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“Conscious Capitalism” Icon Whole Foods Exploits Prison Labor


Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, whose net worth exceeds $100 million, is a fervent proselytizer on behalf of “conscious capitalism.” A self-described libertarian, Mackey believes the solution to all of the world’s problems is letting corporations run amok, without regulation. He believes this so fervently, in fact, he wrote an entire book extolling the magnanimous virtue of the free market.

At the same time, while preaching the supposedly beneficent gospel of the “conscious capitalism,” Mackey’s company Whole Foods, which has a $13 billion and growing annual revenue, sells overpriced fish, milk, and gourmet cheeses cultivated by inmates in US prisons.

The renowned “green capitalist” organic supermarket chain pays what are effectively indentured servants in the Colorado prison system a mere $1.50 per hour to farm organic tilapia.

Colorado prisons already grow 1.2 million pounds of tilapia a year, and government officials and their corporate companions are chomping at the bit to expand production.

That’s not all. Whole Foods also buys artisinal cheeses and milk cultivated by prisoners. The prison corporation Colorado Correctional Industries has created what Fortune describes as “a burgeoning $65 million business that employs 2,000 convicts at 17 facilities.”

The base pay of these prison workers is 60¢ per day. Whole Foods purchases cheeses from these prisons, which literally pay prison laborers mere pennies an hour, and subsequently marks up the price drastically.

This is by no means the only questionable practice of Whole Foods—a corporation that presents itself as the leader in a new generation of Benevolent Big Business. In June, it was revealed that the company had systematically overcharged customers in a variety of locations for at least half of a decade.

The double standards are striking. One would think exploiting prisoners—individuals incarcerated by the state—would contradict putative libertarian values of voluntarism, voluntary association, and non-coercion. Yet critics would argue right-wing libertarians have never been ones to demonstrate moral consistency.

In fact, Mackey also firmly opposes basic libertarian values vis-à-vis workers’ rights and labor organizing. He forbids Whole Foods employees from unionizing, comparing workers’ democratic control over their own workplaces and lives to herpes. A union “doesn’t kill you, but it’s unpleasant and inconvenient, and it stops a lot of people from becoming your lover,” the Whole Foods CEO declared.

Peddling Pseudo-Science While Worshiping the Market

Mackey is a disciple of Chicago and Austrian School libertarian gurus Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises. According to Reason, Mackey’s works are also “peppered with references to … astrology.”

It may ergo come as no surprise that a free-market aficionado who peddles pseudoscience like astrology is also an anthropogenic climate change denier. Close to 100% of the climate science community agrees that climate change is anthropogenic. Mackey, nevertheless, claims that climate change—which scientific research increasingly shows threatens human civilization and the continuation of life on this planet—”is perfectly natural and not necessarily bad.”

Many an economist has long argued that the empirical data thoroughly and conclusively debunk laissez-faire doctrine. Yet, a pseudoscientific intransigence has appeared to lead Mackey to even flirt with astrology and anthropogenic climate change denial.

Ian Plimer, a fringe figure popular in the anti-climate change community, recalls Mackey saying “‘no scientific consensus exists’ regarding the causes of climate change; [and adding], with a candor you could call bold or reckless, that it would be a pity to allow ‘hysteria about global warming’ to cause us ‘to raise taxes and increase regulation, and in turn lower our standard of living and lead to an increase in poverty.’”

In other words, just as Mackey contradicts his own purported values and exploits prison labor for profit, Mackey too denies science when it is convenient to his free-market capitalist ideology.

We should not be surprised. This, after all, is the inherently contradictory logic of the capitalist mode of production. The Market is God, and profit comes above all else—above your principles, above fellow humans, even above the planet we all share.

Ben Norton is a freelance writer and journalist. His website can be found at

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