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There a Conscious Capitalism?

By Corinne McLaughlin

Are you feeling alarmed about the growing greed and widespread harm caused by big corporations?  Did you know that today only 19% of Americans have confidence in big business?  Is capitalism an evil empire destroying our world—or can it save the world and “elevate humanity” as a recent conference I attended promised?

Despite all the problems caused by big business, I’ve been encouraged by some good news recently.  There’s a new movement growing across the country called “Conscious Capitalism”, started by former Trader Joe’s president Doug Rauch and the CEOs of a number of successful companies. They’ve found that applying spiritual and humane principles to business can actually help the bottom line.  How refreshing!  Profit and ethics don’t have to be in conflict.

“The true purpose of business is to improve our lives and create value for all stakeholders -- customers, employees, suppliers, investors, and society at large,” say John Mackey and Raj Sisodia, the co-authors of a new book called Conscious Capitalism.  Mackey is co-founder and CEO of the acclaimed $11 billion Whole Foods Market and Sisodia is Professor of Marketing at Bentley University. They were among the major speakers at the ground-breaking conference I recently attended called Conscious Capitalism: Elevating Humanity through Conscious Business.

I’ve been writing about the movement to bring spiritual values into business since 1998, but I was initially skeptical about this new Conscious Capitalism movement as Mackey made some bizarre political statements recently that drew a lot of criticism.  However, I found the philosophy and the examples presented by the Conscious Capitalism conference and his book both intriguing and inspiring—as well as brilliant marketing for Mackey’s company.

What do these proponents mean by “conscious”?  They say that “conscious” means being more fully awake and mindful of your inner self, so you can see reality more clearly and understand the consequences of your actions, both short and long term. 

As Casey Sheahan, CEO of Patagonia, the popular outdoor clothing company said at the conference, “Leadership is an inside job.” By becoming more conscious, capitalism can create more community, more mutuality, and paradoxically, more profit because it engages all the stakeholders in the system in a mutually beneficial way.

Profit maximization isn’t the main cause of business success according to this new approach.  “Profit is a business result, not a purpose,” says Patricia Aburdene, author of Conscious Money and Megatrends 2010. Conscious businesses are growing today in the real world and a representative sample has outperformed the overall stock market by a ratio of over 10 to 1 from 1996 to 2011 according to Conscious Capitalism.  Why is this?  Because customers love them and love the value they offer.  Some well-known, larger conscious businesses include Whole Foods, The Container Store, Google, Southwest Airlines, Bon Appepit, REI, Patagonia, Trader Joe’s and the Tata companies of India.

“Our success didn’t come from focusing on money,” Fedele Bauccio reported at the Conscious Capitalism conference. Bauccio is CEO of Bon Appetit with over $1 billion in revenues. He said it was the result of focusing on their higher purpose of providing good food as well as environmental sustainability.

Mackey and Sisodia outline four keys in their Conscious Capitalism book for long-term success: having a higher purpose, stakeholder integration, conscious leadership, and conscious culture and management.  They see higher purpose is a definitive statement about the need in the world that you are meeting and the difference you are trying to make. “It’s where your talents and the needs of the world intersect,” as Roy Spence said at the conference.

A higher purpose is transcendent, energizing and inspiring for all stakeholders. It gives tremendous energy and relevance to a business and inspires employees, attracting the best people. Inspired employees then attract enthusiastic customers.

For example, Mackey says the purpose of Whole Foods Market was originally just to sell healthy food, make a profit and have fun. But then their purpose expanded into educating people in healthy eating to reduce obesity and heart disease, and into protecting the environment.  Now they’ve expanded their purpose again to include helping end poverty worldwide through their Planet Foundation, which provides micro-enterprise loans to the poor.  Whole Foods donates 5 to 10% of their profits to good causes.

