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The Swoosh Swoops into Mountain Equipment Co-op

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Issue: 8 Section: Environment Geography: Canada Topics: corporate, ethics, labour, cooperatives

September 27, 2003

The Swoosh Swoops into Mountain Equipment Co-op

by Norma Jean MacPhee

sweatshop-small.jpg
Young women on the Island of Cebu sew Nike shorts for North American Export in a free trade zone. photo: Daron Letts

Nike AGC cross trainers arrived on the shelves of Mountain Equipment Co-op's only Atlantic Canadian outlet this August.

Canada's largest cooperative is confident in Nike's commitment to greener products, sustainable practices and international labour codes.

"They're not perfect, but are certainly putting lots of effort and resources into changing their ways," says MEC's CEO Peter Robinson.

In the early 90's, considerable public backlash erupted against unfair labour conditions in foreign factories contracted by American shoe companies. Nike, the leading manufacturer of sneakers, became the target of fair labour and environmental campaigns after reports revealed physical and sexual abuse, low wages and forced overtime work in many of Nike's Asian factories.

Although MEC insists Nike has changed its ways and assures the transnational corporation meets MEC's vendor policy standards, not all who shop at the cooperative are convinced of Nike's "green" rehabilitation.

"It really disturbs me that MEC would do that [choose Nike products] because as a MEC member you associate them with making ethical choices," says Halifax student Sarah Ryan.

In response to consumer pressure, many corporations, including Nike, adopted sustainability strategies in the late 1990s.

"These companies hide behind the anonymity of vast production chains that make it very difficult to work out where, and under what conditions, their products are made."
Nike's website says the company now follows a "triple bottom line" philosophy, that is, combining financial/economic goals with environmental and social responsibilities. These include the creation of 99% polyvinyl chloride-free sneakers. Greenpeace launched a campaign against PVC in 1998, as its production creates and releases the toxic chemical dioxin. The website also says new Nike stores and offices incorporate "green" methods in their building practices. And, in Nike's Code of Conduct, it sets a minimum age of 18 for footwear, whereas the International Labour Organization's standard age is 15.

Of Nike's sustainable promises, Ryan says, "I don't believe them because I think they're doing it to look good. They can still make their own rules, despite what's on their website."

A No Sweat campaign run out of the U.K. lobbies for living wages and better conditions for factory workers. On its website, No Sweat argues: "When the companies are accused of labour abuses they hide behind fine documents. They like to quote their Codes of Conduct which prohibit the threatening of union organisers, the use child labour etc. But they still do it. These companies hide behind the anonymity of vast production chains that make it very difficult to work out where, and under what conditions, their products are made."

MEC CEO defends allegations that Nike is greenwashing consumers with their promises and says if Nike wants to do business in Canada, they will have to follow MEC policies. "We're not without our own weight. When the co-op makes suggestions, we're not ignored, we're listened to." Furthermore, Robinson doesn't think a company should be avoided based on past grievances. "Don't abandon them, rather work with them to effect change," he adds.

But Halifax activist Dave Ron feels the partnership is incongruent to the co-op's mandate.

"It's a simple question of stakeholder versus stockholder. Nike is structured as a sole proprietorship'profit is it's driving force, as it's accountable to its stockholders," says Ron. Nike's annual sales exceed $10 billion.

"MEC is non-profit and publicizes that's it's a large family, that it acts in the interest of its stakeholders. Philip Knight [Nike founder] has never been to Indonesia, as they don't care about the people they employ," says Ron. "In that sense, it begs the question of why MEC would decide to link itself with that entity."

The partnership between Nike and MEC is not a new one, as Nike was a regular on the co-op's rooster until seven years ago. Robinson says the decision to bring Nike sneakers back fulfills MEC's primary purpose.

"The co-op, first and foremost, is about getting gear to people so they can enjoy themselves outside," Robinson says. And he says increased demand from MEC's 1.9 million membership for improved trail shoes led them to Nike.

Robinson explains MEC's three-screen method of examining potential new vendors: "First, is the specific functionality, quality and durability of the product. The second is whether the company meets MEC's stringent sourcing practices. And the third is the potential risk to MEC's reputation and brand by bringing on another brand."

The Nike addition was first proposed last fall, but employees at the managerial level objected because of concerns about the third screen, MEC's reputation. In the spring, however, Nike was accepted, on the condition consultations sessions would be held with stakeholders.

Dave Ron, attended these consultations as a spokesperson for Dalhousie Students Against Sweatshops, but saw them as an exercise in futility, as the decision to accept Nike had already been made.

"I asked why they were having it, and they said, 'so that when public concerns are raised we can address them and say we talked to human rights groups,'" quotes Ron. "MEC was doing a lot of the leg-work and lip service to Nike," adds Ron.

He says he thinks the addition is an economic one on MEC's side. "Nike moves off shelves, the swoosh is fashionable," Ron says. "It's a guaranteed way to push sales."

MEC does not plan to sell other Nike merchandise, as Robinson says the sneakers were specifically selected to meet consumer demands.

The Nike ACG cross trainers will arrive in other stores across the country next spring, if the response in Halifax is favourable.

And so far it has been. Glen Whitehead, general manager of the Halifax store says there's been no reaction at all to Nike's arrival, apart from people buying the shoes. "It's almost been a non-event releasing Nike into our store," says Whitehead.

Further consultations are not planned for other locations across the country, as Robinson says the consultation sessions in Halifax were sufficient.

But Ron does not agree and suggests MEC do a nation-wide vote to see what all members really think about the Nike addition. He also wants MEC members to demand more information about the origin of the sneakers. "We need disclosure on all steps in the production process'to know where and how the shoes were made and to have it clearly marked on the products," Ron says.

"There's so many powers already working against sustainable initiatives - market power, judicial, legislative ' it just doesn't fit with MEC's vision. Nike is the epitome of brand culture."

Kenny Bruno, co-author of, "A Corporate Planet" and now campaign coordinator for Earth Rights International says he wouldn't do it if he were MEC. "Not only is Nike a symbol of sweatshop labor, they're a clear example of globalization's race to the bottom."

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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