For a decade now, Jim Keady has been trying to kick Nike’s ass using their shoes as ammo. The former professional soccer player’s crusade against the apparel titan began when he was canned from a coaching gig at St. John’s University for refusing to wear Nike’s products, as required by the school’s $3.5 million endorsement deal – a stand he took after learning what was happening in overseas sweatshops while researching his masters thesis. Accompanied by his professional and personal partner, Leslie Kretzu, he famously tried to shed light on the issue by living on $1.25 US per day for a month amongst Nike factory workers in Tangerang, Indonesia, in 2000.
In the interim, however, Nike has recast its malevolence by trumpeting corporate social responsibility and pledging to monitor for improprieties in its subcontracted factories around the third world. But concrete proof of improvements has been elusive. “They shifted the debate onto monitoring to obscure the need to talk about wages and trade unions,” explains Keady. “And that’s what we’ve got to get it back to.”
In April, Keady’s Educating for Justice (educatingforjustice.org) – which, among other activist efforts, gives multimedia presentations about the sweatshop issue to about 50 US schools annually – sent a letter to Nike asking them to publicly disclose the alleged living wages they pay their factory workers (read it here: myspace.com/behindtheswoosh), as well as encouraged students to do the same. By May, some students had received letters from Nike’s VP of Corporate Responsibility that outlined their intended policies and the blue sky-scope of their operation’s monitoring efforts, but failed to answer their request for cold, hard facts that would, as Keady wrote in his letter, allow “consumers and investors to eliminate any potential information asymmetry that may currently exist in the marketplace.” Given past reactions to his attempts at diplomacy, Keady was doubtful he’d even get the same non-response.
“Nike has a $1.63 billion marketing and advertising budget; they’ve got the best ad firms and public relations films in the world,” says Keady. “So, when you’ve got that kind of money you can craft any kind of message you want, and anybody that studies marketing or public relations knows that even if something is a lie, if you say it long enough and passionately enough to enough people, it’s going to start being believed as the truth. Which is what Nike’s done – they’ve lied to the consuming public for years.”
STARBURY SHOES – A REAL ALTERNATIVE?
How much do you have to pay to wrap your soles in soul? Pro basketball player Stephon Marbury has opened a new bidding war at $15 – the cost of his contentious sneaker and apparel line, the Starbury, which he debuted last August through discount retailer Steve & Barry’s. Given the evident popularity of the label – it’s being expanded from 50 products to 200, and another elite player, Ben Wallace, recently signed on to the concept – it would seem that Marbury’s aim to create a stylish, affordable, quality athletic shoe (with legit cache) for kids who live below the poverty line is a slam dunk in both branding and social justice circles.
But as much as Marbury deserves respect for the alturistic effort (which builds on previous, somewhat higher-priced attempts by fellow ballers Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon), the back-story behind the shoe’s production remains as tightly stitched up as that of the majors. Just as Starbury shoes are designed by the same firm that develops footwear for Nike, Reebok and Converse, the product itself is also made in China – the main difference on this side of the pond being that there are no $70-million endorsement deals (à la LeBron James) to inflate the retail price beyond reason.
If Marbury were truly trying to revolutionize the shoe industry for the better, the sweatshop workers in China would be just as important to the equation as the poor kids in the American projects for whom he’s putting his foot down.