This article initially incorrectly stated that Oberlin College had completely severed ties with Adidas. The mistake was corrected and clarified on October 12.
For the first time in Adidas’s history, the German sportswear giant recently lost a contract to produce university apparel over labor rights abuse. Within the last three weeks, Cornell University has decided to sever ties with Adidas for its refusal to pay $1.8 million in stolen severance pay from 2,800 workers who sewed its products at an Indonesian factory called PT Kizone while Oberlin College has removed Adidas from its list of approved manufacturers and will not renew its current contract unless and until Adidas is compliant with Oberlin’s Apparel Purchasing Code of Conduct. Moreover, Wisconsin’s attorney general and Adidas are entangled in a lawsuit after the University of Wisconsin threatened similar action.
Meanwhile, this week, PT Kizone workers rallied in Jakarta to demand Adidas pay the $1.8 million in severance, just hours before three million Indonesian factory workers went on strike to protest sweatshop conditions. Adidas deserves the lion’s share of the blame—the company contracts with 80 factories to produce its apparel and footwear in the country, nearly double Nike’s 44 factories. And back in our hemisphere, Adidas’s two largest suppliers have been the targets of unprecedented worker protest amid death threats, illegal firings to repress union activists, and ever-increasing production quotas for poverty wages.
Take one look at the press around Adidas’s $156 million deal to plaster its logo across the London Olympics, and you’ll see exposé after exposé on sweatshop abuse.
So, what went wrong with Adidas?
In its reckless quest to overtake Nike in the sportswear market, Adidas built a footloose global supply chain to force its factories into cut-throat competition. Adidas has 1,232 contract factories worldwide, producing $17 billion-worth of products annually, while Nike’s 904 factories produce $39 billion in products. Adidas could easily make all its products in far fewer factories; the surplus factories are simply leverage the brand uses to demand lower prices, lower wages, and higher profits.
While Adidas engineers these sweatshop conditions, the brand invests millions of dollars a year to whitewash its image through sophisticated “corporate social responsibility” schemes.
But this time, students and workers are gearing up for their biggest fight yet to force Adidas to accept responsibility for its subcontracted workers. The campaign is spearheaded by United Students Against Sweatshops, the same organization that, in 2009, forced Nike to pay $1.5 million in severance to 1,800 of its formerly subcontracted Honduran workers.
When The Fox Guards the Henhouse
Ever since the mid-1990s, when police found seventy-two Thai garment workers locked inside a factory in El Monte making apparel for department stores, and activists exposed child labor in factories producing Kathie Lee Gifford garments, apparel brands have been scrambling to hide the shameful truth of their business model.