Though it seems in this day and age every man and his dog owns 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, the planet, and animals? How ethical is Nike?
Nike had been accused of using sweatshops to produce its sneakers and activewear since the 1970s but it was only in 1991, when activist Jeff Ballinger published a report detailing the low wages and poor working conditions in Nike’s Indonesian factories, that the sportswear brand came under fire. 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. A few years ago, 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.
In 2017, Nike took a big step backwards, as the International Labor Rights Forum reported that the company had turned its back on its commitment to the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), which effectively blocks labour rights experts from independently monitoring Nike’s supplier factories. But this year, Nike received a score of 51-60% in the Fashion Transparency Index (in the same scoring range as the previous year), showing it started going in the right direction again. It’s like an on-again-off-again high school romance begging for some stability!
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, which is why its environmental rating is ‘It’s a Start’. Nike uses some eco-friendly materials including organic and recycled cotton and polyester, and has some water reduction initiatives in its supply chain.
While the brand has set a science-based target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions generated from its own operations and supply chain, there is no evidence it is on track to meet its target. There is also no evidence Nike has a policy to prevent deforestation in its supply chain. Fashion’s impact on forests comes mainly from the production of textiles as many fabrics are derived from plant pulps or from plants themselves. The drive to protect our forests is urgent, and not just for endangered species such as orangutans. Forests play a big role in the more complex ecosystems of our planet, and the balance of the gases in our atmosphere.
Nike’s labour rating is also ‘It’s a Start’. Though the brand has focused on female empowerment and inclusiveness in their recent advertising campaigns, the women who work for Nike (whether in its factories or headquarters) are seemingly left out of this picture. In 2018, Nike was in fact sued by two former female employees who accused the sneaker giant of creating a culture of gender discrimination and sexual harassment.
On a positive note, the company is Fair Labor Association (FLA) Workplace Code of Conduct certified, and received a score of 51-60% in the Fashion Transparency Index. Nike likely publishes detailed information about its supplier policies, audits, and remediation processes. It also publishes a detailed list of suppliers in the final stage of production, and some information about the findings of supplier audits. While there is some public information about forced labour, gender equality, or freedom of association, as well as policies to protect suppliers in its supply chain from the impacts of COVID-19, sadly the workers were left out of the picture. Even worse, there is no evidence it ensures payment of a living wage in most of its supply chain.
The Foul Play report by the Clean Clothes Campaign and Collectif Ethique sur l’Etiquette shows just how far Nike has to go when it comes to 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 chains by a specific date and other supporting action. Read more about living wages for garment workers here.
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! Because of this we have given the brand a rating of ‘Not Good Enough’ for animal welfare and hope for more transparency in future.
Overall Rating: It’s A Start
We rate Nike ‘It’s A Start’ based on information from our own research. Good On You ratings consider 100s of issues and it is not possible to list every relevant issue in a summary of the brand’s performance. For more information see our How We Rate page and our FAQs. Though Nike has a few promising environmental measures in place, it’s clear that the company is not doing as much as it should, and needs to make serious changes in most areas. With an annual revenue of over $37 billion, they can certainly afford it!
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