Whole Foods and Living Wage

The Huffington Post has reported that Costco‘s profits jumped over $100 million dollars less than a week after its CEO Craig Jelinek pronounced publicly that he supported proposals to increase the minimum wage. This result brings into question most of what we have been taught about the ways in which bottom lines and worker salaries coexist. It shows that a decision to pay workers a living wage can boost business, rather than hinder it. Jelinek’s predecessor James Sinegal developed a reputation as a progressive business leader who resisted shareholder pressure to nickel and dime its employees. Sinegal retired last year.

In an interview with The Motley Fool, Jelinek promised Costco would carry on his predecessor’s legacy. In his words, “I think the key is that we retain our talent so the positive of that is that the next level down completely understands the culture of the company.” Jelinek’s support of a living wage suggests that Costco does indeed remain an empathetic enterprise committed to fairness in wages and benefits.

Another business leader making waves in the grocery business these days is John Mackey, co-CEO of Whole Foods and the author of an idea he calls “conscious capitalism.” Whole Foods grew out of a health food store in Austin, Texas that Mackey opened as a local alternative to large conglomerate and often greedy grocery chains of our childhoods. In an interview with Mother Jones magazine, Mackey explains how once he discovered that he had become a businessperson and a capitalist, he became convinced “that business and capitalism, while not perfect, were both fundamentally good and ethical.” Mackey speaks eloquently about transparency, innovation, and collaboration, and is skeptical of government intervention. It does not appear that he has made any public statement about proposed legislation to raise the minimum wage.

Costco and Whole Foods stand upon different consumer bases, at least by way of reputation. Where Costco is thought of as a provider of large quantities of nutritious food and other groceries to families on the cheap, Whole Foods is known to serve organic options to hip professionals who can afford a more expensive grocery bill. Though the United States still struggles to solve the problem of hunger within its borders, it has reached a point in its evolution where food is generally available to most citizens. In other words, Costco and Whole Foods are rapidly growing empires.

For this reason, it makes sense that Jelinek and Mackey have things to say about employee compensation, best business practices and the direction of our economy. And about the minimum wage. The salaries of those at the bottom of our economic hierarchy directly affect the grocery business. When more people make more, more people buy more. Around and around the circle goes.

That is why it is curious that Mackey has not made public his views on increasing the minimum wage. He has many opinions about business, and the philosophy of capitalism. He must have an opinion about this. As a professional who sometimes spends her salary at Whole Foods (when she can afford it), it is important for me to know whether Mackey thinks increasing the minimum wage is a good idea. And if he does not, why not?