Twenty-four hours after causing havoc at Adidas due to a hoax about a new co-chief executive officer and a fake event at Berlin Fashion Week, the activist group behind the ruse, The Yes Men, is still calling on the sneaker giant to sign the Pay Your Workers Agreement.
Whether Adidas will do that remains an unknown, as an Adidas spokesperson declined to comment on those plans Tuesday.
The two-part fiasco started with a phony press release that was circulated to mainstream media Monday claiming that a former Cambodian factory worker and union leader had been named co-CEO.
In the statement, The Yes Men claimed Adidas was debuting ethically sourced Realitywear clothing with the support of Pharrell Williams, Bad Bunny and other celebrities. The group upended the start of Berlin Fashion Week Monday with a runway event of upcycled Realitywear apparel.
The erroneous coverage of the fake co-CEO and Berlin fashion event became so widespread that Adidas publicly stated Monday that both were fake, as first reported by The Guardian.
But on Tuesday, Adidas executives were still dealing with the fallout.
A U.S. company spokesman issued a stern rebuke: “We reject the allegations in the release. For more than 25 years, Adidas has taken a variety of measures to ensure fair and safe working conditions for workers in its supply chain. The Adidas Workplace Standards commit our suppliers to progressively increase worker compensation and living standards through continuous development of compensation systems, benefits, social programs and other services. The disposable income of workers in our supplier factories is generally significantly higher than the respective statutory minimum wage.”
The company spokesman highlighted that “around 50 experts around the world work in supplier countries every day to ensure our workplace standards are applied and met. In 2021, Adidas conducted more than 1,200 factory audits of suppliers. If our standards are breached, we have a sanction mechanism in place that can even lead to the termination of the business relationship.”
Asked if Adidas is considering taking legal action against The Yes Men, the Adidas spokesman declined comment Tuesday.
Despite the social media and mainstream media kerfuffle, Adidas stock closed Tuesday on the Deutsche Borse at 150.62 euros — a slight gain.
In an interview Tuesday, Michael Bonanno, who cofounded The Yes Men organization 22 years ago with Andy Bichlbaum, said he staged the spectacle on Monday before an estimated crowd of 350 to coincide with the recent arrival of Adidas’ new CEO Bjørn Gulden, who took over the helm on Jan. 1 after being poached from rival Puma.
Working with the Clean Clothes Campaign, The Yes Men aimed to spotlight the needs of the workforce they said had been suffering in Adidas’ supply chain.
Asked about which specific factories and countries Adidas uses and The Yes Men is concerned about, Bonanno deferred comment to Ilana Winterstein, urgent appeals campaigner for the Clothes Coalition, which helped stage the event. That labor rights organization is among dozens of others, as well as trade unions, that champion the Pay Your Workers agreement.
“Part of the reason that we’re starting with Adidas is that they present themselves as ethical leaders in the industry,” she said. “Of course, [other people do as well.] A lot of their marketing is around women’s empowerment. Eighty percent of garment workers are women and there’s nothing empowering about what’s happening to these women at all.”
“The issues are global and systemic across the entire garment industry,” Winterstein said. She said Adidas allegedly owes workers in eight supplier factories in Cambodia $11.7 million in unpaid wages since the onset of the pandemic, based on research by Public Eye.
She said that brands tend to support voluntary initiatives “to look good, but in reality they do nothing for garment workers’ rights or protecting human rights.” The Pay Your Workers Agreement is legally binding, she noted.
None of Adidas’ competitors have signed the agreement
Reached in Berlin, where he planned to stay for a few more days, Bonanno said he is based in upstate New York, where he teaches art and technology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He waved off the potential for Adidas to take legal action, explaining, “Concerned about my own safety? No, I’m not at risk at anything. It’s the workers who are at risk. They are living on the edge of existence levels. They’re not allowed to go to the bathroom on their shifts.”
The Yes Men has no salaried employees and works on a project-by-project basis targeting corporations and organizations for different issues. Jeff Walburn orchestrated the Berlin event with a team of about 20.
Other campaigns are planned for other brands, but Bonanno declined to specify which ones to avoid risking the element of surprise. While gas companies like Gazprom and Shell have been previous targets, The Yes Men has also gone after mining, fashion and legal organizations, too.
“Fashion, apparel and retail are still very much on our radar. Doing this project has introduced us to a whole world of corruption and hardship that we didn’t see before,” Bonanno said. “I’ll never think of my clothes in the same way. It’s really opened my eyes. With that in mind, we will do more on this issue.”
Asked about the financial fallout, the damage to the brand and potential consumer backlash, Bonanno said, “Damage to the brand — that’s the point. Unless companies do better, they’re going to be subjective to this kind of criticism.”
While Nike, Under Armour and other athletic brands have yet to sign the act, Bonnano said Adidas “has the opportunity to be the first big company to do the right thing. They could get so much good press from that…It’s not really an excuse to say that nobody else is doing it.”