Nike–a $34 billion company–knew exactly what it was doing when it put Colin Kaepernick’s face on its 30th anniversary “Just Do It” ad campaign, with the lines “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” plastered across his face. Unlike the toxic workplace crisis that blindsided Nike earlier this year–in which female employees alleged that they had been systematically mistreated by their company–Nike was prepared for the backlash that would inevitably come when it incorporated Kaepernick into its branding.
Kaepernick is one of the most polarizing figures in America today, a human manifestation of just how divided the country has become in the Trump era. Two years ago, the NFL football player became a national figure when he decided to kneel during the United States national anthem to protest the racial injustice he believed had overtaken his country. This was during a time when the Black Lives Matter movement was a rising force in the country, and when white nationalists were openly expressing their support for Donald Trump.
Kaepernick’s behavior immediately triggered reactions from both sides of the political divide. Many progressives praised Kaepernick’s bravery, and stood beside him. Trump himself lashed out at Kaepernick, calling him disrespectful. People insulted Kaepernick on social media, walked out of stadiums during the national anthem, and refused to come to games. Eventually, Kaepernick opted out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers, only to find that no other team would hire him. (He filed a grievance against the NFL and its owners, arguing that they were colluding with one another not to hire him.)
Nike executives were closely watching all of this unfold. After all, Nike is interwoven with the sport of football: It makes all the game day uniforms for the league and recently renewed its contract for another eight years, bringing in revenues estimated at $1 billion. Standing by Kaepernick–rather than choosing to avoid controversy like the rest of the NFL–was a calculated move on Nike’s part, one that almost certainly involved long discussions in conference rooms, with executives weighing the pros and cons of the move. And the company would have predicted the negative reaction that would ensue. The backlash came quickly and furiously, from the viral videos of people torching their Nike sneakers to their stock price taking a tumble. The hashtag #BoycottNike and #JustBurnIt were trending all day Tuesday, after the new campaign was announced.
Here at Fast Company, a publication that supports progressive businesses fighting for positive social change, we think that Nike did the right thing. My colleague Jeff Beer makes the case that Nike is on the right side of history with this move (and that ultimately, this will be good for business). After all, the next generation of consumers is overwhelmingly liberal and progressive.
But here’s the thing: Nike has had a troubled year, and it is impossible to unmitigatedly embrace the company. In late April, the New York Times reported about a revolt inside Nike by women who claimed that they had been sexually harassed and assaulted, paid less than their male colleagues for similar work, and passed over for promotions. This led to the swift exodus of top male executives who either perpetrated these ills, or did nothing to prevent them. In July the company announced pay raises for 7,000 employees after an internal review, vindicating the women who complained about their treatment.
And this isn’t the only social justice issue Nike has had to reckon with. Over the years, the company has been criticized for its treatment of workers in factories across the world. As recently as last year, students were protesting at many American colleges because of stories about how the company was not allowing independent inspectors into its factories. Nike clarified to Fast Company that it still allowed third-party audits in its factories, but chose not to work with specific organizations that it claimed did not work collaboratively with large apparel brands. But this recent round of protests served to remind consumers of Nike’s vexed history when it comes to workers rights.
All of these social issues are independent of one another. I do not believe that putting Kaepernick in its current advertising campaign is related to any of these other scandals. Companies, like people, are complex entities: They can support good causes, but also themselves be flawed. That said, the problem with Nike co-opting the racial justice movement is that it is easy for cynics and critics to accuse the company of using someone like Kaepernick to deflect from its own failings.
It’s a shame, because activewear companies are among the most powerful in the world of apparel today. Thanks to the fact that Americans–and people around the world–are increasingly becoming more casual in the way they dress, and also engaging in more fitness activities, brands that sell sports gear are growing quickly. The so-called athleisure trend permanently changed the way we dress, as we now wear yoga leggings out of the studio and into our workplaces. Companies like Nike, Patagonia, Lululemon, Adidas, and New Balance have outsized audiences because people now have more sneakers and leggings in their closets than ever before. And these brands have inspired entrepreneurs to launch hundreds of other activewear startups–like Outdoor Voices and Aday–which has only served to further grow the market.
Activewear brands should take a stand and use their power in the marketplace to help fight for progressive change in this dark moment in American history. And this is why these companies need to work hard to make sure their business practices, treatment of employees and workers, and environmental impact are unimpeachable.
If you think this is too high a bar for large companies to achieve, I urge you to consider Patagonia, a company that makes an estimated $210 million in revenue. For 20 years, the company has been fighting for social causes. Over the last year, it has boldly taken several political stands: Earlier this year, it sued the Trump administration for trying to reduce the size of two national monuments in Utah–Bear Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante–that were rich with wildlife and archeologically significant sites. It has also launched a digital platform, called Patagonia Action Works, to connect activists to local causes in their community.
But part of what makes Patagonia so powerful in these conversations is that it has its house in order. Its clothes are made ethically and sustainably, and the company works to encourage people to wear them as long as possible. The company is known for policies that protect employees. For instance, the company has daycare on site for all employees at its headquarters in California as well as its fulfillment center in Nevada, which has allowed it to retain its staff.
This should serve as a lesson for smaller startups, looking to make an impact beyond just selling clothes. It has become trendy for companies to describe their values on their website, since consumers want to shop at brands that reflect their beliefs and ideologies. But consumers are now savvier than ever before, and expect companies to live out these values in every aspect of what they do.
I recently had a conversation with the founders of Aday, a two-year-old activewear startup founded by two millennial women. When I asked them about what companies they modeled themselves after, it’s telling that they did not talk about Nike, the largest and most profitable activewear brand on the market. Instead, they said they wanted to be like Patagonia, a brand that is less than 1% of Nike’s size when it comes to revenue.
Ultimately, political action for brands needs to begin at home–in the small, everyday decisions they make about how to treat their workers and make their products.