Asking “who made my clothes?” looks behind Nike’s celebration of women athletes

Over the last few days of February and beyond Nike’s most recent ad in its ‘Crazy’ series has gone viral in ways most film makers only ever dream of, with over 7 million YouTube views in its first five days. There are reasons why it should be so popular: narrated by Serena Williams it celebrates women’s athleticism, condemns the cultures of sport that denigrate women’s sporting success and shouts loudly about those women who defy the constraints that a stubborn attachment to sport as a masculine preserve imposes.

This is a piece of corporate self-promotion (it is an advertisement after all) that puts Nike on the side of angels, celebrating strong and defiant women where the structure of the slogan (“It’s only crazy until you do it”) also invokes the adage often attributed to Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it’s done”, and there are few more sanctified in contemporary politics than Mandela. Crucially, the ad resonates powerfully with last year’s ask if your dreams are crazy enough  ad fronted by Colin Kaepernick (now that over 28 million YouTube views) that so annoyed many conservatives who seem offended that someone has taken a stand against systemic racism. Nike seems to have a good market sense to support justice, equality and civil rights, and not only in English language advertising – as shown in its recent ads fronted by German boxer Zeina Nassar (in the wake of this week’s attack on sports hijabs by senior figures in the French government perhaps we could have a similar French language ad), Turkish kickboxer Irem Yaman  and wrestler Yasemin Adar, and the fabulous Juntas Imparables. It is an inspired campaign and repositions Nike in its early image as the ‘bad boy’ of the sports goods market.

There is no question that these women athletes, elite and otherwise, are to be celebrated, that women’s sport success, especially in domains conventionally seen as men’s, disrupt and undermine a potent political and cultural outlook that continues to cast women as weak, as inadequate, as less than real athletes. There is no doubt that there is extensive interest in and celebration of women’s achievements in sports and physical cultures – witness the viral nature of the footage of Katelyn Ohashi’s  floor routine for the UCLA gymnastics team at the beginning of December 2018, as of 1 March 2019 at 34.5 million YouTube views, or the widespread sense that the IAAF’s testosterone rule (subject of last week’s Court of Arbitration for Sport deliberations) is unjust because it seems to be targeting a single athlete and is based in dubious science (it’s not that I see the study in question is necessarily unethical or lacking integrity, I do not have evidence either way, but it is a problem that the rule is based on a single study: that’s not how science works!). We need to be careful about the risks when these celebrations accept performances by men as the measures of excellence or quality in sport: many of these successes by women do little in the big picture to unsettle the masculinist norm of sport cultures and measures. (In case this is seen as some kind of anti-sport position, I note that my former office buddy Mark De Ste Croix has shown repeatedly that prevention of ACL injuries in women football players requires training programmes that are designed for women: the masculinist norm is dangerous.) Nike’s corporate image here takes as given this masculinist norm: in most of these ads – and overwhelmingly in last week’s Dream Crazier – women are not subverting the masculinist performance norms but are accepting them, and consequently the gendered sport system, in ways that sustain these normative measures – but that’s another story.

Nike has done well in depicting itself as a socially responsible corporation, an advocate for women in sport, a celebrant of women’s physicality – and in a world where women’s physical activity participation rates still fall well behind men’s and where women all too often set aside their sport and exercise activities for their male partner’s that’s a good thing. Despite this, Nike is not being altruistic here (this is an ad!) but is looking to promote its athletes. This is about selling its products but more especially about selling its brand identity as socially responsible, as on the side of good, of justice (remembering that its corporate leadership are major contributors to Trump’s Republican Party – we could question Nike’s sincerity here). It’s about making sure that when we don our Nike products we feel a little like we’re standing with the good guys – with Kap, with Serena, with Caster, with LeBron and others who are challenging sports’ orthodoxies and reminding us that there are social responsibilities beyond the boundary, and that that world beyond the boundary doesn’t stay there.

