Within a few months of taking over as head of corporate communications at beleaguered athletic shoe giant Nike in 1997, Kirk Stewart made his first visit to one of the company’s overseas factories—the ones that have made it a target of protests on college campuses throughout the United States. He was struck, he says, by the contrast between the way these factories have been portrayed in the media and the reality he found during his visit.
“A lot gets written about these factories and the factory conditions,” says Stewart, “but very few of the people who write about them have ever been inside one. I think there’s a big gap between the way these factories are portrayed and what you see when you are there.”
Obviously Nike can’t take all its critics on a field trip to Vietnam, but thanks to the power of the Internet, it can show them what the inside of a Vietnamese factory actually looks like.
Every year, hundreds of visitors—including elected officials, non-governmental organizations, media, students, business leaders, academics and athletes—visit the company’s factories. Now ordinary Americans can see what those visitors see, via a new section on Nike’s corporate website that features a virtual tour of its partner factories in Vietnam.
The online tour, based on a video show to onsite visitors prior to factory tours, is available at the company’s http://www.nikebiz.com/ website.     
“We know that many people can't travel to factories in the 58 countries, where we manufacture products,” says Dusty Kidd, the company’s vice president for compliance. “The webcast provides a unique look inside our partner factories in Vietnam and continues our dedication to being among the most transparent companies in the apparel and footwear industry.”
The company says the video is a demonstration of its commitment to continuous improvement in labor practices overseas. According to a Nike press release, “The tour will also give visitors an insider's glimpse into a segment of the increasingly complex global supply chain and insight into other corporate responsibility programs, including initiatives in environmental sustainability and community involvement.”
A year in the making, the video depicts a clean, well-run factory and provides lots of facts to back up Nike’s contention that its employees are well-treated. It says the average worked in the company’s Vietnamese factories is a 21-year-old woman from a rural community, earning a salary of around $660 a year—almost three times the national average. In addition, the factories all provide free meals; either dormitories or subsidized housing; a medical clinic; schools; and micro-credit lending, according to the webcast.
“One of things you miss when people write about these factories is any kind of context,” Stewart says. “When you visit, you see how the majority of Vietnamese people live and the conditions in which they work. There’s a big contrast between what you see elsewhere and what you see in these factories.”
For that reason, the webcast also contains footage from factory communities in Vietnam, China and Thailand. Workers are shown at their jobs and in factory related programs such as the continuing education and micro-loan programs. Since 1997, more than 10,000 workers have participated in continuing education programs and more than $1 million has been provided to 5,000 families throughout Vietnam and Thailand through micro-loan programs.
Accompanying the 12-minute factory tour are four complementary vignettes, which vary in length from 25 seconds to one minute. The vignettes focus on extracurricular activities at Nike’s overseas factories, and non-factory corporate responsibility programs such as a successful shoe recycling program called Reuse-A-Shoe and Nike Youth Action.
Needless to say, the company’s critics are inclined to dismiss the webcast. According to Jason Mark, a spokesman for San Francisco-based Global Exchange, a labor rights group, “It seems more like a publicity stunt than a genuine effort to make systematic changes across the board. It’s easy for a factory to be set up that may or may not be a model and publicize it as some great thing.”
But Nike is making no such claim. The company presents the video as an attempt to add a little context to a debate that is often driven by emotional rhetoric; it’s a counterpoint to powerful images that are equally unrepresentative of the day-to-day reality of the company’s overseas factories, such as a notorious 1996 photograph of a child sewing a soccer ball in a factory in Pakistan, which triggered a wave of protests against the company.
Indeed, the company acknowledges that it has a long way to go. Nike CEO Phil Knight unveiled a code of conduct for its overseas partners in 1998, and in May of this year, on the third anniversary of the code, Knight announced a fresh series of initiatives to improve working conditions for the 500,000 people around the world who manufacture the company’s products.
And the company continues to work collaboratively alongside human rights groups, NGOs and other companies in forums such as the U.N. Global Compact, Fair Labor Association, and Business for Social Responsibility, while also retaining the independent monitoring group Verite to assess its factory conditions and labor rights performance.
Nike was also among the first companies to redefine standards of corporate transparency by placing actual summary results of factory reports conducted by external monitors at PricewaterhouseCoopers and unedited reports by 16 students who visited factories producing collegiate licensed products at its website.
According to Knight, “Our base of loyal customers and athletes has always maintained high expectations for Nike. In a complex and competitive global marketplace, it is important that we apply the same innovative approach in our people programs that we do in our products. We wanted to let the public know that we have listened to its feedback and our response can be measured in deeds—not words—when it comes to corporate responsibility. All the feedback and engagement has made Nike a better company.”
The company says it may consider showing live broadcasts from factories if enough viewers show an interest in the video.