Whole Foods 365, millennials, and the alleged child sex abuser

On December 25, 2015, The New York Times reported Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey’s affiliation with alleged child sex abuser, former rabbi Marc Gafni:

“He [Gafni] added, ‘She was 14 going on 35, and I never forced her.'”

“A co-founder of Whole Foods, John Mackey, a proponent of conscious capitalism, calls Mr. Gafni ‘a bold visionary.’ He is a chairman of the executive board of Mr. Gafni’s center, and he hosts board meetings at his Texas ranch.”

After The Times story broke, Mackey issued a statement on his Whole Foods blog, declaring his affiliation with Gafni “strictly a personal relationship.” His statement includes a link to Gafni’s site and their seven-part video conversation. A webpage for Gafni’s Success 3.0 Summit says the 2016 Summit “is being hosted by John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods.”

A group of more than 100 rabbis authored a petition, demanding that Whole Foods and Mackey sever ties with Gafni. Sara Kabakov was the girl Gafni described in The Times as “14 going on 35.” She came forward publicly for the first time in a first-person essay published in the Forward.

Mackey has been roundly criticized for his affiliation to Gafni by experts in business and academia, and by advocates for survivors of sexual abuse (see Comments section below).

Gafni’s nonprofit Center for Integral Wisdom website was scrubbed of all executive board members’ profiles in January. Here is a screenshot of Mackey’s board profile on Gafni’s CIW site from January 3, 2016.


Jill Tolles from the University of Nevada said in her TEDx talk, Finding Courage to Talk About Child Sexual Abuse:

“If silence is a predator’s best friend, and if shame and denial are the ingredients that help this epidemic to grow, then how can any of us stay silent? Maybe instead of just focusing on how uncomfortable this conversation is, we could focus on how this is an opportunity to have courage.”


Mackey was a keynote speaker at the Conscious Capitalism 2016 conference in Chicago on April 14. Mackey is a board member of Conscious Capitalism, Inc. and a co-founder of the movement.

According to an interview in Forbes with Mackey and Gafni about conscious capitalism, “the authors have been in dialogue for years now about interesting crossovers in their thinking.” In response to my inquiries tweeted to the Conscious Capitalism Twitter account, I was blocked from their account. Conscious Capitalism co-CEO Doug Rauch and Peter Laughter, co-chair of the New York City Chapter of Conscious Capitalism, have made public statements, repudiating Gafni (see Comments, below).

Rauch sent me several scolding emails after I tweeted this blog post to attendees of the Conscious Capitalism conference. I assured him in my email responses that my only intention was to encourage Mackey to break his silence; and why it is important for him to do so.

Update, 4/6/16: According to a report in the Forward, a spokesperson for Gafni said Mackey’s term as board chair had ended — he did not resign. The source also said, “There was no break between Mackey and Gafni.”

A protest is planned at the opening of  Whole Foods’ first 365 Store, its initiative to lure millennials, in Los Angeles on May 25. Whole Foods’ strategy for luring millennials to its new 365 chain: Be a “super cool hang.” Given the scope of media attention, and imperative to change the culture by speaking up about sexual abuse, will millennials find Mackey’s silence about his relationship with Gafni super uncool?

Update, 4/20/16: A spokesperson for Whole Foods Market emailed: “John no longer serves on Mr. Gafni’s  board and has no connection to the Center for Integral Wisdom. That being said, there’s nothing else to say on this matter.”

Leaders of organizations and advocates working to eradicate childhood sexual abuse have voiced stern disagreement.

