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OM in the News: Nike’s Struggle to Balance Cost and Worker Safety

April 26, 2014


Nike's factory in Vietnam

Nike’s factory in Vietnam

Nike’s head of sustainable business had been lecturing colleagues for years about the dangers of manufacturing in Bangladesh, reports The Wall Street Journal (April 22, 2014). Yes, the country featured some of the cheapest factories in the world, she argued, but the athletic-gear maker could ill afford another public pasting over its labor practices. Her counterparts in operations, charged with squeezing costs, countered that they should all visit the place together and then decide. So one day last year, they popped into a Dhaka building that housed one of Nike’s suppliers, Lyric Industries. Rolls of fabric were strewn across the production floor and some windows were bolted shut, clear-cut hazards in the event of a fire. The team flew home and decided to cut ties with the company.

Nike’s internal conflict over Bangladesh shows that its effort to clean up its act in the developing world, which began about 20 years ago, remains a work in progress. As the U.S. apparel industry sends more production to low-cost nations, Nike’s experience offers a lesson in the difficulty of managing the twin priorities of controlling costs and maintaining acceptable working conditions.

Nike was founded in 1964, in part on the premise that it could produce quality footwear at lower costs by using cheap labor at overseas factories. At the time, only 4% of U.S. footwear was imported. Today, the figure is 98%. But by 1998, the Nike CEO stated: “The Nike product has become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime and arbitrary abuse.”

So Nike released the names and locations of its factories—the first major retailer to do so—to be more transparent about its supply chain. It improved air quality for workers and stationed dozens of people in countries where it manufactured products to help find cost savings and improve worker treatment. In 2008,  Nike created a “country risk index” to score the potential downside of doing business in certain locations. Bangladesh ranked near the bottom, with over 5,400 garment factories churning out $20 billion of clothing exports.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. Since Nike has 1,000,000 workers in 744 factories worldwide, how can it monitor both quality and sustainability?

2. What major disaster occurred in Bangladesh recently that highlighted the problems of manufacturing there?

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