An August 11 editorial by Whole Foods co-founder and CEO John Mackey on health care reform has generated an enormous amount of discussion on the Web. Following the publication of the Wall Street Journal piece, many people have been using social media tools to organize a boycott of the organic food company. As of August 27, the Facebook group Boycott Whole Foods had more than 29,600 members and links to a related blog, Twitter account and flickr pool.
On August 18, the Wall Street Journal published its own editorial criticizing the boycott. “Those who actually read Mr. Mackey’s piece may find the racket puzzling. The CEO suggests ways to reform health care without a new deficit-busting entitlement,” it says. It also notes that “Whole Foods is a publicly traded company, so the effects of a real boycott would mainly damage the pocketbooks of those nice Whole Foods employees and its stockholders,” and that “Whole Foods’ Web site has its share of angry customers, but they have been joined by many supporting Mr. Mackey’s position.” (As of August 27, the site’s forums section had more than 2,460 separate message threads and over 18,300 posts about health care reform.)
“Mr. Mackey wrote his op-ed to join a national debate on a subject that will affect his company and employees. He deserves credit for exercising his right to free speech, no matter the risk this currently entails in our politics,” the Wall Street Journal says.
The CtW Investment Group, a major shareholder in Whole Foods that is affiliated with union pension funds (Whole Foods is not unionized), argues the controversy over Mackey’s editorial goes beyond the issue of free speech. On August 25, the group issued a letter to Whole Foods’ lead independent director calling for the CEO’s removal, noting that “Mr. Mackey’s article was not a citizen’s ‘letter to the editor,’ but a lengthy op-ed that explicitly tied him to Whole Foods by identifying him as the CEO.” According to CtW, “This is not the first time Mr. Mackey’s unsanctioned communications have damaged Whole Foods’ image with consumers and investors.”
Should people closely affiliated with companies have restrictions on what they can say and write? And does it make sense to boycott a company over something not directly related to its products?