Ethical Branding and Nike

Or, should you be burning your Nikes too?

Darien Horwood, Contributor // Illustration by Ryan McDiarmid

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last year or two, you might have heard of two major things. First, Colin Kaepernick, the former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, started taking a knee during the American national anthem as a form of protest against the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of the police. More recently, Nike used him in their new advertising campaign. Whether the piece is meant to make a bold political statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement or is just smart marketing is up for debate. The ad, simply put, says, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Inspiring, right?

There is nothing inherently wrong with the advertisement. If anything, it is on the surface level motivational. However, it’s the use of a serious political movement to sell products that is iffy. Nike is guilty of commodity activism, which is defined as, “The process by which social action is increasingly understood through the ways it is mapped onto merchandising practices, market incentives, and corporate profits.” Nike isn’t the first organization to do this. Companies like Dove, with their Real Beauty campaign, and the Gap’s RED campaign are other examples. The reality is that it works – people like buying products that support a cause.

Although the ad is powerful, Nike is not using their stance to promote change unlike these other examples of commodity activism. All they are doing is generating publicity and profiting from it. The question stands – is what Nike is doing morally wrong? Unlike the ad, the answer isn’t black and white and requires further examination.

If you look at Nike’s troubled history and their lack of action in other instances you would see that they don’t care about anything but profit. Let’s start with sweatshops. Since the 1970s, Nike has been accused of employing sweatshop labourers. The issue came to light in 1991 when activist Jeff Ballinger publishing a report, discussed in Good On You’s piece on Nike’s ethics by Lara Robertson, that revealed the low wages earned by workers and poor manufacturing conditions in Nike’s Indonesian factories. Although Nike has become more accountable, it was only after extreme pushback against the company that they changed their practices. Now, according to Robertson, “Nike has recently taken a big step backwards. In March, the International Labor Rights Forum reported that Nike has turned its back on its commitment to the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), which effectively blocks labor rights experts from independently monitoring Nike’s supplier factories.”

Another point Robertson made was that other campaigns that fall under commodity activism aim to make a difference. Nike’s, on the other hand, does not. They are not donating a portion of their profits to Kaepernick’s cause. They are simply taking an issue and giving it a platform. The problem with that is this issue doesn’t need a platform. Nike appears to be taking advantage of the publicity to promote their brand, shamelessly profiting off of an issue that is dividing a country. Now, should you burn your Nikes? Probably not, but how about donating them to a local shelter? Or better yet, buying products that are ethically made and actually support good causes? Brands that aren’t all talk, because if you’re going to believe in something, it should be something worth believing in.

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