How do you plead, Nike?


Nike’s reinvention from worker abuse allegations to sustainable manufacturer


When you look in the dictionary for the definition of the word ‘reinvention’ right next to the picture of Madonna, you’ll find the Nike logo.

This fifty year old sporting and active wear institution, first established as ‘Blue Ribbon Sports’, before taking on the Nike, Inc. title in 1971, has, in the last couple of years, tried to pull their name, not to mention identity, from the darkest of shadows following countless accusations and lawsuits over unfair working environments.



The company’s brand new website boasts a variety of ‘actual’ reports and statements on their manufacturing, and environmental trade. “NIKE, Inc. has worked to improve [labour] conditions in our footwear, apparel and equipment supply chains for more than 15 years. Key issues in which we have engaged include the health and safety of the workers who make our products, excessive overtime, the ability of workers to freely associate, and child [labour] and forced [labour].”

Just do it 03In September of 2011, Nike made headlines for the first time since the initial sweatshop allegations in their Vietnam headquarters back in the early nineties, after a woman working at a Nike factory in Indonesia spoke out about being abused. The woman stated that her supervisor had kicked her as a result of a mistake she made while cutting rubber soles: “We’re powerless. Our only choice is to stay and suffer, or speak out and be fired.”

In a 1995 report byAsia Monitor Resource Centre and the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee, the following was printed: “When the multinationals squeeze the subcontractors, the subcontractors squeeze the workers.”

In the 1997 documentary film, The Big One, American filmmaker, Michael Moore, showed how big companies in America become greedy and guilty of unfair business. One of the companies he targeted was Nike, Inc. And its CEO, Phil Knight. Moore successfully exposed that the company’s leading factory in Indonesia has the backing of the local military regime, uses teenage girls, and pays them less than 40c per hour. He also revealed that Nike does not produce any shoes in America.

That was in the late nineties. Today, the USA has 70 Nike factories with 12,495 workers, making up only 1% of the global Nike work force. However, Vietnam is the largest producer of Nike shoes, with a total of 323,929 workers working in 67 factories. That’s 32% of the global Nike work force all squeezed into just over sixty factories; an equivalent of 4740 workers per factory, a significantly higher number than the 210 workers per factory in the States.

Following Moore’s question as to why there were no factories in the USA, Knight responded, “Americans don’t want to make shoes. That’s not their ambition.” Surely, some of those Americans were willing to take on jobs of any sort if it means they need to produce shoes in order to support their families, just as the Indonesians and the Vietnamese do. It’s not necessarily that person’s ambition or goal in life to sit in a factory and make shoes, as much as a means of earning an income.

This is where Night’s argument falls flat, especially seeing as today, they do in fact have producing factories in America.

ng_neworleans_collection_300Fast forward to 2014 – Nike’s ‘Reuse-a-Shoe’ program, which was launched in the early 1990’s , is now almost fifteen years old. This program aims to utilise worn-out and old athletic shoes, for the production of ‘Nike Grind’, a material used for the assembling of sports surfaces, like basketball courts and athletic tracks.

Regarding their workforce, Nike acknowledges that their biggest responsibility, as the global company that they are, is to actively incorporate and encourage a positive and systematic change for all of their work force.

When we look at our overall impact on the world, the needs of nearly 1 million workers in Nike’s contract supply chain overshadows any other group. We also know the size and scale of the combined manufacturing operations has a considerable environmental impact.”

The company states that their focus is to expose the root of the ongoing issues with unfair treatment of workers and wages, and evaluating their supplier and manufacturing relationships in order to find newer ways to share responsibility.

We’re looking end-to-end, from the first phase of our product creation process to the impacts of our decisions on the lives of workers in the factories that bring our product to life.”

Guilty or not, with all new environmentally friendly material sourcing methods, and a fresh view on manufacturing and their work force, it won’t be long before the company can fully shed the alleged image of being the bully, and rise from the ashes of a burnt out reputation.

This article was written and submitted by Johann Huebsch for Round 1 of Modeconnect’s International Fashion Writing Competition. Johann was invited to take part in Round 2. Read all the published submissions.