Activism, Risk, and
Nike and the Sweatshop Problem
By the late 1990s, Nike, the global sportswear giant, had acquired a reputation not only for marketing success based on creative advertising and celebrity athletic endorsements but also for producing its merchandise in third-world sweatshops. This second half of Nike's reputation was due in no small measure to the efforts of a growing, transnational social movement mobilized against sweatshop labor practices, particularly in the global apparel and footwear industries. Activism against Nike and other brand-name retailers in the apparel and footwear industries is part of a larger social movement critical of the growth of corporate power, and neoliberal globalization generally, that has developed since the late 1980s. The movement against corporate globalization represents not only the emergence of a new field of social activism but also, more fundamentally, a reconfiguration of the relationship between the economic and political systems, on the one hand, and the sociocultural life-world, on the other. In light of these changes, in this chapter I examine the antisweatshop movement from the perspective of late modernity as a risk society in which social practices and processes are becoming increasingly reflexive. The chapter begins with an overview of the antisweatshop movement, and its focus on Nike in particular, in the context of both economic restructuring and the growth of new social movement activism, or what Ulrich Beck (1997) has called subpolitics. This is followed by a critical assessment of the argument that social movements such as the antisweatshop movement represent a value shift in the developed, affluent countries of the global North from materialist concerns with the redistribution of economic goods to postmaterialist concerns with the ethics and aesthetics of lifestyle and identity. The theses of postmaterialism and identity politics are one-sided conceptualizations of late modernity inasmuch as they overlook the development of reflexivity, uncertainty, and risk that accompany the growth of social contingency characteristic of late modernity. This critique is used as the basis for developing an alternative analysis of the antisweatshop movement that uses the risk society thesis to explain the way that subpolitics accentuate the communicational aspects of anticorporate activism, and how this has contributed to a shift in corporate communication practices with the development of issues management strategies and the movement for corporate social responsibility (CSR).
Although sweatshop labor conditions in thirdworld apparel and footwear factories started to become an object of criticism in the late 1980s and early 1990s, particularly on the part of human and labor rights activists, it was not until the mid1990s that the issue gained substantial publicity