9 awful companies everyone should boycott right now

Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and Walmart are all in the news this week for their water bottling operations in drought-stricken California, where firms across the state process water for profit at 111 sites. All three firms have long been the targets of criticism for their labor practices, environmental violations, and more, but they’re hardly the only—or worst—offenders in an exploitative corporate landscape.

In an era when companies are constantly being called out for offenses like sexual harassment, environmental exploitation, and worker abuse via hashtag campaigns, it’s difficult to pick the worst offenders. Once narrowed down, they represent depressing lists of nearly unavoidable companies—to address concerns about corporate malfeasance, people essentially need to live in hermit shacks in the woods. (But don’t use timber from Sierra Pacific Industries to build that shack, as the firm is currently in trouble for devastating California’s forests.)

The following nine companies are among some of the worst of the worst in the United States.

1) Goldman Sachs

The banking giant makes for an easy target, but it’s one of the country’s most hated companies for a reason. The whole financial industry is rife with companies known for contributing to the financial crisis, tolerating sexual harassment in the workplace, and creating a toxic environment for employees, but Goldman Sachs occupies a special role in financial hell. 

Lest you think the company’s role in financial turmoil is over, its role in the Euro market means that it may become a key player in the battle over the Grexit and Greece’s mounting debts.

“The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere,” wrote Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone in 2010. “The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

Goldman Sachs has been the target of multiple lawsuits alleging sexual harassment and pay inequity. Moreover, Goldman Sachs has fired people who don’t meet the company’s exacting appearance standards, make the mistake of talking to the press, or dare to put “inappropriate photos” on their social media accounts. The firm has also leaned on port truck drivers and other vulnerable workers.

In 2012, Greg Smith, a former high-ranking Goldman Sachs employee, took the company to task in a New York Times op-ed explaining why he was leaving the venerable financial firm. “It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off,” Smith wrote. “Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as ‘muppets,’ sometimes over internal e-mail.”

2) Shell

As with the financial industry, the oil and gas industry presents a case of “how can you pick just one?” Offenders like British Petroleum, infamous for the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, Exxon, home of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill, or Chevron, culprit behind substantial pollution in Richmond, Calif., one of the state’s poorest communities, give Shell a run for its money. 

The company has been involved in large oil spills of its own, including a recent and highly destructive incident in the Niger Delta. Critics of the firm’s African operations—including those involved in suits against the company—charge that Shell has been complicit in rape, torture, murder, union-busting, abuse of foreign workers, and serious environmental crimes
Worker abuse isn’t, however, limited to the company’s overseas facilities. Earlier this year, a former Shell employee accused the company of firing her in retaliation for reporting sexual harassment aboard an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The company’s also under fire for its practices in the Arctic, lest you think the problems with its oil operations are primarily an overseas issue.

Although Seattle residents recently took to Twitter and the city’s port to protest its Arctic drilling practices, Shell’s chief executive has some snarky remarks for activists concerned about dependence on fossil fuels: “‘Fossil fuels out, renewables in’—too often, that’s what it boils down to. Yet in my view, that’s simply naive.”

3) Gap, Inc.

After the horrific Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, Gap was one of numerous companies to reject a proposal for better oversight over working conditions at overseas factories—and given the company’s history of past involvement with child labor and other worker abuses, it didn’t sit well. The company continues to insist that the use of child labor is a contractor problem, not one the company condones. 

However, the fact that the issue continues to appear in investigative reporting about the company suggests that Gap may not be serious about halting exploitation in the supply chain.

And in 2014, the company announced that it would start manufacturing clothing in Myanmar, after sanctions were lifted on the Southeast Asian nation. According to the Huffington Post’s Kim Bhasin, Gap’s executives even argued that it was a “historic moment,” which is true, but not in the way they mean. “Myanmar has a miserable track record when it comes to workers, who are frequently underpaid and horribly mistreated,” Bhasin writes.

Domestically, Gap has committed to raising the minimum wage for its employees, but that higher pay comes at a price. Workers don’t receive benefits along with those higher wages, and Gap is one of many retailers guilty of “on-call scheduling,” in which workers are only “notified the night before or a few hours in advance [about] whether they need to come in.”  

As Bintou Kamara, the author of a 2012 Change.org petition against on-call abuse practices, told Beyond.com, “unpredictable scheduling at Abercrombie & Fitch, among other places, [makes] it difficult for employees to support themselves or even find supplemental work.” Beyond continues, “Kamara and her co-workers enjoyed schedules of up to 33 hours a week when they were first hired, but as time went by, their hours dwindled to 5 hours a week or less. Some of those hours included on-call shifts that didn’t pan out, leaving giant gaps in work from week to week.” 

