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10 Faux Progressive Companies ... With Some Dirty Secrets

Many of these companies have earned credibility among progressives, despite having a poor track record with the environment, sexism, union busting, monopolizing, and more.

What makes a company "progressive"? A CEO's lefty politics? A dedication to people over profits? A solid environmental track record?

Many companies have earned credibility among progressives by marketing themselves as "different" (Apple), "green" (Seventh Generation), or "anti-sweatshop" (American Apparel), despite having a poor track record with the environment, sexism, union busting, monopolizing, and more. These companies are boosting revenues by tapping into the growing demand for socially-conscious products and businesses, especially among the wealthy, well-educated sub-set of progressive consumers.

I rounded up information on ten of the best-known companies that should be a disappointment to progressive consumers:

1. Apple -- Apple has long positioned itself as the computer company for creative types -- people who "think different" and are the antithesis of square, monopolistic Microsoft. That marketing has worked well for Apple; left-leaning cities like New York City and San Francisco are positively dripping with iPhones and MacBooks.

Although Apple products are beloved by progressives, Apple doesn't uphold a number of progressive values. For instance, the company has sneaky ways of getting around having to offer affordable health insurance to many of its workers, including including those who work 40 hours a week. Maddeningly, when workers voiced concerns about insurance and working conditions at the company, Apple managers responded by saying that working at Apple “should be looked at as an experience.”

Apple also avoids paying its share of taxes by moving its patents and intellectual property (some of its biggest assets) to subsidiaries in overseas tax havens.

And then there's the troubling spate of suicides among factory workers at Foxconn, which manufactures Apple products. Believed to be the largest factory on the planet, Foxconn maintains poor conditions for its workers -- 10-hour work days with no communication allowed, little time off, and workers crammed in company dorms. Apple said it is investigating conditions for Foxconn workers. Changes so far include a wage hike and suicide prevention strategies (including, morbidly, hanging nets outside factory windows). However, the bigger issue remains: why are factory conditions overseas so poor, and why are major American companies allowing those conditions to persist?

2. Whole Foods -- Whole Foods may have started out as an independently owned, crunchy granola health food store in Austin, Texas, but the company long ago abandoned many of its hippie values.

Before I get into the problems with Whole Foods, I should note that there are many legitimately progressive facets of the company. For instance, Whole Foods pays its workers a living wage, with decent benefits, and as of 2006 no Whole Foods executive made more than 14 times what the average employee made. By comparison, the average U.S. CEO made 344 times more than the average worker in 2007, so Whole Foods' efforts to keep the executive-worker pay ratio in check is commendable.

However, there are some serious problems with the company. Despite paying its workers relatively fairly, Whole Foods is actively anti-union, having been a part of the corporate effort to rewrite the pro-labor Employee Free Choice Act. What's more, Whole Foods' CEO John Mackey once said, "The union is like having herpes. It doesn't kill you, but it's unpleasant and inconvenient, and it stops a lot of people from becoming your lover."

Mackey, a self-avowed free-market libertarian and fan of Ayn Rand, is also famously opposed to healthcare reform. Back in 2009, he wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal opposing a single-payer system. "We are all responsible for our own lives and our own health," he wrote. "We should take that responsibility very seriously and use our freedom to make wise lifestyle choices that will protect our health."

Another recent dust-up involved the company apparently bending to Islomophobic bloggers and scaling back a planned Ramadan promotion.