“I just don’t get how you can support ideas like this,” a University of Oregon undergraduate said at a politically conservative event — and then marched off in her brand new Nike tennis shoes. The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on me.
Nike has been accused of producing the vast majority of its products using sweatshops, and that probably doesn’t come as much of a shock to any of us. Back in the ‘90s, students across the country, including at UO, rallied against Nike’s terrible working conditions overseas.
This caused a huge problem at UO, as Phil Knight pulled $30 million from the Autzen stadium project. The pulled funds came in retaliation against school officials who supported the students’ protests by signing a Workers Rights Consortium agreement, which mandated better working conditions overseas. One year later, after heavy pressure from Phil Knight, the president of UO withdrew the university’s support from the WRC, and Uncle Phil’s funding came trickling back in.
Over time, people forgot or stopped caring, but the university, amid all of its talk of human rights and activism, showed its integrity would crumble to the power of the almighty dollar. Nike was once again on top of the world with little resistance from the mainstream media or its consumers.
Since the ‘90s, the standards overseas have gone up for things like safety and emissions, but wages have risen very little. According to the Portland Business Journal, Nike identified wages as one of the main issues they are facing overseas. When they released their overseas corporate responsibility report, however, they left the wages table blank; I have a sneaking suspicion it’s not because they were shockingly high. Vietnam, one of Nike’s main manufacturers, has a minimum wage of about 73¢ an hour.
It’s not uncommon to see women’s rights, Black Lives Matter or immigration rights rallies on campus, with staunch supporters of equal human rights. But what are many of these activists wearing on their feet as they march? You guessed it: Nikes.
The hypocrisy and irony of this situation is astounding. Even those fighting for human rights are actively supporting a company who has a long history of accusations of human rights violations.
A huge part of the problem is that we just don’t think about it. We live in a society where we’re never conditioned to think about the impacts our purchases could have on others. In most people’s minds, the only negative impact to buying a pair of shoes is the $60 they spent on them.
This problem is only furthered by a lack of exposure; we’re simply not around those affected by Nike’s human rights violations. In all honesty, if it doesn’t affect us or anyone we know, we usually don’t think about the moral implications or consequences of our consumerism. Out of sight, out of mind.
What made me decide to never buy a Nike product again came in the form of a quote from Thomas Wheatley, a University of Wisconsin student who said, “It really is quite sick; 14-year-old girls are working 100-hour weeks and earning poverty-level wages to make my college T-shirts. That’s unconscionable.”
Let me ask you a question: How many of you could look a living, breathing 14-year-old girl straight in the eyes and tell her that your new Vapormaxes or Jordans are more important than her getting a fair wage and not having to work in a sweatshop? My guess is not too many. If we can’t face those who are hurt by our decisions and own up to the impacts of our actions in good conscience, aren’t we doing something wrong?
More is expected when it comes to being a good human being than just being nice to those directly around us. While we’re going to college, partying and spending absurd amounts of money on shoes, clothes and video games, there are people our age around the world who were simply born in the wrong place and are forced to work 60-hour weeks to try to feed their little brothers and sisters. We have the power to change all of that and help those people, but we don’t.
It’s ridiculous that in today’s world, a university like the UO, which supposedly supports human rights, not only endorses a company like Nike but sells apparel that may have been made by people making below a living wage. With so much money involved, it would be naive to believe that it will change on its own. The responsibility then falls to us, the consumers, to make a change.
There are plenty of alternatives that don’t use sweatshops, or that at least pay their employees a living wage. Just a few minutes of research and a willingness to lose the Nike logo can turn supporting poor working conditions into something you can feel proud of buying.
Trust me, I get it; it’s hard to make a change from something you’ve become comfortable with after so long. But I also know that I want to look back at my life and be proud of the decisions I have made, rather than realizing I contributed to the things that I hate most about our world.
It’s not that we don’t know that these things are happening, because we do. But it’s also not a lack of empathy, as I think most of us really do care about people around the world. It’s that we’ve forgotten how to care about people or issues that don’t affect us, and in a world that constantly pushes us to ignore it, it’s hard to remember. We don’t know how to make a difference or where to start. So we “just keep doing it.”