Should Nike be Applauded for Beating Adidas on the Greenpeace Detox Challenge?

Last Wednesday was a red letter day for Nike. First, the company accepted the Greenpeace Detox challenge, beating Adidas in a race Greenpeace instigated between the two on who would be the first to commit to “a toxic free future.”  That evening, FC Barcelona, sponsored by Nike, beat Real Madrid, sponsored by Adidas 3:2 in the Spanish Supercup. Could it get any better?

Well, it actually did when Greenpeace decided to make sure the almost 100,000 fans attending the Spanish Super Cup match knew that Adidas was lagging behind. Greenpeace activists projected messages on buildings next to Nou Camp Stadium where the match took place such as, “Water Pollution Is Not Fair Play” and “The World Needs More Champions. Is Adidas All In?”

The Greenpeace Detox campaign started with the release of a ‘Dirty Laundry’ report focusing on the problem of toxic water pollution resulting from the release of hazardous chemicals by textile factories in China. Greenpeace found many global brands do business with the two Chinese factories profiled in the report, but decided to focus on Nike, Adidas and Puma because these companies are recognized as leaders on sustainability issues. A couple of weeks later, with two of the three already making significant commitments, it looks like Greenpeace made the right decision.

Nike was the second company to respond to Greenpeace, following Puma’s commitment on July 26th to “eliminate the discharges of all hazardous chemicals from the whole lifecycle and all production procedures that are associated with the making and using of Puma products by 2020.” Nike’s commitment three weeks later was very similar:

NIKE, Inc. supports the goal of systemic change to achieve zero discharge of hazardous chemicals associated with supply chains and the lifecycles of products within one generation or less. NIKE, Inc. is committed to the goal of zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020.

The commitments of Puma and Nike are almost identical. They provide similar time frames for both short-term action and long-term elimination, as well as a promise for full transparency in the process. One difference though is that Nike not only commits to making changes within its own supply chain, but also pledges to help creating a systematic change. If Nike will keep its promise to “work tirelessly to affect system change across the industry towards this goal” and “to share what we learn, our approaches and tools and work with others,” then their commitment will become more significant than the one Puma made.

Nike’s ultimate response is of course very different from its initial reaction. Replying to Reuters’ inquiry, Simon Wainwright, a Nike spokesman, said last month:

To the best of our knowledge, we are not contributing to the pollution of the Yangtze Delta through our factory partners. Nike currently sources from two factories of the Youngor Group Co … These factories are cut-and-sew facilities; they do not have manufacturing processes that include use of the chemicals called out by Greenpeace.

You see the difference, right? First, Nike was looking for ways to isolate itself from the Chinese factory’s environmental impacts, even though it is in clear contrast with its suppliers’ code of conduct. There, Nike says: “The contractor adopts reasonable measures to mitigate negative operational impacts on the environmental and strives to continuously improve environmental performance.” This is definitely not the case with Yonguor Grou, as we can learn from Nike’s revised approach to the whole issue.

It makes you to wonder who is the real Nike? Is it the company that first responded to Greenpeace allegations by trying to avoid any sort of responsibility, or the one that took full responsibility and committed to change its practices last Wednesday? Nike would like you to forget its original response and focus on the latter.

Another question is why it took Nike so much time to respond. Three weeks passed between Puma’s commitment announcement and Nike’s similar announcement.

As you can see, Nike should be applauded for their commitment, but there are still some serious questions that demand answers about the company’s social responsibility practices. It’s not that we expect the company to be perfect, but we do expect them to ensure their suppliers’ code of conduct is being taken seriously by their suppliers and to ensure it is implemented in general and not just in the units doing business with Nike. We also expect them to take responsibility at first and not just after an effective campaign of Greenpeace gets them to do it.

One thing we can be sure about is that Greenpeace deserves applause on another successful and well-run campaign. It shows one more time the important role environmental organizations still have as watchdogs. I doubt if any sort of pressure from other stakeholders on Nike and Puma would have brought similar results in such a short time. So, thank you Greenpeace!

Image credit: tomat3, Flickr Creative Commons

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder and CEO of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons The New School for Design. His research interests include the convergence of innovation, sustainability, business and design strategies, as well as the sharing economy, sustainable business models and design thinking. Currently he is involved in projects focusing on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, resilience and the sharing economy, future of design thinking, and whether Millennials can integrate sustainability into their lifestyles.Raz is the co-founder of two green startups (Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris) and a contributor writer to Triple Pundit.