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Capitalism gets a bad rap, Whole Foods CEO says

Whole Foods chief calls criticism unfair

Whole Foods cochief executive John Mackey spoke at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast.

Charlie Mahoney for The Boston Globe

Whole Foods cochief executive John Mackey spoke at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast.

Whole Foods Market cochief executive John Mackey, not known for muffling his opinions, says US businesses are “under attack” from critics who unfairly malign capitalism.

Speaking at a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast Thursday, Mackey said the public perception of how most companies operate is out of line with reality.

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‘‘Business is fundamentally good and has created more value in the world than any other institution,” the upscale-supermarket chain executive told an audience at the Seaport World Trade Center.

Mackey, 59, is on a national tour to promote a book, “Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business.” He was joined at the Seaport by his coauthor, Raj Sisodia, a professor of marketing at Bentley University in Waltham and the cofounder — with Mackey — of the nonprofit Conscious Capitalism Inc.

Their book makes a case for the “inherent good of capitalism” and pushes for a new age of business leadership and higher purpose.

“If we allow it, I have no doubt capitalism will wipe out poverty and illiteracy,” Mackey said at the breakfast. “Humanity has been lifted up by business and yet it has been completely hijacked by its enemies who create a narrative that business is selfish, and greedy, and exploitative.”

Mackey, who cofounded what would become Whole Foods in 1978 as a 25-year-old college dropout, has made no secret of his disdain for government-imposed business mandates. In recent weeks, his sharp attack on President Obama’s national health care reform put him in the media spotlight.

‘If we allow it, I have no doubt capitalism will wipe out poverty and illiteracy.’

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In an interview with NPR, Mackey characterized so-called Obamacare as “fascism,” saying the plan’s coverage requirements will cost employers too much money. The remark drew a largely negative response from listeners. He made another appearance on NPR to quell the criticism, saying, “I realize that [fascism] has so much baggage associated with it, from World War II with Germany and Italy and Spain, that that’s just such a very provocative word, so I regret using it.”

He made a similar apology on the television show “CBS This Morning.’’ Days later, he was back at it, telling Mother Jones that global warming “is perfectly natural and not necessarily bad.” Hype over climate change, he warned, could “stop virtually all economic progress.”

On Thursday in Boston, Mackey said businesses should be free to “realize their higher purpose beyond making money” and “create value for all stakeholders.” He illustrated that ethic by citing Whole Foods’ employee culture, which he said is based on “empowerment, decentralization, collaboration, and love.”

Fortune magazine has named Whole Foods one of the top companies to work for 15 years in a row. The chain operates more than 340 grocery stores — including 21 in Massachusetts — and generated $11.7 billion in revenue during the last fiscal year. “We really do think this is the future of business,” he said of the company’s philosophy. “And our economic outperformance proves that.”

Alyssa Edes can be reached at alyssa.edes@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @alyssaedes.
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