Twenty years of campaigning for workers' rights changed the corporate culture of one of the world's biggest brands – and the sportswear industry.
With three weeks until the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, activists are busy cranking out yet another round of anti-sweat shop campaigns and shock-horror exposes. But do these campaigns really make any difference?
Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is yes.
In the new Olympic special edition of Ethical Consumer magazine the spotlight is on Nike and the impact that 20 years of campaigning has had in changing the corporate culture of one of the world’s biggest sportswear brands.
It’s worth remembering that in the 1990s the global boycott campaign of Nike was so successful that it has now become an object lesson in how giant corporations can be brought to account by ordinary consumers.
“Nike was targeted by campaigners because it was the world’s best-selling brand and because initially it denied responsibility for any malpractice that may be taking place in its sub-contractor factories,” explains Rob Harrison, editor of Ethical Consumer.
With the campaign scoring a direct hit on Nike’s bottom line, the corporation today operates with an openness and transparency that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. For example on the Fair Labor Association website it’s possible to read more than 150 reports of Nike factory inspections conducted by independent third parties.
Problems still exist in Nike’s supply chain and the company still doesn’t make publicly available all supplier factory information, meaning that Nike is unlikely to be recommended as an Ethical Consumer best buy company any time soon.
However, according to Harrison, Nike should be credited: “For a company which 20 years ago was denying that workers’ rights at supplier factories were any of its concern, Nike has come a long way.”
Just how far the sportswear industry has come was neatly illustrated last summer when Greenpeace launched its Detox Challenge which targeted global brands including Nike and Adidas with the aim of stopping their suppliers from dumping toxic chemical waste into waterways around the world.
Within a matter of weeks Nike produced a plan to go toxics-free free by 2020 with similar plans announced in the same record-breaking time by Adidas and Puma with more companies falling in line later on.
Without even breathing the word “boycott” campaigners were able to steer companies to a place they were happy with.
“It was clear that the lessons of the 90s had been painfully learned,” observes Harrison. “If there’s a case to answer it’s better to concede early rather than hoping it will go away.”
So does this all mean that anti-sweatshop campaigners will soon be looking for other jobs? Sadly no, as groups such as War On Want and Playfair 2012 attest. They’ve been actively targeting Olympic sponsor Adidas for its alleged sweatshop abuses. Anna McMullen from Labour Behind the Label explains that the clothing industry is far from being sweat-shop free:
“Poverty levels of pay remain a problem right across the clothing industry. In the Philippines for example, recent Playfair 2012 research found 50% of workers making Adidas Olympic-branded gear have to rely on loan shark payouts, while in China many workers can only afford to live in cramped dorms far from their families.”
Campaigners including McMullen are now focusing their efforts on the organisers of events such as the Olympics.
“The International Olympic Committee (IoC) has repeatedly refused to take responsibility for ensuring that workers producing goods for the Olympic brand have their rights respected,” says McMullen. “If campaigners are not to return to square one every time the games come around then the IoC must show leadership on this issue.”
• Simon Birch writes for Ethical Consumer magazine