David Clohessy, Executive Director, SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests) made this statement in a separate press release issued by SNAP. (The SNAP group gained prominence on Oscar night when actor Mark Ruffalo, director Tom McCarthy and and screenwriter Josh Singer of the Spotlight movie joined the SNAP Los Angeles protest against sexual abuse in the Catholic church):

“We hope it’s true that CEO Mackey’s distancing himself from Gafni. If so, however, we disagree with the public relations staffer who claims ‘there’s nothing else to say on this matter.’ Mackey should apologize for his callousness and publicly announce his resignation from the board. He should also remove the link to Gafni’s CIW site on his Whole Foods blog. And since Mackey’s involvement in Gafni’s center has been hurtful to those who were assaulted by Gafni, we hope Mackey takes clear, public and effective steps to ameliorate their suffering and to contribute to a climate that welcomes and encourages victims of sexual violence to speak up, rather than a climate that depresses and deters them.

If you’ve hurt people, distancing yourself from a wrongdoer isn’t enough. You have a moral duty to do more. We hope to see tangible helpful action by Mackey very soon to lessen the harm he has caused by his irresponsible affiliation with and support for an admitted sex offender.”

Bill Murray, CEO and founder of NAASCA, emailed:

“John Mackey is oddly silent about his relationship with Marc Gafni, an admitted child sex abuser, yet continues to openly celebrate their close connection through multiple links and references on the official Whole Foods website and blog. This is tantamount to institutional enabling. In much the same way, officials at Penn State continued to deny the issues they faced with Jerry Sandusky on their campus far beyond the point at which they could have salvaged the sterling reputation of their university. As a community we need to bring light into the shadows of the oft taboo issues of child sexual abuse; to stop the silence and change the culture.

Whole Foods’ public statement, ‘there’s nothing else to say on this matter’ is tantamount to collusion with a known sexual predator. On the other hand, John Mackey and the Whole Foods Board of Directors have an opportunity here to impress the masses they’d like to reach with the Whole Foods 365 launch. Instead of stepping out of this discussion they should publicly step up to the plate by taking a responsible corporate stand against child sexual abuse as soon as possible.”


Time: Wednesday, May 25, 10am – 3pm

Place: Whole Foods 365:  2520 Glendale Blvd Los Angeles, CA 90039 Map It


Jo-Ellen Pozner, faculty, U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business:

“My take on this situation, in a nutshell, is that corporate leaders are showing a real lack of judgment in endorsing somebody with a tainted reputation of this particular sort. Not only does it show a disregard for important groups of stakeholders, it reveals a bit of hubris and tone-deafness. I think these sorts of associations are bad publicity, and reveal a blind spot which makes me question managerial judgment.”

Brad Hecht, Vice President and Chief Research Officer, Reputation Institute:

“As the founder of, primary spokesman for, and emotional leader of Whole Foods Market, John Mackey has a responsibility to immediately and directly address this issue. Whether he is willing to admit it or not, Mackey’s personal actions and associations will have a direct impact on the reputation of Whole Foods Market, and therefore the willingness of customers to support the company he leads.”

Peter Laughter, co-chair, New York City Chapter, Conscious Capitalism, Inc.:

“I believe that Marc Gafni’s admitted sexual liaison with a 13-year-old girl is reprehensible. Although Gafni has no connection to Conscious Capitalism, as a volunteer in the community, I am discouraged by John Mackey’s affiliation with Gafni’s organization. It is my hope that John reconsider this stance as he is a respected and representative thought leader in the Conscious Capitalism movement.”

Doug Rauch, co-CEO, Conscious Capitalism, Inc.:

“Conscious Capitalism has no professional association with Marc Gafni or the Center for Integral Wisdom and does not promote either in any way.  Conscious Capitalism does not condone, support or in any way remain silent on issues of sexual assault, harassment or abuse.  We are unequivocal that any type of abuse or assault is unacceptable, and we support a culture of open transparency, care and integrity in all personal interactions.”

Business Ethics Magazine, Spotlight on Whole Foods CEO’s Ties to ‘Spiritual Leader with Troubled Past’:

“If WFM’s board accepts that there is a firewall protecting the company from adverse attention in Mackey’s relationship with Gafni, as well as that the relationship is ‘in the company’s best interests,’ they shoulder accountability to stakeholders if they are wrong.”

