For many years, I considered myself well-informed on animal husbandry and believed that Whole Foods had rigorous standards that were best in class. That all changed at our annual shareholder meeting in 2003.
For anyone who has ever led or attended this type of meeting, you know that it’s not uncommon to have protestors onsite. We had several disruptive individuals from various animal activist groups present that year. As I was walking out of the meeting, I was approached by an activist from VIVAUSA, Lauren Ornelas. She told me that while I was well-intentioned and idealistic, I was misinformed about the animal welfare practices of our suppliers and challenged me to learn more. The encounter was relatively brief, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
I decided to accept her challenge. After a summer of reading a dozen or so books to educate myself on the livestock industry and animal welfare, it became crystal clear that Lauren was right. I was horrified by what I had learned and realized that I needed to learn more about the subject. I knew that some significant changes were necessary, both personally and at Whole Foods. I had been a vegetarian for many years, but I began practicing a vegan diet for ethical reasons as a result of this conversation. The experience also catalyzed a conscious evolution to elevate Whole Foods’ animal welfare standards. I felt we had a responsibility to do a better job finding suppliers who took better care of their animals. We had our first multi-stakeholder meeting later that year with animal activists, ranchers, animal scientists, and leaders from Whole Foods to begin upgrading our standards. Convening each of these stakeholders and creating the space to listen and better understand things from each of their perspectives was an incredibly important experience. The insights we gained from these discussions ultimately led to higher standards for animal welfare at Whole Foods and the creation of the Global Animal Partnership (GAP).
This was a major milestone for the company and a time of awakening for me. Sometimes leaders struggle when confronted with ideas that challenge their own views or the company’s position on a matter. I’m certainly not suggesting that challengers and naysayers are always right, but they can help unearth a problem or opportunity you wouldn’t have otherwise considered. The willingness to open your mind to the possibility that there may be validity in their point of view is a requirement for conscious leaders.
I am proud of the role Whole Foods has played in elevating animal welfare standards, but there’s still so much change needed across the industry. If you are interested in learning more about why I chose to adopt a vegan lifestyle, click here.