide to their customers. I got this simple flyer with my flower purchase featuring Alfredo, one of the farmers:
Let’s be clear: Whole Foods profits from my purchase. They are not motivated to work with Alfredo solely because they want to help the vulnerable. They work with Alfredo because he grows gorgeous flowers and enables shareholders to earn big returns.
Still, they do business with Alfredo in a redemptive, equitable way, shedding light on the real people–the breeders, bakers and butchers–who produce their groceries. Like Whole Foods, Starbucks shines as a kindred spirit in the way they treat and celebrate their 75,000 coffee farmers.
The verdict: Like TOMS, Whole Foods gives a percentage of their revenue to provide additional support to farmers like Alfredo, but that becomes cursory, their add-on, to the livelihoods they support. Rather than voicing poetic kudos to their corporate tithing, Whole Foods highlights the inherent and more significant value their business brings to our globe. The clear winner? Whole Foods. They do good well.