07 Mar

Nike vs Adidas: Who’s More Ethical and Sustainable?

Nike and Adidas are two of the largest sportswear brands in the world, and they have both come up against criticism over the years for their ethicality. It’s a close call, but let’s take a closer look and answer that burning question: is Adidas better than Nike?

The battle of the sportswear giants

So, your beloved trainers have reached the point of no return. Or maybe you need an extra pair of runners for the new exercise regime (which you will definitely stick to juuuust as soon as you have the perfect footwear).

While you’re running around trying to decide whether to buy those Adidas all-white Stan Smiths or the blackout Nike Free Runs, we crunched the ethics and sustainability numbers to find out which company treats people, the planet, and animals better than the other.

Let’s answer once and for all: is Adidas better than Nike? Long story short: this match is too close to call, and neither brand is really a shining star. Read on for a deeper dive into both brands’ track records on the issues that matter most.

Nike—on again off again

In the 90s, Nike became notorious for its terrible human rights treatment. The brand says it has changed, but can it outrun the past?

It’s generally agreed Nike has improved, but there is still a way to go. The activewear giant has been criticised for allowing its suppliers to exploit workers by paying below the minimum wage, enforcing excessive working hours, and failing to provide safe working conditions. Nike also hasn’t signed the Bangladesh Fire & Safety Accord, an important initiative to improve factory safety that came into play after the death of over 1,000 garment workers in the Rana Plaza factory collapse. On the plus side, Nike has committed to not knowingly using Uzbek cotton—where forced labour and child labour has been rife—after being called out for it in early 2020. The brand also now ensures payment of a living wage in a small proportion of its supply chain.

Nike hasn't signed the Bangladesh Fire & Safety Accord, an important initiative to improve factory safety that came into play after the death of over 1,000 garment workers in the Rana Plaza factory collapse.

In March 2017, Nike took a big step backwards when it ceased allowing the independent NGO Workers Rights Consortium access to factories to check on labour standards. But in 2021, Nike received a score of 51-60% in the Fashion Transparency Index (in the same scoring range as the previous year), showing it has started going in the right direction again. It’s like an on-again-off-again high school romance begging for some stability.

All things considered, Nike scores a middling “It’s a Start” for people. Thanks to its use of some eco-friendly materials and setting of science-based targets, it also rated “It’s a Start” for the planet. But for animals, Nike’s use of various cruel animal-based fabrics like down and exotic animal skin as well as its lack of traceability here means it is rated “Not Good Enough”.

Although Nike makes comfortable footwear, we think some of the big-time execs should try walking in their worker’s shoes for a while, and we hope to see continual improvements from a big brand that can certainly afford to make them.

Nike gets an “It’s a Start”’ rating overall.

Adidas—losing its lead

Adidas has been subject to many of the same criticisms as Nike in relation to worker exploitation, including in a report by War on Want on conditions in Bangladesh in 2012.

More recently, both brands have been strongly criticised for failing to take concrete steps towards paying a living wage to workers across their supply chain despite increasing profits and increasing sponsorship payments to sports stars and teams. The 2018 Foul Play report by the Clean Clothes Campaign and Collectif Ethique sur l’Etiquette 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 the brands to commit to paying living wages across their supply chain by a specific date and other supporting action. Adidas now has a project to improve wages in part of its supply chain and has made a public commitment to improve wages overall, which is a good step, and following up the promise with tangible results would be a big tick for the brand. But right now, they still don’t pay a living wage. Commitments are good, but we’re most concerned with what the brand is doing right now.

Adidas received a score of 51-60% in the 2021 Fashion Transparency Index, down from 61-70% in the previous year. This score reflects the brand disclosing its suppliers and subcontractors (a win for transparency), supporting freedom of association, and signing the Bangladesh Fire & Safety Accord. Moreover, in June 2017, Adidas was singled out for praise in a report on forced labour by Know the Chain. It noted that Adidas has strong disclosure throughout its supply chain. In particular, it was the only one of five major footwear brands to disclose activities to address forced labour in specific countries.

What sets Adidas apart on the labour front is its leadership with crucial inclusivity and culture strategies and policies. Their approach includes auditing suppliers on a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) level. Adidas is responsive and happy to be held accountable, essential for global brands to set the stage for a more transparent, ethical, and sustainable fashion industry going forward.

In February 2022, Adidas’ rating dropped from “Good” to “It’s a Start”. Our mission at Good On You is to provide consumers with the most reliable, accurate, and up-to-date information and recommendations across fashion, which means our comprehensive ratings methodology evolves to accommodate crucial movement in issues across ethics and sustainability in the industry. What we see reflected in Adidas’ rating drop is a brand not making good on its existing promises and not keeping pace with industry-wide actions for people, planet, and animals.

While Adidas is still ahead of some of the most notoriously harmful brands in the athletic apparel sector, it still has work to do in crucial areas like biodiversity and transparency.

While Adidas is still ahead of some of the most notoriously harmful brands in the athletic apparel sector, it still has work to do in crucial areas like biodiversity and transparency. It was also caught up in a greenwashing scandal in late 2021 when it was found to be misleading consumers with its wording around recycled content in a new pair of Stan Smith sneakers. This is a prime example of the notorious fast fashion claims and campaigns being constantly exposed as greenwashing, for which brands must be held accountable.

