On Monday night, Nike made headlines when it released an image from its upcoming “Just Do It” campaign featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The image, Kaepernick’s face in black and white, is styled with a powerful message reading “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” I have to admit, when I first saw this image I got chills. I mean, talk about a major sacrifice. Kaepernick's refusal to stand for the national anthem during the 2016 season led to his apparent blacklist from the NFL, but it also initiated a revolution among players, who continued to protest during the 2017 season. When interviewed in August 2016 about his decision to kneel during the anthem, Kaepernick said, "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color... To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."
Whether or not you agree with Kaepernick, it is impossible to discredit his boldness and bravery for projecting his beliefs on such a public stage. So, it makes sense that Nike would select him as a person of interest in their advertising strategy. Obviously, this image has already generated a lot of media buzz ($163 million dollars-worth as of September 6th, 2018) and some slight scrutiny (visit Twitter for videos of disgruntled white men burning their $100 Nike sneakers in “protest”). It makes sense that this campaign is, for the most part, being well-received because it plays to our emotions (everyone loves to see an underdog fighting the good fight). It’s relatable – we all want to stand up for our beliefs and make an impact - and it’s relevant. But, removing Kaepernick from this entirely, what concerns me is this widely-accepted idea that Nike is an admirable brand. They consistently align themselves with public figures, usually athletes, who embody a sense of top-tier performance combined with inspirational idealism – athletes like Serena Williams, Simone Biles, and LeBron James. With familiar aspirational icons like these leading Nike campaigns, it is easy to buy into emotionality of their “Just Do It” mantra. In 2018, Nike was recognized as America’s most valuable fashion brand, with a valuation of $28 billion (for reference, second place was awarded to Victoria’s Secret with a valuation of $6.1 billion). Market research firm Morning Consult recently found that “more than half of millennials surveyed … believe that Nike has strong, positive values.” It is one of America’s most loved brands because of its ability to tell stories and to bring out the best in all of us.
But what Nike boasts in brand image it lacks in brand ethics. For nearly four decades, Nike has been accused of producing their merchandise in sweatshops. Their production is scattered across 42 different countries and over 500 factories, and 93% of this production takes place outside of the United States (visit their Manufacturing Map for an interactive look at their global production). Seventy-three percent of Nike’s production workforce comes from Vietnam, China, and Indonesia, where factories are known to cut corners in order to meet production deadlines. In the 1990s, Nike established a code of conduct for their factories, which included fire, air, and safety regulations and established minimum wage and overtime rules for production employees, and since then, this code has been loosely enforced, or not enforced at all. Annually, Nike spends a meager $10 million on monitoring their factories and implementing their code of conduct. They spend over $3 billion annually on promotion and advertising campaigns. It's no secret where Nike’s priorities lie.
I could write a novel on Nike’s ethical violations through the years, but I’ll just provide a few examples that really stick out to me.
In 2005, Nike published a list of factory abuses in their Asian production facilities, where almost all of their production takes place. Examples of abuses included forced overtime and punishment for employees who did not comply, physical and verbal abuse, wages that fell below the legal minimum in 25% of factories, and evidence that up to 50% of factories restrict water access and bathroom use during the workday.
In June 2017, it was revealed that "more than 500 workers in four factories supplying to Nike, Puma, Asics and VF Corporation in Cambodia had been hospitalized due to working conditions. The brands confirmed that the incidents occurred. Most of the workers fainted due to high temperatures and long work hours.”
In a June 2018 report from the Clean Clothes Campaign, it was “alleged that factory workers today receive even less of Nike profits than they did in the 1990s.”
In 2017, information surfaced alleging “that workers at a Nike contract factory in Hansae, Vietnam, suffered wage theft and verbal abuse, and labored for hours in temperatures well over the legal limit of 90 degrees, to the point that they would collapse at their sewing machines.”
In 2011, it was discovered that workers at a Nike sneaker factory in Indonesia were physically abused by supervisors, had shoes thrown at them, and were called “dogs and pigs.” Nike confirmed the allegations but stated that “there was little it could do to stop it.”
Nike factory workers in Vietnam, 2005.
Can you imagine showing up for a job you and your family rely on and being in physical and emotional danger on a daily basis? It's horrifying, and as apathetic or uninformed consumers, we are allowing this abuse to continue. No human should be so endangered in their place of employment. Of course, Nike isn’t the only company prioritizing profits over ethics. It’s common practice in the clothing industry to produce merchandise as cheaply as possible, even if that means taking advantage of international factory workers. This isn’t to say all international garment factories are horrible places of employment. In my travels to India and China, I’ve visited plenty of beautiful, safe, air-conditioned factories filled with happy, well-paid workers. But it’s hard to know what is really going on overseas, especially considering how quiet of a voice production workers have in the global garment supply chain.
