Nike Sustainability and Labor Practices 2008-2013
The case discusses Nike’s sustainability and labor practices from 1998 to 2013, focusing on the successful steps Nike took up and down the supply chain and in its headquarters to make its products and processes more environmentally friendly, and the challenges and complexities it was still facing in its efforts to improve labor conditions. Nike’s labor practices were the subject of high profile public protests in the 1990s, and CEO Mark Parker said the company still had a lot of work to do in that area. The case also details how making sustainability a key part of the design process led Nike to develop more innovative and high-performing products, such as a breakthrough running shoe called the Flyknit, which was widely worn at the 2012 Olympics. Following protests in the late 1990s over unsafe working conditions, low wage rates, excessive overtime, restrictions on employee organizing, and negative environmental impacts, Nike began shifting from a reactive to a proactive mode. During the 15 years covered in this case, Nike made significant changes in its sustainability practices, including moving its Corporate Responsibility team much further upstream in the organization, where it could have a greater impact on decisions by providing input early in the process. The company also developed multiple indexes that measured its sustainability practices and those of its independent contract manufacturers. The indexes had metrics for measuring the relevant impacts of product waste, water, chemistry, labor, and energy. Nike’s critics said many labor issues had not been resolved, but Nike made progress in that area through collaboration with governments, NGOs and labor unions, and through management compliance trainings. If a contract factory did not score high enough on the company’s sustainability and labor ratings scales, Nike would impose sanctions on the factory or even drop it from the supply chain. These actions took Nike off the top of most activists’ target lists.
The learning objective of the case is for students to understand how a large, high-profile global company is navigating the complexities of becoming more sustainable and improving labor practices.