The inconvenient truth about our running shoes is that they are manufactured in sweatshops. What are we going to do about it?
I used to wear Nike shoes and it was because I found more comfort in ASICS that I became loyal to that brand. I have always liked Nike and love its marketing campaign. But then I became aware of stories surrounding human rights violations and was happy I was not supporting the company anymore.
Sadly however, Nike is not the only shoemaker to make news about their labor practices. According to Oxfam Australia, workers producing some of our favorite shoe brands, including Nike, FILA, Adidas, Puma, New Balance and ASICS work in abysmal and dangerous working conditions. Many workers face low wages, long hours, verbal abuse, and denial of trade union rights. Worse, it has been reported that there are high levels of sexual harassment and other abuses toward women.
In the 1970s, Nike, ASICS, and others manufactured a lot of their shoes in South Korea. According to the web site, http://revcom.us/a/v19/905-09/908/nike2.htm, Nike and the other manufacturers “paid workers very low wages, set up sweatshops with horrible working conditions and counted on the South Korean government to suppress any protests by the workers. Then in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Nike and its subcontractors began shutting down factories in South Korean and moved to China, Indonesia, and Thailand. Here they could pay women workers even less. And other athletic shoe companies also now have factories in these countries.”
While the Oxfam reports of human rights issues are current only to 2006, the Green Guide featured an optimistic article this year on the environmental impact of running shoes but did not report any improvements on the sweatshop front. While ASICS and Reebok have removed toxic chemicals such as PVC plastic and other harmful substances from their entire range of footwear there was no real proof that ASICS, or any company has really done anything to improve conditions at shoe manufacturing plants in Asia or anywhere else in the world.
I became slightly more encouraged that there was progress on human rights violations at ASICS after visiting the Business & Human Rights Resource Center web site, www.business-humanrights.org, a site that tracks the positive and negative impacts of over 4000 companies worldwide. On their site, they quote Oxfam, who reported that “Reebok has done the most to uphold sportswear workers’ rights in Asia while other big brands such as Nike, Adidas, Puma and ASICS had made some improvements.”
Still desperate to find some positive news about my running shoe, I visited the Responsible Shopper profile for ASICS on Co-op America’s web site. I learned that ASICS is indeed guilty of human rights violations and issues of sexual harassment for women but maybe not in all of its manufacturing sites. ASICS, a Japanese brand, also has a profile on the Clean Clothes Campaign’s web site. ASICS has its shoes made in a slew of other countries, including China and Mexico. The company became a member of the Fair Labor Association (FLA) a non-profit organization dedicated to ending sweatshop conditions in factories worldwide and building innovative and sustainable solutions to abusive labor conditions.
According to a FLA monitoring report prepared in 2007, ASICS’ Mexican facility has made some very positive changes. As part of the terms of employment issues of sexual harrassment, health and safety, and discrimination are addressed. Also, children under 15 cannot be employed there. At least in this facility, legal benefits are paid, employees earn the minimum wage, and while the company is looking into the issues of forced overtime, employees are paid for that overtime (if I am reading the report correctly).
Making a Difference
There is a lot going on around the world right now, but while devastating acts of nature are causing a lot of mayhem and dispair, there are people who have been literally slaving over making our shoes. Who are we to wear the clothing made by the hands of others and not think about what their lives must be like? At the very least, we owe it to ourselves to understand that the person making our sneakers may not make enough to feed her children.
So what do we do? We educate ourselves and write our shoe companies. Maybe we start organizing races to raise money for the organizations who are fighting human rights violations around the globe. This has given running a new meaning for me. How dare I take those shoes for granted.
Run Strong, Stay Involved.