Many people have become familiar with Whole Foods Market's (NASDAQ:WFM) founder and co-CEO John Mackey because of sound bites blared in media headlines. He called climate change "not a big deal." He quoted Britain's Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed about health care several years ago, and has been known to mention hot-button words like "socialism" and "fascism" to discuss American policies. And a long, long time ago he made an off-color joke about unions.
Unfortunately, given the political climate in our society these days, some of these quotes have occasionally angered and alienated people, causing them to put their metaphorical earplugs in and ignore what Mackey has to say on important topics.
Here's a topic that's less discussed, though, because it's a true paradigm shift from the way many people think in the first place. Mackey talks a lot about love and caring, and how "conscious capitalism" is a movement that can save our economy -- and the world -- from many of today's problems.
Love can vanquish evil
Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business, the recently published book co-authored by Mackey and Raj Sisodia, outlines a philosophy that delivers the overdue reminder that capitalism is not always and doesn't have to be "evil."
The book acknowledges the reasons that it's gotten a bad rap. Having been inundated with bad corporate actors, as well as what Mackey calls the "cancerous" developments that metastasized on Wall Street, it's easy to dismiss hopes that positive commerce can boost economic progress for all. (Click here for a recent clip from an interview on this and other topics right here at Fool HQ.) This attitude comes despite the fact that there are plenty of businesses that care, even big corporations, and they're taking into account many stakeholders, not just shareholders.
This is the promise of conscious capitalism, which is geared toward long-term evolution, not the unaware, cutthroat environment of short-term thinking that has poisoned the well here lately.
Despite his occasionally controversial comments -- which in my opinion actually speak to his authenticity as a human being, not a cardboard cutout like most CEOs and politicians -- Mackey is the type of individual our society seems to lack these days: widely read and informed.
The book mentions and draws from the wisdom of many disparate thinkers, past and present: Plato, Adam Smith, Milton Friedman, Abraham Maslow, Erik Erikson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Daniel Pink, Gandhi, Peter Drucker, and many others. One of the most important things the general public may not know about was Mackey's triumphant argument against Friedman's well-known dogma: that profit is the only "social responsibility" of business.
Obviously, one can view capitalism in a different, more loving, way.
What is conscious capitalism?
At their core, conscious businesses operate with a higher purpose than simply making money -- addressing big questions about the world and our contributions to it. These are companies that take a holistic and systemic approach to operations, and they create value not only for themselves and shareholders, but for all stakeholders.
As the book describes in depth, conscious businesses operate based on four tenets: Higher Purpose; Stakeholder Integration; Conscious Leadership; Conscious Culture and Management.
Conscious Capitalism describes a lofty dream for the future of the movement: "One day, virtually every business will operate with a sense of higher purpose, integrate the interests of all stakeholders, develop and elevate conscious leaders, and build a culture of trust, accountability, and caring."
Are there any conscious businesses?
Conscious Capitalism gives plenty of examples of conscious businesses and how they interact with the world. Obviously, a lot of the book deals with Whole Foods Market and Mackey's journey to becoming a conscious capitalist, but here are a few other examples.
Costco (NASDAQ:COST) fits into the area given its stellar treatment of workers and low turnover. The book pointed to a time when Costco paid its workers double Wal-Mart's wages to its own employees; Costco also covered a whopping 98% of workers' health care costs.
The airline industry is among the most scorned, but Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) proved an example of one of the few airlines whose caring ways make it a part of the conscious business universe. It's well known for having happy employees and providing a great experience for customers.
Most people aren't fond of trash, and Waste Management's (NYSE:WM) old and fairly uncool tag line was "Helping the world dispose of its problems." Sustainability actually posed a threat to Waste Management, given reduced waste, but the book discusses how management actually increased consciousness and embraced the change. Waste Management now mines for value in our waste stream, with cool ideas like waste-to-energy and recycling, complete with high-tech equipment that separates comingled recycling.
Medtronic (NYSE:MDT) former chairman and CEO Bill George is so simpatico with the message of Conscious Capitalism that he penned the foreword, describing his 1989 realization that his business could provide value for all stakeholders, most poignantly the value to the burgeoning number of patients "restored each year to fuller life and health from 300,000 people in 1989 to 10 million today" in part because of the company's products.
For those who have followed Whole Foods Market and John Mackey over many years, much in the book won't come as a surprise. It distills and expands upon many of the thoughts he's offered in speeches, blog posts, and interviews over years' time. He's even spoken here at Fool HQ several times on related themes.
For now, the strongest message in the book -- and the most timely -- is that business can and often does do better than many think. Meanwhile, a greater evolution has already begun, through conscious capitalism as well as related theories like natural capitalism and triple bottom-line thinking. It also outlines how conscious capitalism is different from, say, corporate social responsibility.
Also, the book's conclusion deals with what many investors might wonder about conscious capitalism: Is it possible for investors to make money? The data reported shows that it absolutely is over the long term. Conscious businesses make great businesses, and investors should take note of the wisdom (and returns) this type of business is capable of producing over the long term.
Conscious Capitalism is a rare read in our increasingly polarized, politicized world: a frank discussion of problems and how to fix them that includes a message of love -- that's something you'd never hear from most CEOs. It prescribes a better, more positive way of thinking about enterprise and entrepreneurship, defends a system that has pulled many, many people out of poverty, and even provides food for thought from the spiritual, psychological, and philosophical areas.
It's a primer not only for building conscious businesses and conscious leaders, but also for pursuing self-awareness at the individual level, too. In other words, it's a positive read for these troubled times, for all kinds of people -- not just investors. So bring on the love.
Alyce Lomax owns shares of Waste Management and Whole Foods Market. The Motley Fool recommends Costco Wholesale, Southwest Airlines, Waste Management, and Whole Foods Market. The Motley Fool owns shares of Costco Wholesale, Medtronic, Waste Management, and Whole Foods Market. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.