4) Alpha Natural Resources

Residents of the Appalachians, where this energy giant strip mines, pollutes, and maintains unsafe conditions for workers, are likely already knowledgable about Alpha Natural Resources. For those outside the company’s zone of operations, the firm might be unfamiliar, but it shouldn’t be. Alpha supplies substantial amounts of coal to power plants across the United States. If your electricity comes from coal-fired sources, it’s not improbable that at least some of that coal comes from Alpha.

In 2014, Alpha received a $27.5 million fine—the largest of its kind ever—from the Environmental Protection Agency for spewing pollutants into the waterways of Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Tennessee, and West Virginia. The company is also required to spend nearly $200 million on environmental cleanup in the region. This provides a stark contrast to the company’s “Running Right” ethos.

Those familiar with Massey Energy, who paid out a $20 million settlement with the EPA in 2008 due to widespread Clean Water Act violations,  should note that Alpha swallowed up the controversial coal giant in 2011. In negotiations with the federal government over liability for the Upper Big Branch mining disaster that occurred under Massey’s watch, the firm cut itself quite a deal.“Alpha reached a historic settlement with federal prosecutors over the Upper Big Branch disaster,” the Assocated Press reported. “It agreed to pay nearly $210 million to clear itself of criminal liability for Massey’s actions, bankroll cutting-edge safety research and technology, and wipe the slate clean with [the Mine Safety and Health Administration.” 

If Massey’s CEO, Don Blankenship, was once referred to as “the dark lord of coal country” in a Rolling Stone profile, what do you call Alpha Natural Resources after acquiring his company?

5) Koch Industries

Perhaps a given on any list of terrible companies in America, Koch Industries—the second largest privately held firm in the U.S.—owns numerous huge holdings in a range of industries. It’s nearly impossible to purchase commercial products that haven’t been touched by the Koch brothers, from printer paper and gasoline to agricultural products. But for those inclined to stay away from their goods, BoycottKochBrothers.com helpfully breaks down their products for you.

Screengrab via BoycottKochBrothers.com

The company’s business practices are infamous, with its political activities being perhaps the most prominent. Charles and David Koch have sunk millions into legislation and political campaigns across the U.S. to favor their conservative interests, which lean toward the libertarian end of the spectrum. Causes opposed by the Koch industries include environmental regulation and health care reform, and the family has backed candidates like Scott Walker, notorious for slashing public benefits in Wisconsin.

At Rolling Stone, Tim Dickinson reports: “Under the nearly five-decade reign of CEO Charles Koch, the company has paid out record civil and criminal environmental penalties. … The volume of Koch Industries’ toxic output is staggering.” 

In addition to paying out massive fines for pollution, the company also stands accused of exploiting public lands for profit, effectively handing money to the government in the form of token fines while earning billions on public ranchlands and other public leases. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a firm with libertarian leanings, Koch Industries vehemently opposes unions, to boot.

6) Wellpoint

Even with Obamacare, insurance companies remain unpopular with Americans, because their dubious business practices have survived the Affordable Care Act. While such firms are more stealthy when it comes to raising premiums and avoiding payouts for covered services, they’re still at it, and Wellpoint is one of the worst. The firm even stirred the normally lethargic Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to give Wellpoint a firm warning on its practices—and penalties when it comes to the type of insurance plans it can offer.

In 2010, the Obama Administration cast a wary eye over Wellpoint as well, accusing the company of unfair rate hikes and demanding action from state regulators to protect consumers. The company’s name has been dragged so far into the mud that it now brands itself as Anthem, using the name once employed by its California operations.

The company literally leaves its customers without a leg to stand on, according to a recent suit from an amputee demanding that the firm pay out for replacement of a damaged prosthetic leg:

He asserts that Anthem Blue Cross “has a well-documented custom and practice of denying more costly artificial limbs to amputees in order to save money.” The insurer “has been subject to legal action in the past for denying these precise benefits to numerous amputees in California,” according to the complaint, which identifies six of these amputees by name.

If that’s not enough to get you to switch providers, perhaps a 2015 breach of the company’s data (that put over 80 million of its customers at risk for identity theft) will convince you.

7) Amazon

Amazon is often targeted by independent businesses—especially bookstores—for undercutting the market thanks to low overhead and the ability to negotiate excellent bulk discounts. 