Take a closer look at the reasons behind the change in our deep dive into Adidas’ rating, noting that Adidas scores the same as Nike across the board with “It’s a Start” for people and the planet, and “Not Good Enough” for animals.

Adidas gets an “It’s a Start” rating overall.

The verdict

So, it seems that both companies have a bit of a trek in front of them on the labour rights front—we hope they don’t get too many blisters along the way. Is Adidas better than Nike? Overall, the brands are neck-in-neck with identical scores across the board, with both brands making a start for the environment and workers and lagging on animal welfare.

Step up your ethics

As ever, the most sustainable item is the one in your closet. If you own a pair of Nike or Adidas sneakers but would rather not support the brands in the future, the best option is to use them until they’re worn out and then thoughtfully dispose of them. If you’re in the US or Europe, you can drop off old sneakers from any brand to a participating Nike store for recycling.

In need of new sneakers or activewear that better match your values? Check out these ethical alternatives below, beating both Adidas and Nike at their own game, with more solid results for people, the planet, and animals. Or simply opt for second hand Adidas or Nike, prolonging the life of products already in circulation.

Nike (Pre-Owned)

Rated: It's A Start

Nike is an American sportswear and activewear manufacturer. The brand has good policies to audit suppliers in its supply chain, but it is not taking adequate steps to ensure payment of a living wage for its workers. By buying Nike second hand you're helping keep clothes out of landfills and helping protect workers by slowing down the fast fashion cycle and the relentless demands on low-paid workers in the supply chain.

See the rating.

Shop Nike Pre-Owned @ Vestiaire Collective.

Adidas (Pre-Owned)

Rated: It's A Start

Adidas is one of the largest sportswear makers in the world. The company has set some good environmental and labour standards, including an absolute target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions generated from its own operations.

See the rating.

Shop Adidas Pre-Owned @ Vestiaire Collective.

 

CARIUMA

Rated: Good
yellow sustainable skate shoes by Cariuma brand

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CARIUMA is a sustainable Brazilian sneaker brand that wants you to feel super comfortable while providing effortless style in organic canvas, leather, and suede styles. Find CARIUMA's shoes in US sizes 5-13.

See the rating.

Shop CARIUMA.

MATE the Label

Rated: Great

MATE the Label creates clean essentials made with GOTS certified organic fabrics and low-impact dyes. Its goal is to offer women everywhere a clean product that is just as beautiful as it is sustainable. It is proudly female-founded and is predominately operated by women. This US brand also manufactures locally to reduce its carbon footprint. Find the range in inclusive sizes XS-3XL.

See the rating.

Shop MATE the Label.

Nube

Rated: Great

Nube turns recycled plastic into responsible and fashionable activewear, designed and made in the US. The brand partners with artists and designers around the world to create prints motivated by the environmental crisis that inspire connection and action. This fully woman-owned business uses a closed-loop manufacturing process by recycling all off-cuts created during the manufacturing process. Find Nube products in sizes XS-XL.

See the rating.

Shop Nube.

Outerknown

Rated: Good

Founded by surf champion Kelly Slater, Outerknown is a sustainable brand that aims to blend style and function with the protection of natural resources. The brand is Bluesign certified and has partnered with the Fair Labour Association. Find the range in sizes XS-2XL.

See the rating.

Shop Outerknown.

Shop Outerknown @ Wearwell.

dk active

Rated: Good

dk active is an Australian high-performance brand supporting everybody seeking an authentic edge in life. It uses renewable energy in its supply chain to reduce its climate impact, and reuses all of its offcuts to minimise textile waste. It is also a PETA approved 100% vegan brand! Find the products in sizes XS-2XL.

See the rating.

Shop dk active.

Veja

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.

See the rating.

Shop Veja.

Shop Veja @ LVR Sustainable.

Shop Veja @ thegreenlabels.

Shop Veja @ Outerknown.

Shop Veja @ Threads 4 Thought.

Shop Veja @ Labell-D.

Shop Veja Kids second hand @ Retykle.

Womsh

Rated: Good

Fashion and sustainability can go together and Womsh is the brand that proves it. Its shoes are entirely designed and manufactured in Italy, and its clothing range is made from eco-friendly fabrics like organic cotton. Find most shoes in EU sizes 35-42, and clothes in XS-2XL.

See the rating.

Shop Womsh.

We love these sustainable options listed above, but they may not meet your specific needs right now. Maybe they’re out of your price range or don’t stock your size. If you really need something and a product from Nike or Adidas is the best option, you shouldn’t feel guilty about buying it. “It’s a Start” means just that—the brand is making a start. Nike and Adidas are already ahead of comparable brands by working towards science-based targets and providing more eco-friendly ranges. And if your options are one of these brands or a fast fashion brand we avoid that is making little to no effort for people, the planet, and animals, Nike and Adidas are clear winners. Progress over perfection.

You can also reach out to brands who you think need a little nudge in the right direction. If enough customers demand change, brands that genuinely care about their impact will have no choice but to respond in kind. Check out the “Your Voice” function on the app or slide into their DMs on social media to let them know what you think.

Keen for more? Check out our ultimate guides to sustainable sneakers and ethical activewear

Editor's note

This article was originally written by Yvette Hymann in 2019, and was updated by Isobella Wolfe in 2022. Feature image via Nike and Adidas, all other images via brands mentioned. 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 thousands of rated brands. To support our work, we may earn a commission on sales made using our offer codes or affiliate links.

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