Moving Faster Toward the Future of Food, Cars, and Energy

In 1978, John Mackey and Renee Lawson were evicted from their house. Their small natural foods store had run out of space so they were storing bulk bags of flour and rice in their living room. Undeterred, the future Whole Foods founder and his then-girlfriend moved to the third floor of their store. There was no shower, so they bathed with a dishwasher hose. At the time, Mackey was hard to separate from the owners of the hundreds of small natural foods stores across the country. Today he is not. In 2005, his company joined the Fortune 500. In 2014, Whole Foods was the 30th largest retailer in the US. By the end of last year, Mackey was CEO of a chain of 430 stores across the US, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

But over that same time, the significance of Whole Foods’ story has changed dramatically. A decade or two ago, the question about the retailer was: How did a company whose unique value included pesticide-free kale, natural dish detergent, and organic breakfast cereal become a huge commercial success? Today these questions are no longer relevant. We might think organic bananas are a rip-off. But we have no trouble believing that there is huge demand for them.

Neither do Whole Foods’ supermarket competitors. Krogers, Walmart, Target, and Costco are all seeing rapid growth in their organic and natural food products. Before 2000, there wasn’t even a classification system for organic food. By 2015, the sector represented 5% of all US food sales. Desperate to meet growing demand, huge industrial food corporations like General Mills, Kellogg’s, and ConAgra are paying farmers to convert to organic practices years before they will actually produce any organic food.

The real and lasting significance of Whole Foods is not how Mackey created or dominated a market. Instead, it’s how he catalyzed positive change in the larger ecosystem of food. Change like this happens now across whole ecosystems of food, cars, energy, and more through innovation and competition among big and small players, and their impacts across vast networks of people, regulators, technologies, and environments. By innovating with a natural food grocery store that had a wider selection of items than the health food stores of the ’80s and ’90s, Whole Foods helped evolve a whole ecosystem. As such, the company played a huge role in refiguring the relationship between global consumers and the big food industry.

In this sense, Whole Foods’ story isn’t about a single visionary leader or one successful company. It’s about moving forward the transition from mostly industrialized and processed food to more healthy, sustainable, and local options.

Over the same 25 or so years that our food ecosystem has been evolving, we’ve seen similar disruptive and positive change in other ecosystems. In the auto industry, for instance, the Prius was a huge success leading to the adoption of hybrid and electric vehicles. But, again, the lasting significance of the Prius is not that it was a visionary breakthrough. It was how an ecosystem developed to a level where now every major car company is competing with their own electric or hybrid vehicles. Controlling greenhouse gas emissions will be impossible without the growth of alternative drive-train vehicles. By itself, the Prius will barely move the needle. But an innovative ecosystem that brings together, for example, GM, Honda and Tesla can make a real impact.

Even more important to our future greenhouse gas emissions is the evolution of the energy ecosystem. Recent innovations in solar power technology sparked business model innovation to lease or sell solar systems directly to consumers, followed by the growth of state and federal subsidies, and dropping costs. Entire countries, like Germany; cities, like San Francisco; and global corporations, like Walmart, have committed to be powered by mostly renewable energy within the next five to ten years. According to a report from the United Nations Environmental Programme, the total world energy generation from renewables was 9.1% in 2014 up from 8.5% in 2013. In the next decade, this ecosystem will drive the cost of renewable electricity to a critical tipping point. Renewable sources like solar and wind will hit widespread parity with conventional electricity prices by kilowatt per hour within the next five to ten years.

The changes in all these ecosystems have two things in common. First, they are the result of disruptive innovation. Second, they need to happen much more quickly going forward. To solve global challenges, like climate change and food and water scarcity, we need to move from evolving ecosystems in a positive direction to transforming ecosystems. Healthy and sustainable food must be made more affordable and more widely available than what is represented by the 5% of largely well-off Americans buying organics today. Electric vehicle sales, powered by better and cheaper batteries, must overtake the sales of gasoline-powered cars in coming decades. Renewable energy generation must rapidly accelerate beyond currently predicted growth rates of a less than 1% annual increase in the share of global energy usage.

Investing in big innovations to accelerate the transformation of our ecosystems, from food to cars to energy and beyond, is critical to solving our world’s biggest problems. But succeeding will take much more than five—or even 500—Elon Musks, CEO of Tesla Motors, working to transform their ecosystems. We must move from relying on the limited number of visionary leaders to accelerating visionary ecosystems with much more unlimited potential. We would need cooperation and competition within every major industry compelling their competitors, investors, consumers, and regulators to invest in the innovations we need for the future of our water, food, energy, homes, and mobility. Only diverse and innovative ecosystems will lead to the solutions we need for the future of everything that matters.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.