Nike's Social Responsibility Rhetoric Exposed as a Lie

Nike's Social Responsibility Rhetoric Exposed as a Lie

Nike's Corporate Responsibility Sham
Kristina Cañizares, AlterNet
May 29, 2001

On May 12, 1998, Nike CEO Philip Knight stood before the National Press
Club and vowed to implement a six-pronged plan to improve labor conditions
in his company's 600 contract factories. The speech didn't appear to be a
palliative: Knight seemed genuinely concerned that activists and journalists
had found Nike to be fostering sweatshops and lax safety standards abroad.

Knight was brave: He described his company's product as "synonymous with
slave wages, forced overtime and arbitrary abuse," and announced a series of
reforms that included new labor policies for health and safety, child labor,
independent monitoring and workers' education. "A sea change in company
culture" is what he called the move.

As for the details, Knight promised to meet the U.S. Occupational Safety
and Health Administration (OSHA) standards in indoor air quality. He said
the minimum age for Nike factory workers would be raised to 18 years for
full-time employees and 16 part-time ones. He ensured Nike would include
non-governmental organizations in its factory monitoring. He vowed an
expansion of Nike's worker education program, making available free high
school equivalency courses, and an expansion of Nike's micro-enterprise loan
program to benefit 4,000 families in Vietnam, Indonesia, Pakistan and
Thailand. And, lastly, Knight promised to fund university research and open
forums on responsible business practices.

Given Knight's remarks were made to the National Press Club, it wasn't
surprising they were absorbed by prominent news organizations. A May
1998 New York Times editorial argued Nike's reforms "set a standard that
other companies should match," and the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne Jr.
called the new measures a "breakthrough for American and international
human rights campaigners."

Long-time critics of Nike remained cautious, arguing Nike's workplaces would
still be sweatshops even with the proposed reforms. But generally there was
the impression that bad press can lead to good reform and that Knight's
announcement was a victory.

Now three years have passed. And Global Exchange, an international human
rights organization that has monitored Nike's labor practices since 1988,
has issued a report following up on Nike's promises. "Still Waiting for Nike
To Do It" is the title of the 115-page investigation and the title pretty
much says it all. According to Global Exchange's researchers, Nike has
fallen short on all its six areas of reform.

Perhaps most troublesome in Global Exchange's report is that Nike has not
made good on its promise to institute OSHA standards. Toluene, a chemical
solvent known to cause central nervous system depression and liver and
kidney damage, is still being used in Nike sneaker manufacture. And although
the amount of Toluene has been reduced, Nike seem to be providing factory
managers advance notice of testing, "giving them considerable scope to
change chemical use to minimize emissions on the day of the test is
conducted," according to the report. Moreover, Nike has not regularly made
the results of those tests available to the public.

Among the report's other findings are that only one nonprofit organization
has been permitted to conduct one audit of one Nike factory; that Nike's
education program has expanded, but wages paid in Nike factories are not
high enough for the majority of workers to give up overtime income to take
courses; that Nike refused reputable academics access to Nike factories to
conduct research; that there is evidence Nike contract factories employ
workers under 16; and that the company continues to abide factories that
demand 70 hour work weeks from their employees.

"While Nike touts itself as an 'industry leader' in corporate
responsibility, Nike workers are still forced to work excessively long hours
in high pressure environments, are not paid enough to meet the most basic
needs of their children, and are subject to harassment, dismissal and
violent intimidation if they try to form unions or tell journalists about
labor abuses in their factories," concludes the report.

Medea Benjamin, Global Exchange's Corporate Accountability Director, adds:
"There have probably been some improvements [in Nike labor standards], but
we have yet to see any meaningful improvement in the areas of living wages
or the right to organize."

Equally troublesome is Nike's $3 billion public relations campaign, which
seems to have silenced many of Nike's former critics. Nike has skirted
around the problem of labor abuses by promoting its reforms without
providing proof they are being instituted. And most media organizations
have accepted Nike's PR as news.

Newsweek, for example, reported in 1999 that Nike has "set the
apparel-industry standard for reform of wages, hours and minimum working
ages in its contract factories." The Journal of Business Ethics has called
Nike an "ethical transnational," and Business and Society has praised the
company for its cooperation with human rights groups and adoption of a
factory code of conduct. In February 2001, Fortune Magazine voted Nike
the #1 most admired company in the apparel industry when, less than a month
earlier, 300 striking workers at the Kuk Dong factory in Atlixco, Mexico
were attacked and beaten by local police in riot gear. Workers had been
attempting to form an independent union demanding fair wages and better
food in the factory cafeteria.

Similarly egregious, Nike's public relations push has included sponsoring
socially responsible business conferences and funding media projects. In
October 2000, for example, attendees of one such meeting in Atlanta, the
Natural Step Conference, were shown a film describing Nike's newfound
commitment to social justice. Meanwhile, a BBC documentary found that
harassment, measly wages and underage workers were still typical at a Nike
contract factory in Cambodia.

Nike's other maneuver to quiet critics has been to create and fund its own
inspection and monitoring organizations, which tend to issue biased reports.
In 1998, Nike co-founded the Global Alliance for Workers Communities with
the World Bank, The Gap and two universities. It also has poured money into
the Fair Labor Association, a coalition of corporations and nonprofits
brought together in 1996 by Clinton's Apparel Industry Partnership. Neither
group is independent of Nike, which basically means they have no incentive
to conduct investigations that serve the interests of Nike's workers over
the company's.

So much for Philip Knight's fine words. On May 15 he proudly trumpeted,
"This third anniversary of the speech was a good opportunity to let the
public know that we have listened to their feedback and our response can
be measured in deeds -- not words -- when it comes to corporate

But Nike's efforts at corporate responsibility are a sham. Global Exchange's
investigation strongly suggests that public relations is Nike's only real
political concern. To quote Global Exchange's Jason Mark: "The company
has treated sweatshop abuses as a public relations inconvenience, not a serious
human rights issue. Our report demonstrates the U.S. public has every right
to be suspicious of this company."

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