One of the factories I visited while in China last summer. It looks quite crowded, but there is significant space between each work station. The employees are given multiple breaks a day and paid fairly. And the factory itself is lovely! It's more modern than some of my class buildings at Cornell.
This exceptional factory near Bangalore, India provides employees with daycare for their children, organizes clubs and sports teams for after work, and allows for lunch and tea breaks throughout the work day. They also offer low-cost housing facilities to employees and busing transportation from the city of Bangalore to the factory's location.
In 2013, the Rana Plaza production facility in Bangladesh collapsed in the middle of a work day, killing over one thousand employees (men, women, and children) and injuring nearly 2,500 more people. It was later discovered that signs of structural failure in the building had been pointed out by employees prior to the collapse, and these signs were intentionally ignored by inspectors. This tragedy very likely could have been prevented. Following the collapse, an Accord on Factory and Building Safety in Bangladesh was authored by a group of retailers and NGOs to prevent further neglect in production facilities. Many retailers refused to sign this accord, including Walmart, Macy’s, JCPenney, Target, Kohl’s, American Eagle Outfitters, and VF Corp. (owners of The North Face, Wrangler Jeans, and Vans). All of these companies have production operations in Bangladesh, and when opting out of this safety accord, many said they would instead focus on developing their own safety regulations for foreign production. None of the proposed safety regulations by these companies has been as stringent as the original Accord.
As consumers, we have a much louder voice than we think, and we can make change when we put our minds to it. In 2017, Cornell University, my alma mater, ended its licensing agreement with Nike after Nike refused to sign an agreement "attesting that they will follow a labor code of conduct vetted by Cornell and peer institutions. Instead, the companies plan to follow their own code of conduct regarding labor practices.” Many other universities including “Rutgers University, Georgetown University, UC Santa Barbara and Northeastern University” have similarly ended their contracts with Nike so as not to continue supporting their unethical labor standards. It was empowering to see my peers at my university standing up for factory employees on the other side of the world and demanding that socially irresponsible companies are companies with which we should not engage.
Conscious consumerism is simply defined as the action of buyers taking additional steps to ensure the companies with which they interact meet their moral and ethical standards. But it’s not always easy to practice conscious consumerism – some companies refuse to release information on their supply chains, and others knowingly falsify information or bury allegations of abuse. And, there's the added financial barrier of conscious consumption (many of the most ethical clothing companies charge a high premium for their merchandise because socially responsibility doesn't come cheap). Fortunately, there are plenty of sources online that provide information about socially responsible, fair trade, and ethical clothing companies working to fight the "fast fashion" production model to which we've become accustomed. The Good Trade provides many sources (see here and here) of ethical clothing brands for every budget.
As a society, we’re heading in the right direction. Many clothing companies have added social responsibility teams to their corporate structures to monitor their practices. Blockchain implementation, while still a relatively new and expensive investment, provides the opportunity to increase supply chain oversight and prevent labor code violations. Government legislation has forced factories to report detailed information on their working conditions, providing retailers with clearer profiles of their production partners. Consumers are starting to take an interest in where and how their clothing is made, and some are actively boycotting brands like H&M and Forever 21 that show utter disregard for social improvement and fair labor practices. But this conversation needs to continue, and it is our job as consumers to hold companies to a higher standard. Remember, we are the ones they make this merchandise for, so if we’re unhappy with how it’s made, we need to take action.
I fully support Colin Kaepernick’s efforts and I think that it’s ridiculous and embarrassing that some people are now boycotting the Nike brand because it has aligned itself with a controversial yet important public figure. I was also pleased to see that Nike’s contract with Kaepernick included a contribution to his charity, Know Your Rights, a “campaign to raise awareness of ‘higher education, self empowerment, and instruction to properly interact with law enforcement in various scenarios.’” But I think it’s important that consumers understand, by shopping Nike, you’re not supporting Kaepernick’s cause. You’re supporting a billion-dollar corporation that takes advantage of its employees. An easier way to support Kaepernick is by donating your time or money to Know Your Rights or the Colin Kaepernick Foundation.
Next time you go shopping, take a moment to think about all the work that had to be done to get that product into your store. Think about the cotton farmers, yarn spinners, and garment sewers and dyers working tirelessly in factories hoping to earn minimum wage. Think about the shipping employees and truck drivers who made the logistics possible to bring that product from the other side of the world to you. Each player in the supply chain deserves respect, appreciation, and most importantly, basic human rights. The change begins with us.