When a business communicates its values and purpose consistently, it attracts stakeholders—employees, customers, suppliers and investors--who are most aligned with its philosophy and vision, says Mackey. This is the secret of success.  Mackey says his practice of yoga and meditation help him stay aligned with his higher purpose. And he credits his study of Eastern philosophy and religion with contributing to his success as an entrepreneur, as he had no traditional business studies to unlearn.  He tells people that his company was unable to grow until he was able to evolve—his personal growth enabled the company to evolve.

Employees are key stakeholders in a conscious business because when they’re happy, they make customers happy. Several of the larger conscious companies, such as Google and the Container Store, have been included in “The 100 Best Companies to Work For” by Fortune magazine. These 100 Best Companies outperformed the market between 1997 and 2011, according to Conscious Capitalism. Google offers employees many benefits, such as free meals, as well an optional Mindfulness meditation training program it calls “Search Inside Yourself,” started by Google engineer Meng Tan.

When work becomes more meaningful to employees and they are empowered and cared for with innovative healthcare and generous benefits, they become more creative. As their personal development is supported, they in turn produce more value for the company. At Whole Foods, employee turnover is less than 10%, compared to an industry average of 100%, and this saves recruiting and training costs.  Employees are officially called “team members” to emphasize a more caring and egalitarian approach, and every meeting ends with appreciations.

Conscious managers create a supportive and empowering business culture that embodies trust, accountability, and loyalty. Nordstrom’s stores, for example, tell their employees, “Rule #1: Use good judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.”

When a company’s leaders are more conscious, expressing “emotional intelligence” and “spiritual intelligence”—qualities such as caring, compassion, integrity, transparency and intuition--the business thrives.  Conscious leadership today also requires systems intelligence—the ability to see relationships and how everything is interconnected, such as multiple stakeholder needs.

Suppliers are also key stakeholders in Conscious Capitalism.  A collaborative partnership with suppliers that encourages innovation is crucial for competitive advantage.  Many companies, such as Patagonia, have recognized both the ethical and the business case for working with more conscious suppliers of their clothing.  They provide safer working conditions for their employees, for example.

Financial stakeholders who are guided by values and connected with their higher purpose are essential to Conscious Capitalism, according to Mackey and Sisodia.  These shareholders are more patient than those concerned with short-term returns and a quick exit strategy. A conscious business sees investors as true partners and knows it’s important to listen to them and develop good relationships with them.

A parallel conscious investing movement is recently emerging that I’ve become  involved with, catalyzed by some of the founders of the Social Investment movement. (See my previous article on Conscious Investing). Conscious investing begins with self-awareness and builds long-term relationships based on mutual respect and trust.  Investment decisions are made mindfully and are based on ethical, spiritual and social values that honor all life.

When a company recognizes the larger society and the natural environment as key stakeholders, as Paul Hawken notes in his book Natural Capitalism, it reduces its energy use and negative environmental impacts.  UPS’ leading edge sustainability practices not only reduced its energy use, but also increased its efficiency.  Ray Anderson, founder of Interface Carpets, became an outstanding example of a conscious leader in sustainability and a transforming force for good.

When the interests of various stakeholders—suppliers, customers, employees, investors or community-- are in conflict, conscious, ethical leaders are committed to finding innovative, synergistic solutions that are win/win/win. This is the key to a company’s financial success and good public relations as well. 

If this Conscious Capitalism movement continues to prove the business case for applying consciousness principles, and the profits of companies applying them grow more rapidly than others—this might actually help change the world!


Corinne McLaughlin is co-author of The Practical Visionary, Spiritual Politics (Foreword by the Dalai Lama), and Builders of the Dawn and is co-founder of The Center for Visionary Leadership in California.  She directed a national task force for President Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development and is a Fellow of The World Business Academy and the Findhorn Foundation.  She is a co-founder of Sirius Community, a spiritual/environmental center in Massachusetts and a member of The Transformational Leadership Council.;;


lives and help citizens build communities that are environmentally sound, economically prosperous and socially just.


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