Standing with the angels makes good business sense. In the immediate wake of the Kaepernick ad last year Nike’s online sales jumped by about 1/3 despite the images of product burning, and the initial fall in its stock price was quickly recovered – a sure sign that corporate social responsibility pays off. But there’s something missing from all of this celebration of performance and consumption, from this ringing endorsement of women’s social and cultural rights. Consumption requires production, so I’m left wondering about the women who make these products, and how Nike’s quest for profits ties into its relationship with the workers who make the things we buy.

The textile industry, the third biggest globally, and the shoe industry are overwhelmingly places of women’s labour: about 80% of textile and shoe workers are women. Paradoxically, given the profile and presence of women of colour in Dream Crazier, these women production workers are also overwhelmingly women of colour living in localities on the margins of socially responsible capitalism, in industrial zones where the law and workers’ rights are often set aside. These might be Mexico’s maquiladora, duty-free and tariff-free zones where clothing and other commodities are assembled, processed or manufactured and then often exported back to the country of origin, or they could be Indonesia’s, China’s, the Dominican Republic’s or many others’ Export Processing Zones (EPZ) where the same suspension of rules applies. They might work at the luxury end of the market, where in Italy provisions akin to EPZs set aside local labour and environmental rules yet the products still bear the ‘Made in Italy’ mark, which for shoes is usually considered a sign of excellence: don’t assume ethical production on the basis of where a good is made. Some of these workers might be based in the over 250 Foreign Trade Zones within the borders of the continental USA (in effect, EPZs), let alone its dependencies and territories, or small factories or homeworkers across the EU (still including the UK!) where piece rates apply and wages are well below minimum requirements. Almost universally these are workers paid below living wages, subject to physical, sexual and other forms of abuse, working 12 or more hours a day and sacked for standing up for their rights as workers.

Workers across these industries and their supporters linked to organisations such as the Clean Clothes Campaign, the Workers’ Rights Consortium, United Students Against Sweatshops and Labour Behind the Label (full disclosure time: I am the Chair of the UK’s Labour Behind the Label Trust) are currently working on two key issues globally. The first is a living wage campaign (we are expecting to have a research report completed in the next few months), where one of the major issues has been definitions of a ‘living wage’. For many employers this is often assumed to be the legal minimum wage (which is almost universally inadequate), and for many campaigners is understood as ‘wages and compensation (for standard working hours, i.e. without overtime) that is sufficient to meet basic needs and provide some discretionary income for workers and their families’ (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Art 23.3). Some brand’s codes of conduct adopt a definition similar to this (although often without the reference to family), and include a provision that wages must be paid in a timely manner – but the sticking point is always enforcement. I’d be surprised if any factory workers in the textile and shoe industries were paid a living wage.

The second area of global campaigning is supply chain transparency. This is a difficult area; these are industries that have a long history of subcontracting, and often of long subcontracting chains. Brands are coming under increasing pressure to make public full lists of their suppliers, including what those suppliers make, the size of the enterprise, its ownership and more: at present almost no brands have a sufficiently good public declaration of their supply chain. In a significant move this week the US-based Fair Labor Association, an industry grouping, voted to require supply chain transparency of its members: exactly how this plays out remains to be seen, but it is a major development. In the sport sector, FairPlay campaigners associated with the London 2012 Olympics had a breakthrough when the organising committee agreed to make public its list of suppliers, although that advance has been difficult to sustain. This issue of transparency means, among other things, that we can better support workers in particular campaigns by seeking support from the brands they work for, especially where those brands have clear codes of conduct, as most, including Nike, do. 

Amid all of this work around production, there is one major nationally focused campaign, centred on Bangladesh. In the wake of the horrific factory collapse at Rana Plaza in Dhaka April 2013 resulting in over 1200 deaths (the subject of a haunting reworking of an old Irish song by Rhiannon Giddens) a joint protocol (the Accord on Fire and Building Safety) was established to improve workplace safety. A compelling piece of research from Penn State University in March 2018 shows that the only area where workers conditions had improved in Bangladesh in the previous five years is in workplace safety, and this is largely the result of the Accord. It is now up for renewal which the Bangladesh government is resisting in face of workers and brands seeking its continuation.