Michael MessnerProfessor of Sociology and Gender Studies, University of Southern California, and co-author of Some Men: Feminist Allies and the Movement to End Violence Against Women

“There is a growing chorus of younger men today who denounce sexual violence against women.  But voiced opinions are one thing, and actions yet another.  Too often still, when men’s vested interests are at stake–be they in the corporate board room, the frat house or the locker room–otherwise ‘good men’ maintain a culture of silence that helps to perpetuate violence against women.”

Cary Krosinsky, Lecturer, Yale University:

“I think in a case like this, it should be the obligation of all investors to hold the companies they own to a minimum standard behavior.”

Nonprofit Quarterly, The Whole Mess at Whole Foods:

“Just like the hypocrisy of Bill Cosby’s moralizing about black respectability and Jared Fogle’s trying to help childhood obesity, Marc Gafni’s views and new age spirituality look very much like an attempt to overshadow the pain he has caused by letting the world know what a ‘profoundly good person’ he is. John Mackey is compounding this hypocrisy and bringing Whole Foods with him.”

Edward L. Queen, Director, Ethics and Servant Leadership Program, Center for Ethics, Emory University:

“I do think the CEO of Whole Foods has managed this horribly. He hasn’t demonstrated publicly the deep thoughtfulness of response these allegations warrant. There is a complete denial of human agency and responsibility.”

James AbruzzoCo-director, Institute for Ethical Leadership, Rutgers Business School:

“Sometimes the appearance of impropriety is itself improper.  As a person whose name, ideals and personal mission contribute to the brand value of a public company, Mackey’s responsibility to Whole Foods’ shareholders should outweigh any personal predilections.”

Sreedhari Desai, faculty, University of North Carolina, Kenan-Flagler Business School:

“We expect our leaders to personify their organizations’ values and when their behavior strikes a discordant note, we expect answers. I find it hard to believe that John Mackey isn’t concerned about this issue, but he needs to find a way to demonstrate his values in this arena, especially given the public’s growing awareness of the importance of speaking up.”

James McRitchie, Publisher, CorpGov.net:

“Mr. Mackey has a fiduciary duty to WFM shareholders. His affiliation with Gafni and the center certainly put the reputation and value of WFM at risk.” 

The Scripps Voice, Whole Foods Fails Abuse Survivors:

“Both Mackey’s actions and words up to this point have illustrated his blatant disregard for the safety and well being of Gafni’s victims. His notion of exclusive personal acquaintanceship holds very little truth and illustrates his calculated attempt to distance himself as one of Gafni’s business partners.”

David Clohessy, Executive Director, SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests):

“At first glance, the movie Spotlight is about clergy sex crimes and cover-ups in Boston. But a troubling and accurate sub-text throughout the film is that any number of people were alerted to the crisis but chose, for various reasons, not to pursue it. I hope Whole Foods co-founder and co-CEO John Mackey sees the movie and recognizes it as a call to action.”

Myka N. Held, Esq.Staff Attorney, SurvJustice:

“Given the dismal rates of prosecution of rapists, and the fact that even rapists who are prosecuted are not always convicted or appropriately punished, we cannot use the wide-spread failure of the criminal justice system as an excuse to let offenders off the hook. Marc Gafni has publicly admitted to having sex with a 13 year old girl while he was an adult. His attempts to shift blame to his young victim, stating that she was “14 going on 35″ are despicable and show both his lack of remorse for his crime and his inability to recognize the seriousness of his crime. For these reasons alone it is important for us as a society to hold him accountable, and part of the mechanisms for doing so require us to demand that his powerful friends end their support.”

Melissa Agnes, President and co-founder Agnes + Day, a crisis management firm:

“So with a disgraceful statement directly from the alleged offender, and with news articles affiliating the Whole Foods name with this scandal, along with a petition pleading with the organization to sever their ties with Gafni, what was Whole Foods to do? Organizations need to start waking up to the realities of today. The world has changed and the longer they wait to adapt, the worse it is for their business.”

Whole Foods 365, millennials, and the alleged child sex abuser

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