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Just Doin' It to Nike

Dateline: 02/21/01

Dear Urban Legends:

Maybe someone else has already brought this one to your attention, but it's not on the site so I thought I'd be sure.

Received a forward today. Story goes that someone named Jonah Peretti submitted a personalized sneaker request to Nike asking for "Sweatshop." Nike refused to process the order. The forward is comprised of email correspondence between Peretti and customer service about why. I was cautious about the story, not least because there's no date.



Dear Reader:

This infamous email (archived here) has circulated far and wide since January 2001, when Mr. Peretti, a graduate student at MIT, decided to share the vitriolic exchange with the online world.

What everyone wants to know, of course, is whether or not it's real. It is. Both Peretti and Nike have confirmed that the correspondence actually took place.

If it reads like folklore, that's because at first glance it seems too good to be true. "It's about freedom to choose," Nike says in promotional literature for its design-your-own products offer. In the email, Peretti archly goads Nike into eating its own words by refusing to accept a request "that we consider inappropriate or simply do not want to place on our products." They walked into an ambush.

Peretti knew exactly what he was doing. As one reader puzzled, "If the guy really cared about child labor, he probably wouldn't buy the sneakers in the first place!" Well, of course not. Peretti had no intention of purchasing the product. He was out to make a point.

Presumably, Mr. Peretti was also aware when he capped the correspondence with, "Could you please send me a color snapshot of the ten-year-old Vietnamese girl who makes my shoes?" he was misrepresenting the facts. The minimum age of workers in Nike's shoe factories is 18.

It's a fine bit of propaganda, loftily-intended if not entirely honest. As Peretti later explained in the Village Voice, what prompted him to confront Nike was the "terrible irony" of the personalization concept itself: "In reality, you're just sending a to-do list to some workers so that they can make your shoes for you under these truly horrible conditions."

He overstates the case, but it's difficult to say by how much. Nike has come under intense criticism by labor and human rights activists in recent years for the ill-treatment of workers in its third-world factories, which are owned and operated by contract manufacturers. Complaints have included hazardous working conditions, inhumane hours, verbal and physical abuse, unfair hiring and firing practices and the refusal to pay workers a living wage.

Nike has lately made strides toward ameliorating known abuses, a fact which even critics acknowledge, but the company's labor practices remain the focus of international scrutiny. "Nike still has a long way to go," observes the watchdog group Global Exchange, "to meet the anti-sweatshop movement's call for companies to pay a living wage, allow independent monitoring in all factories, and ensure that workers have the right to organize into independent unions." Recent events in one of Nike's Mexico factories would seem to bear this out.

Few would claim that Nike is the worst offender among the many U.S. companies employing a global workforce. It merely has the highest profile and thus has been singled out as an example. But the greater, more "terrible" irony (as Jonah Peretti would have it) is that long before Nike was pressured into taking steps to improve the lot of its workers, the company was marketing itself as a champion of "personal freedom." With this self-made petard it has been hoisted.

Sources:

  • "Making Nike Sweat." Village Voice, 14 Feb 2001.
  • "U. Kentucky Group Reports Rights Violation in Mexico." U-Wire, 16 Feb 2001.
  • Labor FAQ. NikeBiz.com. (21 Feb 2001)

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