The trouble with Amazon, however, isn’t just a debate over fair competition in business, as the firm’s abuses of workers are both well-documented and extensive. Journalist Mac McClelland plunged into the heart of the beast for Mother Jones and reported back with a chilling post about conditions for Amazon contractors on U.S. soil, while German workers have protested multiple times over unfair wages, working conditions, and collective bargaining rights.

The company has also been involved in several notable arguments with publishers over pricing, but its rivalry with Hachette, one of publishing’s “big five,” was perhaps the most extended and notable. During a dispute over ebook pricing, Amazon was accused of delisting, hiding, and deranking Hachette titles, including those at a huge range of imprints, like Little Brown Publishing and Orbit. Authors were furious, claiming that the prolonged dispute significantly harmed their sales.

With a stranglehold on the online market, Amazon can effectively dictate its own terms, and not everyone is convinced this is a good thing.

8) Whole Foods

“Whole Paycheck,” as it’s unaffectionately known, may cater to the socially conscious yuppie crowd with its organic food selection, but the company’s CEO hasn’t done its public image any favors. Though John Mackey might not be as aggressively awful as American Apparel’s Dov Charney, his comments on subjects like climate change and Obamacare have certainly alienated the firm’s core demographic.

While Mackey has been praised as a good employer, his libertarian streak deeply confuses the liberals who patronize Whole Foods. He once compared Obamacare to fascism and has notably railed against unions and collective bargaining. In a 2013 interview with the Guardian, Mackey famously said:

Climate change is perfectly natural and not necessarily bad. In general, most of humanity tends to flourish more when global temperatures are in a warming trend and I believe we will be able to successfully adapt to gradually rising temperatures. What I am opposed to is trying to stop virtually all economic progress because of the fear of climate change.  

Whole Foods itself may be a good environment for workers, but some beg to differ. In 2014, the Nation’s Michelle Chen reported that “dozens of Whole Foods employees in San Francisco partnered with the radical union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to protest a labor system that they say degrades workers while catering to wealthy consumers, and contributes to the city’s economic polarization.” The San Francisco protest particularly targeted worker hourly pay, which starts at just $11.25 an hour, well below the estimated $30 an hour it takes to get by in the Bay Area.

The company isn’t particularly friendly to those who attempt to fight the Whole Foods’ culture of worker poverty. According to a 2013 report from Ronnie Cummins and Dave Murphy at AlterNet, Whole Foods is beginning to sound a lot like Walmart, with the company “under investigation for 45 violations of federal labor law, including physically threatening immigrant workers in California who were trying to form a union.” 

Walmart may be an easy target, but when it comes to worker abuse and union-busting, the Walton family is hardly alone.

9) Conagra Foods

Conagra’s multitude of sins are daunting when compared with the agriculture giant’s long list of brands. Fans of Bertolli, David’s, and Chef Boyardee, among many others, might want to consider putting those foods back on the shelves.

In a shocking and highly critical 2001 expose at Mother Jones, Eric Schlosser—of Fast Food Nation fame—reported on the horrific conditions on Conagra’s U.S.-based kill floors. “In some American slaughterhouses,” he wrote, “more than three-quarters of the workers are not native English speakers; many can’t read any language, and many are [undocumented] immigrants. … The golden rule in meatpacking plants is ‘The Chain Will Not Stop.’” 
Workers might be severely injured, but the line keeps going. Unionization efforts in slaughterhouses have been extremely difficult due to the company’s union-busting practices as well as the challenge involved in organizing workers with a high turnover rate.

The firm has also paid out numerous pollution fines related to its farming and processing activities. Frequently, Conagra is involved in nitrate pollution, which sickens not just freshwater like rivers and lakes, but also oceans. Excessive nitrates in the water can cause algal blooms that attract non-native species, creating a permanent environmental imbalance. Furthermore, they can also penetrate groundwater and pose a public health risk.

Given American issues with oversight and regulation, the chances are high that you can find a reason to boycott nearly any product you pick up off the shelf. Pressuring companies, therefore, may be less effective than leaning on the government to reform from the bottom up, addressing issues like food safety, pollution standards, and worker safety. 

S.E. Smith is a writer, editor, and agitator with numerous publication credits, including the Guardian, AlterNet, and Salon, along with several anthologies. Smith also serves as the Social Justice Editor for xoJane and will be co-chairing Wiscon 40—the preeminent feminist science-fiction conference—in 2016.

Photo via Children’s Bureau Centennial/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

S.E. Smith

S.E. Smith

s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.