No Sweat: Progressive PR and Sweatshops in the Twentieth Century

You have worn them since middle school. As a kid, you did odd chores around the neighborhood in an effort to make extra money, so you could afford a pair. It seemed like it would take forever to save the money needed to purchase the newest pair. Then, uh oh, you got a job, and it seemed like you purchased a pair in every style and color whenever you got paid.

Just as you finish lacing up your tennis before class one morning, you happen to glance at the television when images of mistreated laborers work in a sweatshop in some developing country thousands of miles away from your living room flash across the screen. Don’t have time to watch, although you do empathize, but you have to go to class.

In class, you half-listen to the professor lecture about geo-politics, and then yes, the topic of sweatshops comes up. Not a really interesting topic, the conversation takes a turn when the topic of your treasured Nikes and sweatshops gets heated and ugly! You pride yourself on being an ethically, humane being, but as you look down at the latest pair of Nikes on your feet and then tune back into the conversation, you struggle.

You struggle between your fashion and your ethics.

The charge?

In the late nineties, Nike was accused of unethical labor practices when it outsourced work overseas in an effort to save costs. Specifically, Nike was accused of paying Indonesian workers as little as fourteen cents an hour, in addition to forcing women who worked in the factory to wear the brand, and if they did not, they made them run to exhaustion.

These charges were disastrous to the brand’s image, which is associated with youth and urban culture, athleticism, and just overall fashion. Worse yet, these allegations affected sales for a number of reasons including progressive public relations.

What is progressive public relations?

Progressive public relations is when organizations engage in publicity campaigns to bring awareness to a cause, in this case Nike’s purported abuse of laborers in developing nations. The relationship usually occurs between watchdog organizations and the general public.

Their sole purpose is not only to bring public awareness to a cause but also to affect change in the attitudes in the industry. In the case of the very ubiquitous, very popular Nike, the publicity not only brought public awareness, but it affected Nike’s bottom dollar.

Sales in the product dipped and employees were laid off when it became obvious that some of Nike’s business policies were unethical. More than losing sales,Nike experienced loss of reputation.

So, what does a reputable company do when faced with disreputable charges?

Forced to address the problem amid sluggish sales, CEO Phil Knight simply acknowledged that the allegations needed to be addressed.

But this where you see public relations work at its finest….

In an effort to improve its public image, Nike improved conditions in its overseas factories by raising the minimum wage, improving the working conditions, and improved oversight of labor practices.

Nike also engaged with other companies that had an ethical business model. In recent years, it teamed up with Target, a company known for its environmental mission.

In essence, Nike’s public relations activities addressed the problem with the public and customers who had long been loyal patrons of its many products. Even more important, the company was able to rebound because, by the time of the allegations, Nike had established a consumer base through prior public relations activities.

Why is progressive public relations an important part of our existence?

These types of public relations activities perform a vital function in public oversight. While we all love a bargain, industry practices that are unethical or harm employees are disadvantageous to our entire society.

For the kid in the beginning of this article, progressive public relations sparked an internal conversation regarding the worth of human work and the price of vanity.

For you, progressive public relations affords you the same protections as the workers in the Nike scandal.


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