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Nike’s New Sustainability and Labor Practices Are One Foot Ahead of the Game


If it seems like anything is possible, that’s because it is. @nikeyoungathletes

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The fashion industry doesn’t get the greatest rap when it comes to worker’s rights or sustainability. As to the former, there was that notorious Condé Nast lawsuit regarding unpaid internships. Then there’s the reality of certain modeling agencies exploiting their charges. Add to those the rampant manufacturing violations and you have just a few examples of fashion’s Devil Wears Prada-esque attitude towards its employees. When it comes to sustainability, well, you’ve likely heard the stats: Consumers across the globe buy about 80 million pieces of clothing annually. The fashion sector, worth about $2.5 trillion, is the second most polluting industry on Earth, bested only by oil. Suffice it to say neither Karl Marx nor Mother Nature is very pleased with us fashionistas right now.

However, before you vow to stop shopping forever, let us point out that the industry is making strides on both fronts. For example, this week Nike, the world’s largest athletic gear company, not only granted full-time workers paid leave, it also announced it now uses recycled materials in 71 percent of its footwear and apparel products.

Nike’s promises to workers and its latest sustainability report demonstrate just how far the athletic wear tycoon’s come since the 90s, when its use of sweatshop labor nearly sunk the company. Once “synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime, and arbitrary abuse,” as onetime CEO Phil Knight proclaimed in his May 1998 speech, the founding company of the Fair Labor Association is now killing it on the activism front. (Hey, it is Portland-bred, after all.)

At Nike, fathers, adoptive parents and those who need to look after sick relatives will now receive eight weeks of paid leave. Maternity leave now means 14 weeks off at least, with medical extensions allowed to moms who need them — and get a doctor’s note. (Previously, new mothers got six weeks of leave, everyone else got nada.) Employee’s get these benefits their very first day — no nerve-racking three-month limbo period.

Manufacturing-wise, in addition to upping its use of recycled materials, Nike cut down its carbon emissions by 19 percent per unit last year. Thanks to its Flyknit technology, which only requires a one-piece upper as opposed to the several cuts of material that go into the typical sneaker, Nike has reduced its environment footprint by approximately 3.5 million pounds of waste. In the future, the sportswear giant hopes to eliminate waste sent to landfills from contracted footwear manufacturing, source all of its products from what it deems “sustainable” factories and use only renewable energy at its stores and facilities. Nike projects it will hit these targets in the next four to nine years. Talk about just doing it.

Now, if only Nike would start making its products domestically (and provide way more plus-size options), it would be our dream company.

[ via Fortune and Reuters ]