Is Nike Ethical? The Truth Behind Its Empowering Image

Marcella Wijngaarden

Is Nike Ethical? The Truth Behind Its Empowering Image

Its minimalist but instantly recognisable swoosh logo. Inspirational ads that spin stories and make us feel that we can “just do it," too.

We can’t blame you if, when you hear ‘activewear’, you immediately think of Nike.

If you’re sprinting towards a fairer wardrobe, though, is it the right choice? In other words: is Nike as ethical as it appears?

Let’s look at it from both a human and environmental perspective.  

Does Nike have any ethical issues?

Someone jumping while weaing Nike shoes

Nike’s sweatshop scandals and lack of transparency

This brand seems to have a bit of a history of getting called out and exposed, occasionally doing something about it, but then finding itself involved in similar problems. 

For example:

  • Nike’s sweatshops scandal in the 90s – While it appears to have been using sweatshops since as early as the 70s, Nike was first exposed for it in 1991. Jeffrey Ballinger, an American labour activist, published a report on its Indonesian factories hiding unsafe working conditions, below-minimum wages, and even child labour
  • Early 2000s – The same problems were explored even further in the documentary Behind the Swoosh
  • Another step back in 2017 Nike did a U-turn on its commitment to the WRC (Worker Rights Consortium), blocking external labour rights experts from monitoring their supplier factories
  • Pandemic problems – Nike went under fire again for refusing to settle $2.2 million in unpaid wages and benefits to over 4000 garment workers in Cambodia and Thailand, abruptly dismissed during the pandemic 
  • Transparency issues – Nike does disclose some details on their suppliers but, in our opinion, not enough. In fact, the Fashion Transparency Index only ranked it at 41-50% in transparency. We also don’t believe Nike is ethical because it doesn’t guarantee a living wage across its supply chain

Empowering women? Not always!

Nike is particularly famous for its campaigns on women's empowerment and inclusiveness… and yet the reality doesn’t seem to match that image.

Sure, this brand does do a lot, from diversity programmes to big donations, but some other reasons why Nike isn’t as ethical as it appears are:

  • Problematic culture – In 2018, two former women employees sued Nike, accusing the brand of fostering a culture of gender discrimination and even sexual harassment 
  • Athletes speaking upAlysia Montaño had to fight with Nike to keep their sponsorship and paycheck when she got pregnant, and so did Allyson Felix, who was offered 70% less. Luckily, the sportswear giant made some changes to their maternity policy after this came out, but it makes us wonder: how exploited are the people with less visibility?

Animal rights: is Nike cruelty free? 

Much like with the welfare of its workers, it's hard to know the truth about the animals involved in its production process.

While leather is rare (and Nike does choose recycled and vegan leather, sometimes), this brand also uses wool, down, silk, and exotic animal skin but doesn’t specify their sources

On the plus side, it recently committed to the Responsible Wool Standard, avoiding mulesing (the removal of strips of skin to prevent parasitic infections, often without anaesthesia). 

Is Nike actually environmentally friendly?

Someone holding a pair of Nike shoes

Overall, Nike has made several steps forward when it comes to reducing its environmental footprint

For example, it’s a founding member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and uses lower-impact materials in some of its collections (like organic or recycled cotton, recycled leather, and recycled polyester). It also launched a refurbished programme to reduce waste by giving a second chance to their footwear.

So far so good, right?

There’s just one main problem when it comes to Nike’s environmental impact and approach:

Lack of transparency

  • Not transparent enough – As seen before, it only scores 41-50% in transparency. For example, Nike sets lots of eco-friendly targets but doesn’t seem to provide enough evidence to show that it’s actually working towards them
  • Greenwashing – Nike makes many eco-friendly claims without backing them up. So, it’s been accused of greenwashing and even faced a lawsuit over it

So, is Nike an ethical brand?

The world of fairtrade fashion isn’t black and white, but overall, we don’t believe that Nike can be considered an ethical brand.

It also seems to be working more towards sustainability (from an eco-friendly perspective) than ethical goals from a humanitarian point of view.

So, we believe that one of its priorities should be guaranteeing living wages and fair working conditions across all stages of its supply chain.

Finding more sustainable and ethical Nike alternatives 

An ethical Nike alternative

If you want to support some activewear and footwear brands that are more ethical than Nike, where can you start?

Right here!

At Project Cece, we brought hundreds of fair trade brands in one place, and that includes:

  • Ecoer Fashion, with a large activewear section
  • Komodo, a slow fashion pioneer with a small but versatile activewear range
  • ACBC, an ethical active footwear brand choosing the most sustainable materials 
  • Alohas, a vegan and on-demand brand with a good range of trainers

Find even more ethical Nike alternatives in our sustainable sportswear and sneakers sections in particular. 

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