19 May

How Ethical is Nike?

Though it seems in this day and age every man and his dog own a pair of Nikes, not so long ago the Nike image was synonymous with sweatshops and unethical manufacturing. So how does this brand rate today when it comes to its treatment of people, planet and animals?

In 1991, activist Jeff Ballinger published a report detailing the low wages and poor working conditions in Nike’s Indonesian factories. Soon after, the brand became the subject of an aggressive and sustained campaign by United Students Against Sweatshops. Nike was initially slow to respond – but under increasing pressure it eventually made some changes by improving its monitoring efforts, raising the minimum age of workers, and increasing factory audits.

The brand has since earned plaudits far and wide for its efforts. Just last year Business of Fashion reported that Nike has successfully transformed its tarnished image to become a “recognized sustainability leader,” with Morgan Stanley ranking Nike “the most sustainable apparel and footwear company in North America for environmental and social performance, including its labor record.”

But is this actually the case?

A step backwards

Though Nike has successfully improved its reputation and has become the top-selling activewear brand in the world, many of its practices are still problematic. Worse still, Nike has recently taken a big step backwards. In March, the International Labor Rights Forum reported that Nike has turned its back on its commitment to the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), which effectively blocks labor rights experts from independently monitoring Nike’s supplier factories. Nike was given a score of 36 out of 100 in Fashion Revolution’s 2017 Fashion Transparency Index, indicating that the company does not make enough information public about its environmental and social practices.

Environmental Impact: It’s a Start

Though Nike has made a few positive changes to its environmental practices and is a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, it still has a way to go before it can truly be called a ‘sustainable’ brand. Nike uses a few eco-friendly materials including organic and recycled cotton and polyester, minimises off-cuts in parts of its manufacturing process and has a waste and water reduction strategy in place in most of its supply chain. It has also made a public commitment to reduce its carbon emissions by over 50% by 2025.

However, Nike has not committed to eliminating hazardous chemicals from its supply chain, which is a big problem for workers who are exposed to them and even those who wear the products. Nike’s use of hazardous chemicals has also been criticised by Greenpeace, who have voiced concern regarding the pollution of waterways.

Labour Conditions: Not Good Enough

Though Nike has focused on female empowerment and inclusiveness in their recent advertising campaigns, the women who work in Nike’s factories are seemingly left out of this picture. On a good note, the company is Fair Labor Association (FLA) Workplace Code of Conduct certified and received the top score in the 2017 Ethical Fashion Report for its Supplier Code of Conduct. It also traces most of its supply chain, publicly lists its suppliers, and audits some of its traced facilities. Despite this, Nike received a ‘C’ rating in the 2017 Ethical Fashion Report, showing no improvements over the 2016 ranking. Nike has minimal worker empowerment initiatives across its supply chain and received the bottom score in relation to implementing a living wage or improving wages across its supply chain.

The recent Foul Play report by the Clean Clothes Campaign and Collectif Ethique sur l’Etiquette just how far Nike has to go is on living wages. It highlights the difference between the ever increasing amount of money paid on sponsorships to sports stars and other marketing expenses compared to the reduction of the share of the final price of your sports gear paid to workers in the supply chain. The Report calls on both Nike and Adidas to commit to paying living wages across their supply chain by a specific date and other supporting action. Read more about living wages for garment workers here.

Animal Welfare: Not Good Enough

Nike does not use fur, angora or other exotic animal hair or skin in its products, which is definitely a step in the right direction. However, it does use leather, wool and down feather without specifying sources, which is problematic as the welfare of animals and workers is unknown and is not guaranteed.

Overall Rating: Not Good Enough

Rated: Not Good Enough

We rate Nike ‘Not Good Enough’ based on information from the 2017 Ethical Fashion Report and our own research. Though Nike has a few promising environmental measures in place, it’s clear that the company does not do as well as it should. It needs to make serious changes in most areas. With an annual revenue of over $30 billion, they can certainly afford it! We notice that arch-rival Adidas (rated 'Good') has stepped up its game, improving its transparency and environmental practices.

Editor's note: This article was first published in May 2017 and updated in June 2018. Feature image via Nike. Other images via Business Insider, Instagram (@nike, @veja, @ecoalf), Threads 4 Thought, Patagonia, Etiko.

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