Whole Foods: Designing a Green Organization to Serve Green Consumers

If you live anywhere near an American city, you’ve likely shopped at Whole Foods. Started by John Mackey as a vegetarian grocery store in 1978, the company has grown to more than 500 stores. The profitable company has also made Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” every year since the list began.

Whole Foods embodies the Green value system of Graves’ Spiral Dynamics model both in the customers it targets—health-conscious consumers who don’t mind paying a little more for organic and locally sourced food—but also in its culture and organizational structure. John Mackey talks about the importance of Spiral Dynamics in a keynote speech he gave to employees at their Whole Foods Tribal Gathering in Austin in March of 2006. This talk can be found on the company’s blog. Mackey also mentions Spiral Dynamics in his book, Conscious Capitalism.

The Green value system is communal and hierarchy avoidant. Green likes to include everyone, collaborate, and work together as a team. It’s focused on healing the self and the planet, having a strong mission, and helping others. Sounds like Whole Foods, right?

These values are built into each of the company’s systems. Each store has 8-10 teams that help decide what to order, pricing, layout, and perhaps most importantly, who to hire. Once a new employee is hired, they are placed on a team for a trial period. After the trial period, the employee must receive two-thirds majority vote from the team to become an employee. If an employee doesn’t receive the necessary votes, they must either find a new team and repeat the process or leave the company. This process is used for employees at all levels of the company and has helped the Whole Foods culture survive through mergers, acquisitions, and periods of rapid growth.

This type of company culture appeals to employees who are within the Green layer. It would likely not appeal to individuals with an Orange-dominant lens because it is very communal, and Orange prefers an individual success-driven and materialistic focus. It would also likely not appeal to individuals with a Red-dominant value system who value strength and dominance in leaders.

The growing influence of Green consumers grew the value of the Whole Foods, as reflected in the recent sale of the company to Amazon for $13.7 billion in 2017. However, since its acquisition by Amazon, Whole Foods has already cut health benefits for part-time employees, reflecting Amazon’s Orange-dominant value system. It will be interesting to see if Green consumers continue to support the store if Amazon’s culture begins to affect the overall shopping experience.

Spiral Dynamics is a theory of human and societal development uncovered by  Dr. Clare W. Graves (1914-1986). Graves was a developmental psychologist and professor of psychology at Union College in Schenectady, New York. He was a peer of Abraham Maslow.

Graves’ model is a bio-psycho-social one based on more than two decades of research. According to Ken Wilber, the founder of the Integral movement which incorporates Spiral Dynamics, the Gravesian model has so far “been tested in more than fifty thousand people from around the world, and there have been no major exceptions found in the general scheme.” It has also been called, the Theory of Everything.

With this model, Graves discovered the underlying pattern for human and societal change. He identified eight unique stages (or layers as I refer to them) that we move through in a set sequence. However, the model continues beyond these stages and is “neverending”. As long as humanity survives, we will grow and evolve.

Your Colors

I’ve created a free assessment that you can take to find out your colors. You will receive a report with the results of your assessment, showing you a ranking of your top value systems by color.

Want to learn more about Spiral Dynamics? Check out my Spiral Dynamics Resource page or read more articles on the topic including more info on each color/layer.

Your Turn

I want to hear from you. How did you first learn about Spiral Dynamics? How have you used this theory in your personal or business development? Share your experience in the comments.