10 Faux Progressive Companies ... With Some Dirty Secrets

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.

3. Trader Joe's -- It seems like everyone who has access to a Trader Joe's loves Trader Joe's. (What's not to love about $2 wine?). And according to a 2009 consumer report, Trader Joe's is considered one of the greenest companies out there.

However, as AlterNet recently reported, Trader Joe's has refused to sign a fair food agreement that would ensure a decent wage and humane working conditions for tomato workers. Although TJ's has said it has "no problem paying an extra penny per pound" to improve farmworker conditions, company executives have refused to make that agreement legally-binding -- something most fast chains (which are not usually the gold-standard for food ethics) did long ago. A campaign launched by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is seeking to change that.

The good news is that Trader Joe's has in the past proven to be sensitive to public pressure. For instance, last year the grocery chain agreed to move towards selling only sustainably-sourced seafood after being the target of a nine-month Greenpeace campaign that nicknamed the company "Traitor Joe's."

4. Avon -- The homepage of Avon's website sure makes the company seem ethically sound. There's the slogan right at the top: "The company for women." Opportunities for female entrepreneurs, sounds great! Then there are two prominently displayed charitable campaigns -- the Hello Green Tomorrow project and something called Avon Voices -- that give a vague impression of corporate responsibility.

Unfortunately, if you scrutinize Avon you'll find that the company's environmental record is maybe less pristine than it lets on. Indeed, Avon has been accused of making false claims about its products being Fair Trade. The company was even sued for its misleading labeling.

Avon is also guilty of "pinkwashing" -- the unsavory practice of touting support for breast cancer research while peddling products that may cause breast cancer. According to a recent article in Fast Company, Avon's Kiss Goodbye to Breast Cancer campaign "launched in 2001 with six different shades of fundraising lipstick--but the lipsticks may have contained hormone disruptors, which are linked to cancer. The Avon Walk For Breast Cancer is also singled out for not donating more money to breast cancer prevention (instead of treatments and finding a cure). According to the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition, the Boston Avon Walk has raised millions of dollars, but less than 2% of the funds have supported breast cancer-related environmental research in the state."

5. Seventh Generation -- If you've ever glanced over the green cleaning products section of your local supermarket, you're no doubt familiar with Seventh Generation, which has become a $150 million-a-year company built on environmentally sound principles. Until recently, Seventh Generation also had a refreshingly transparent and candid entrepreneur at its helm -- executive chairperson, onetime CEO, and co-founder Jeffrey Hollender.

According to an article in Fast Company, Hollender shared opinions that would make other corporate executives cringe:

[H]ow Seventh Generation, under his leadership, didn't make money for 13 years because he was perpetually torn between doing the right thing and the company’s bottom line. How until corporate money stopped polluting politics, our country's economic and environmental issues will be never be resolved. How short term gains on Wall Street needed to be taxed 99%. How companies like PepsiCo were trotting out healthy eating programs while simultaneously making the public sick with its products.

Refreshing! But proving that good things rarely last forever, Hollender was fired from Seventh Generation's board last November. Hollender says he was fired "because my view of the role Seventh Generation should play in society fell out fell out of step with the board’s view of the role.” What's more, he admits that "Seventh Generation was never a sustainable brand, not even close. I struggle to find any truly sustainable brand, though I continue to look. The problem is that we’ve confused less bad with good. The fact that we make chlorine free paper towels with 100% post consumer waste doesn’t make the product good -- it’s just less bad."

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.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Google had dropped "Don't be evil" as its informal motto. The company is still using the motto, in some capacities.


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