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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.

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While Hollender continues to advocate a more sustainable culture, he also points out why the company he created is nowhere near as ethical as it could or should be. "I didn’t institutionalize values in the corporate structure," he says. And it's safe to say that Seventh Generation's values won't get any better now that Hollender is gone.

6. American Apparel -- I remember when I first heard of American Apparel, about eight years ago. I couldn't believe how wonderful it sounded: sweatshop-free clothing, made right here in the U.S. of A. The company vocally supports sensible immigration reform and same-sex marriage and uses a "vertically integrated" business model that "minimizes the use of sub-contractors and offshore labor." Sounds great, doesn't it?

However, like Whole Foods, American Apparel suffers from a problem of a bad-apple founder and CEO -- in this case, Dov Charney. More than a dozen female American Apparel employees and models have sued Charney for sexual harassment, and stories from the American Apparel offices and retail outlets suggest that the practice is widespread. Many of the allegations are extremely disturbing ("ex-employee Jeneleen Floyd sued Charney for, among other things, ordering her to pretend to masturbate, and ordering her male supervisor to pretend to masturbate in front of her.”). But perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that most of the legal cases against Charney have been derailed by the arbitration and confidentiality agreements that new employees are required to sign, preventing them from publicly suing the CEO.

Charney was also recently in hot water after he okayed a t-shirt bearing the disgusting slogan "teenagers do it better." The company's ads are of course widely considered to be sexist. And then there's the time Charney was quoted saying that domestic violence "has made a victim culture out of women." He's a real class act.

7. Starbucks -- What could be more crunchy-granola progressive than a coffee shop from the Pacific Northwest that sells loads of Fair Trade coffee?

Of course, Starbucks is no longer just a "coffee shop from the Pacific Northwest" -- it's a major corporation with more than 17,000 locations worldwide. And although Starbucks is unique among major companies for offering relatively good benefits to even part-time employees, it has also come under progressive scrutiny for being anti-union and illegally suppressing organizing efforts by firing and threatening to fire a number of employees for engaging in union activity.

And about that Fair Trade business: although Starbucks does sell a significant amount of Fair Trade coffee (it is, in fact, the largest purchaser of Fair Trade coffee in the word), many environmental and food activists argue that Starbucks could be doing much more. The company sells bags of Fair Trade coffee at their stores, but consumers have to make a special request to get a cup of the stuff brewed for them. In all, just 10% of the coffee Starbucks sells is Fair Trade. Because Starbucks is so huge, that comes out to 40 million pounds per year; but the company has a responsibility to increase that percentage to ensure that its coffee suppliers are receiving a fair wage and are not victims of forced or child labor.

8. Urban Outfitters -- Hipsters, take note! Urban Outfitters is the kind of place that's filled to the brim with young, cool, vaguely lefty-looking people, but the company itself (which also owns Anthropologie and Free People) has plenty of issues.

As this Philadelphia Weekly story from 2003 notes, "While the typical Urban Outfitters shopper is likely to be liberal-minded--as is the province and privilege of youth--the fiftysomething [Urban Outfitters president Richard] Hayne is mom-and-apple-pie conservative." Just how conservative is he? Payne and his wife have given at least $13,000 to Rick Santorum. So, that conservative.

In the same article, Hayne acknowledges that the vast majority of Urban Outfitters' clothing is made in sweatshops in the developing world -- a fact he seems to have no qualms about. He says that if he employed companies that pay their garment workers fairly, "most of his customers could not afford the price he would have to charge to turn a profit" -- little consolation for shoppers who routinely pay $44 for a tank top.

What's more, Urban Outfitters has repeatedly been targeted for selling racist and sexist products, appropriating Native American culture, and stealing designs from local artists.

9. Google -- Google's informal corporate motto, "Don't be evil," and one of its ten corporate philosophies, "You can make money without doing evil," sure make the company sound like it's on the up-and-up.

Indeed, Google has become so huge and ubiquitous that it was almost inevitable that the creators of the ever-popular Gmail, the company whose office is basically a playground for adults, would eventually become, well, evil.

The criticisms of Google are numerous enough to warrant their own Wikipedia entry; they include widespread privacy concerns, censorship of search results, and the company's unwillingness to uphold Net Neutrality principles.

10. The Coca-Cola Company
-- What is Coca-Cola doing on this list, you ask? What progressive worth her salt would ever think a $35 billion-a-year company that markets high fructose corn syrup to kids is up to any good?

I'll tell you who: a progressive who buys Vitamin Water, or Honest Tea, or Odwalla juices -- all brands that are owned by the Coca-Cola Company.

The list of grievances against Coca-Cola is long and varied. The company has been responsible for human rights violations and the depletion of water resources in Colombia and India, union repression in South America, poor environmental practices around the globe, and monopolistic tendencies.


Now that we've gonna through all that, it's full disclosure time: I'm typing this article on an Apple laptop, I regularly shop at the Trader Joe's near my apartment, and I've been known to use the wifi at Starbucks from time to time. That's all to say that I don't think patronizing these companies makes you a bad progressive (or a bad person). I do believe in "supporting change with your wallet," and there are plenty of companies out there that really are doing good things for the world, and they should absolutely get your business.

But let's be real: even the most socially and environmentally conscious among us has to live with some uncomfortable paradoxes. Thinking about becoming a vegan to protest animal cruelty and evil agri-business? Good luck avoiding Whole Foods. Trying to make responsible clothing choices? You won't find many widely-available, sweatshop-free options beyond American Apparel.

(And no, it is not lost on me that this is a debate steeped in class privilege; to lead a lifestyle that involves buying anything at Whole Foods is a luxury, no question.)

So what's a progressive consumer to do? I'd argue that rather than waging an all-out boycott on the above companies, we should focus our energies on changing the system. That may sound grandiose or idealistic, but until our system changes -- frankly, until the American brand of capitalism shifts to something more friendly to the average citizen -- the Coca-Colas of the world will continue to pour all their efforts into making more money for their shareholders and focusing very little on how they can make the world a better place. Going to the neighborhood coffee shop is great -- you should do that! -- but that alone will not make Starbucks suddenly prioritize people over profits. Companies won't start doing right by the world until there's a system in place that makes them. And our current " corporations are people" system? That ain't it.