Whole Foods visitor explains why sustainability sells

by Balt Heldring (GSB ’14)

Growing concern over corporate responsibility has led today’s companies to actively integrate sustainability principles into their businesses.

What does that actually mean?

These companies are going above and beyond earlier concerns for managing a good reputation by developing green products, saving energy and giving back to the communities surrounding their customer base. American supermarket Whole Foods Market is no different.

Founded in 1980 by John Mackey, Whole Foods has become the eighth-largest food and drug store in the country. A company representative visited Professor Michael Pirson’s Sustainable Business Foundations class last week to talk about how a strategic focus on sustainability has helped Whole Foods to get there.

The company’s strategy for providing a quality customer and employee experience is focused on loyalty, public relations manager Michael Sinatra explained. Whole Foods decided many years ago that its corporate identity would be transparency. In other words, it would show the public everything, leaving nothing to the imagination. The goal was to set the store apart from the rest of an economy where deception and cover-ups often seemed to be the norm.

“The quality of service to our customers is one of the most important aspects of our business,” Sinatra said. “It not only gives us a purpose, but it allows our business to operate in a conscientious manner as well.”

The principal way Whole Foods demonstrates its conscientiousness is through its product selection. Customers shop there because they want fresh, natural foods without genetically modified ingredients. Whole Foods caters to them, for example, by clearly labeling all products that have artificial ingredients. It also markets to its target customer through prominent signage that shows which foods are organic, locally grown or both.

“We want to provide as many organic products as possible, which will hopefully allow us to grow our core customer base,” Sinatra said.

Customers are not Whole Foods’ only focus. Employees figure into Whole Foods’ sustainable business plan, too. Sinatra said that the company is “built on growth” and dedicated to cultivating talent from within: It wants each entry-level employee to work with the idea that he or she could end up as an executive. This philosophy, along with other employee benefits, was a key factor in Fortune magazine’s decision to rate Whole Foods one of the “best companies to work for” 16 years running. It ranked No. 71 on the list of 100 in 2013, down from No. 32 in 2012.

Company founder John Mackey wrote in his book Conscious Capitalism that “business in itself is the greatest value the world has ever known.” Over the years, Whole Foods has strived to establish itself as a business whose value is derived from creating a unique customer experience not found anywhere else — one of many reasons why it is a growing, sustainable business.

Photographs courtesy of Bearden (top), Mark Stevens (center) and Lis Ferla (bottom) on Flickr’s Creative Commons.

Facebook Twitter Linkedin Email