Narrative“The Nike saga” (4/5). The equipment manufacturer became the world leader in the sector in the 1990s and 2000s, but a series of scandals damaged its image. “Sweatshops” and doping cases tarnish the company’s reputation
At the turn of the XXIe century, the wearing of sneakers and sportswear has won over all walks of life, all sports disciplines and all generations. At Nike, star designers multiply stylistic finds and technical prowess. The exploits of the “Dream Team” American basketball at the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992, then the double of sprinter Michael Johnson and his golden shoes four years later, in Atlanta, have definitively installed the brand at the top, the great rival, Adidas, is overwhelmed. The public is at the rendezvous, the investors too; in short, the chaos of the beginnings seems far away. This is without counting on a series of attacks that will undermine the image, young and cool, that Nike has built since its creation in 1972.
The first blow comes from where it all began, in Asia. While revelations about the working conditions of the brand’s subcontractors have been spreading for some time, the American magazine Life publishes, in March 1996, a report in Pakistan showing young boys tying pieces of leather to make soccer balls marked with the swoosh (“comma”), the Nike logo. These production lines, where adults and sometimes children work in deplorable conditions, earn a pejorative nickname, “sweatshops” – or “sweatshops” – and the scandal immediately takes on a global dimension.
In several large cities in the United States, demonstrations bring together public figures, NGOs or unions who have come to denounce the exploitation of workers at the subcontractors of some major Western brands. In 1998, the documentary by Michael Moore The Big One points the responsibility of Nike. Reverse of success for the brand most spontaneously associated with these dishonorable relocations. The Oregon company has a hundred subcontractors for the manufacture of its shoes, and around 500 production sites for sportswear, distributed in more than thirty countries, indicates Steve Bence, former manager in the group’s Asian factories.
When demand started to explode in the early 1980s, production costs in Japan were already high, and “it was complicated to increase our production capacities in the United States, continues Steve Bence, author of 1972. Pre, UO Track, Nike Shoes and my Life With Them All (SB4 Press, 2021, untranslated). For the type of shoes we wanted to make, these workshops were the best in the world, we had to learn to work with them. » A prospect all the more tempting as a whole maritime transport infrastructure was available on site: “During the Vietnam War, the American army unloaded in Asia all its material in containers. It suited the shipping companies not to come back empty,” adds the sixty-something, still employed at Nike.
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