It is not to write off the advances that Nike’s Dream Crazier highlights but to remind us that it’s an ad and to wonder who is obscured from our visions in its celebration of its athletes, its branded bodies and to look at what might be exposed if we ask ‘who made your clothes?’. Celebrating women’s athletic success without pressing for better lives for those women who are caught in the tentacles of the sport industries is letting down the side.

About author
Malcolm MacLean is an historian by training with a first degree in anthropology and has worked in the public service and universities in the UK, New Zealand and Australia. Malcolm has research and teaching interests in popular culture, popular movements and colonial and imperial history. He is a former Chair of the British Society of Sports History and currently Vice President of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport.
2 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. avatar

    Many thanks for the article Malcolm where you brought this discussion to an new level.
    ‘Standing with the angels’ when putting on your Nike jersey and how Nike’s quest for profits ties into its relationship with the workers who make the things we buy. A month ago I wrote an article published in de Belgium newspaper. http://www.standaard.be/cnt/dmf20190122_04123816
    I ‘challenged’ Nike that if they are indeed concerned about women and health let them collaborate with medical world and help women who do not sport because of taboos: I gave several examples, for instance women who are ashamed and do not dare to swim after having breast cancer; what if Nike uses their high standard of aesthetic quality and help the medical world to designs a swimming suit with pads?
    And your claim went through my mind; who’s going to make these? And you highlighted this. What puzzles me: don’t we just need Serena as a role model so a debate can start from inside Nike e.q. Serena Williams. The other add at the super bowl for instance intrigued me: it is about ‘waiting’. Can Serena Williams be a vehicle for changes after al; Serena as an “ Bourdieuian” agens/ agency for a living wages and transparency?

    • avatar

      Thanks Imara

      This raises some really interesting questions about the limits of corporate and celebrity activism, and the power of figures such as Serena Williams to challenge the structures they are part of. It’s not quite of the magnitude of the ’90s for instance when Michael Jordan refused to take a political position but since then issues of athletes’ rights such as equal pay have become much more acceptable areas of dispute, although as Kaepernick’s case shows activism about issues beyond the boundary within the boundary will still bring extreme censure. A big part of the issue is the embedding of change in individual actions, so we see a widespread argument that the best response to fast fashion is to buy less, repair and recycle more and so forth: I am constantly struck here by the immobilisation of the industry. I recall a conversation with the editor of a major trade magazine who lamented both fast fashion and the imagery of models, and repeatedly asked ‘but what can we do?’ – this from the editor of a trade paper dammit.

      These limits of insiders are one of the reasons why for groups such as CCC, LBL, USAS & WRC a key issue is the existence of independent trade unions that are free to organise in work places and an independent inspection system (part of the dispute over the continuation of the Bangladesh Accord) – but the key is free trade unions because it is only through continuous, onsite monitoring (and who better than those who actually do the work) that production ethics and workers’ rights can be protected.

      As to expanding participation, many of the major corporations are taking steps to confront some of those taboos – that’s what the Sports Hijab is about and why it is so challenging. But let’s not give them too much credit: the first of these were the work of a Dutch designer Cindy van der Bremen and sold through Islamic oriented fashion websites many years before Nike got into this product. It’s be interesting to know if there are designers/producers working on, for instance, the kinds of swimsuits you discuss for women with mastectomies: I suspect there are but that they’re small, independent producers who are drawing on personal (family & friends) experiences, not the major corporations.

      This is a huge area, with so much more to do – which in the world of sport-for-change requires that we consider the entirety of the sports industries and supply chains, including who makes the stuff we wear and equipment we use (and don’t get me started on slave labour in contemporary cotton production!).

Submit your comment

Please enter your name

Your name is required

Please enter a valid email address

An email address is required

Please enter your message