How Ethical Is Nike? - Good On You
14 Aug

How Ethical Is Nike?

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 sweatshops

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!

Environmental Impact

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.

Labour Conditions

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.

Animal Welfare

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!

See the rating.

Good Swaps

Ethical alternatives to Nike


Rated: Good
womsh sustainable sneaker brand

Fashion and sustainability can go together and Womsh is the footwear brand that proves it. Their sneakers are entirely designed and manufactured in Italy.

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Organic Basics

Rated: Great
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Organic Basics offers high quality sustainable fashion basics for men and women in organic materials. The Denmark-based brand puts sustainable thinking at the centre of everything - it only chooses fabrics that care for our environment, and only ever partners with factories that care about their impact.

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Shop Organic Basics @ Rêve en Vert.

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Rated: Good
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TALA creates fresh and funky active and athleisure wear. It uses a high proportion of eco-friendly materials including upcycled materials, and promotes body positivity with gorgeous diverse models!

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Girlfriend Collective

Rated: Good
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Girlfriend Collective creates minimal, luxury women’s activewear made with certified fair labour, certified by the Social Accountability Standard International SA8000. The brand uses recycled polyester as well as low-impact non-toxic dyes and is fully Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certified.

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Rated: Good

Veja is a French brand designing ecological and fair trade footwear, and is also a sustainable fashion pioneer. The brand uses eco-friendly materials, like GOTS certified cotton and vegetable-tanned leather! Veja pays their co-operative cotton growers and rubber tappers between 30% and 100% above the world market price. By not advertising, they are able to invest more money into strengthening their ethical practices.

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Shop Veja @ Outerknown.

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Editor's note

This article was first published in May 2017 and updated in August 2020. Feature image via Nike. Other images via brands. Good On You publishes the world’s most comprehensive ratings of fashion brands’ impact on people, the planet and animals. Use our Directory to search more than 2,000 brands. We may earn a commission on sales made using our offer codes or affiliate links.

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