Monday, September 27News That Matters

Whole Foods Founder: ‘The Whole World Is Getting Fat’

Another thing Amazon has changed is that our culture at Whole Foods tended to be intuitive, managing more by the gut. Amazon is very much a company that manages through data. And if you don’t have good data and good arguments, then that’s the end of the discussion. That’s been a positive change for our company because we are making more data-driven decisions than we made previously, and, therefore, I think we’re making better decisions.

You’ve previously said you were opposed to a federal minimum wage, but you made those remarks when the labor market was more robust. Have your views changed now, given the high unemployment numbers?

Let’s make a distinction between what a private company does and what you do across the whole society. Amazon made the decision, and Whole Foods concurred with it, that we just needed to pay better. So it just came out of profits, and we just raised the pay and we made less money. When Amazon asked us to do it, we said, OK, here’s the math. It was a very big number because we had to raise everybody’s pay. And that was OK with Amazon. As a result, we made less profit for Amazon that year than we would have. Of course, the morale at the company went through the roof.

But we have to make a distinction between people working in New York or San Francisco and those in Jackson, Miss., or Shreveport, La., where the average pay is significantly less and the cost of living is significantly less. So a high, $15 minimum wage makes a lot of sense in certain cities. It doesn’t make sense in other places where the average pay is a lot lower and the average cost of living is much lower. When you force the minimum wage up artificially above the market rates, you’re going to get high unemployment, and you’re going to make certain businesses not competitive any longer because they can’t afford to pay those kind of wages without raising their prices above what the customers would be willing to pay.

You’ve been trying to get Americans to eat better for decades. How is that project going now?

Some people have been moving in the right direction, and the majority of people in the wrong direction. We can see that through the way people eat today versus the way they ate 50 or 60 years ago. Statistically, we definitely moved in the wrong direction. The whole world is getting fat, it’s just that Americans are at the leading edge of that. We’re getting fat, and we’re getting sicker, by the way. I mean, there’s a very high correlation between obesity and Covid deaths. And one of the reasons the United States has had more of a problem with Covid is simply that the comorbidities like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, they’re just higher in the U.S.

For those who don’t have access to a Whole Foods or can’t afford to shop at a Whole Foods, where do you think other companies or the government might be able to intervene to offer better, healthier options?

In some sense, we’re all food addicts. We love things that are rich, that are sweet. We love ice cream. We love popcorn. We love French fried potatoes. And the market is providing people what they want. I don’t think there’s an access problem. I think there’s a market demand problem. People have got to become wiser about their food choices. And if people want different foods, the market will provide it.