Breaking the culture of silence surrounding sexual violence has never been more front and center in the zeitgeist. As Vice President Joe Biden told the Oscars audience last month, “We must and we can change the culture.”
That was when he introduced Lady Gaga, who sang Til It Happens to You, her Oscar-nominated song from The Hunting Ground, a documentary about sexual assault on college campuses. A group of 50 survivors of sexual assault joined Gaga onstage, met by a teary and thunderous ovation, an acknowledgement of their bravery in coming forward.
So it comes as little surprise that the weight of criticism continues to amass over Whole Foods’ silence, following The New York Times story about CEO John Mackey’s relationship with alleged sex offender, former rabbi Marc Gafni.
As The Times reported in December: “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 story broke, Mackey issued a statement on his Whole Foods blog, characterizing his relationship with Gafni as “personal.”
A group of more than 100 rabbis launched a online petition, demanding Mackey and Whole Foods sever ties with Gafni. Since then, the chorus of criticism about Mackey’s and Whole Foods’ silence has continued to grow louder.
But a bold and clear voice has emerged, breaking the silence. Conscious Capitalism. Mackey co-founded the Conscious Capitalism Movement, and is a board member of nonprofit Conscious Capitalism, Inc. He is listed as a keynote speaker of the Conscious Capitalism annual conference in April, in Chicago.
Doug Rauch, CEO of Conscious Capitalism Inc., (and former President of Trader Joe’s) emailed:
“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.”
Until now, there has been some understandable confusion about Gafni’s association with Conscious Capitalism. The Esalen Institute (which earlier this year was a focal point of the Gafni controversy, canceling his scheduled appearance) and the Conscious Capitalism Institute co-sponsored a 2012 “Conclave on Conscious Business.” Gafni was the opening speaker and “launched the week’s conversations.” Rauch said Conscious Capitalism did not invite Gafni to the conclave, nor to any other Conscious Capitalism event; rather, he had been invited by Esalen leaders.
Further fueling the confusion about Gafni’s association with the movement, the Center for Integral Wisdom website features a Conscious Capitalism portal. A 2014 piece published in Forbes, intertwines Gafni, Mackey, and Conscious Capitalism into a singular narrative.
So it’s easy to see how Gafni came to be associated with the Conscious Capitalism movement. But Conscious Capitalism voices are now unified in declaring that the movement and organization have nothing to do with Gafni. In fact, they unequivocally denounce him.
“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.”
So where are John Mackey and Whole Foods in all this? As of this writing, they remain silent. No one from Whole Foods has responded to email or phone inquiries.
In December, then-Whole Foods media representative Michael Silverman emailed a statement, similar to the one on Mackey’s blog, characterizing the CEO’s relationship with Gafni as “personal.”According to his Linkedin profile, Mr. Silverman appears to have departed Whole Foods in February. Whole Foods’ SVP and Chief Marketing Officer Jeannine Davis D’Addario also appears to have parted ways with the company in February, according to her Linkedin profile.
Ms. D’Addario declined to comment on the details surrounding her presumed departure from the company. Mr. Silverman did not respond to a Linkedin message.
Whole Foods Market is listed as a “premium sponsor” of Gafni’s 2014 Success 3.0 Summit. The webpage for the 2016 Success 3.0 Summit says the event “is being hosted by John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods.”
The CIW site includes a photos from “The CIW Board Meeting 2015: An Outrageous Love Story,” at Mackey’s Texas ranch. Gafni’s CIW website was scrubbed in January, removing profile pages of all executive board members, including that of John Mackey.
A screenshot pictured below. No one from the Center for Integral Wisdom has responded to phone call or email inquiries about why the board profiles were taken down from the site.
A swarm of media attention followed The Times story, including a first-person account by Sara Kabakov, published in the Forward. Sara was the girl Gafni described in The Times as “14 going on 35.” It was her first time coming forward publicly.
Feminism columnist Evelyn Gonzalez wrote in the Scripps Voice:
“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.”
Gael O’Brien, writing in Business Ethics Magazine raised this concern:
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.
Amy Butcher in Nonprofit Quarterly observed:
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.
Likewise, critics continue to raise concern about Mackey’s and Whole Foods’ silence on this matter. Echoing the voices of experts who offered commentary in my previous op-ed in Epic Times, specialists continue to express their consternation.
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.
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. As a board member of the nonprofit, his dismissiveness of the allegations, which could cause tremendous damage to the Center for Integral Wisdom, is arguably a dereliction of his fiduciary duty.
James Abruzzo, Co-director, Institute for Ethical Leadership, Rutgers Business School:
I am not in a position to pass judgment on Mr. Gafni, but there seems to be enough negative publicity to warrant distance. 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.
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.
So what about those investors? Are they holding Whole Foods accountable? Andrew Williams, spokesperson for Goldman Sachs, the largest institutional investor in Whole Foods emailed that the firm has no comment. Likewise, none of these shareholders of Whole Foods Market responded to email inquiries (they either responded with emails declining to comment, or did not respond at all).
- Canada Pension Plan Investment Board
- California State Teachers’ Retirement System
- Florida State Board of Administration
- Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan
- Texas Teacher Retirement System
- Calvert Social Investment Funds
- Domini Social Equity Funds
- Trillium Asset Management
- Christian Brothers Investment Services
The last of these shareholders, CBIS notes on its website, “Catholic Responsible Investing” and “The Good We Do is Based on the Moral Actions We Take.” Since the spotlight of this story is on the culture of silence surrounding sexual violence allegedly committed by a clergy member, given the Catholic Church’s praise of the movie Spotlight, CBIS might be paying particular attention to Whole Foods’ conduct in this matter.
Melissa Agnes, Crisis Management Consultant and Keynote Speaker, President Agnes + Day Inc.:
“Mackey states very blatantly that he is only disassociating himself from a professional standpoint, not from a personal one. This in itself is a mistake, in my professional opinion, from a corporate crisis management perspective. This sends a mixed message and shows stakeholders and the general public that he still supports Gafni and his Center. This mixed message is then amplified by Mackey continuing to link to Gafni’s organization’s website from the Whole Foods Market website, giving the message that WFM is still associated with, and in support of, Gafni’s organization.“
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.
Will the weight of criticism about their affiliation with an admitted sexual predator compel John Mackey and Whole Foods to break the culture of silence? We urge them to be at least as brave as the survivors of sexual assault who have stepped forward. On behalf of all survivors of sexual violence, we implore them to speak up.