Twenty-four hours after causing chaos at Adidas over a new co-CEO scam and a fake event at Berlin Fashion Week, the activist group behind the scam, The Yes Men, is still calling for the sneaker giant to sign the Workers’ Pay Agreement.
Whether Adidas will do so remains unknown, as an Adidas spokesperson declined to comment on the plans on Tuesday.
The two-part fiasco began with a fake press release distributed to the mainstream media on Monday claiming that a former Cambodian factory worker and union leader had been named co-CEO.
In a statement, The Yes Men claim Adidas has debuted ethical Realitywear apparel with endorsements from Pharrell Williams, Bad Bunny and other celebrities. The group turned the start of Berlin Fashion Week on a twist on Monday with a fashion event of upgraded Realitywear clothing.
The misreporting of the fake co-CEO and the Berlin fashion event has become so widespread that Adidas publicly stated on Monday that both were false, as first reported by The Guardian.
But on Tuesday, Adidas executives were still dealing with the fallout.
A spokesperson for the American company issued a harsh rebuke: “We reject the allegations in the statement. For more than 25 years, Adidas has taken a number of measures to ensure fair and safe working conditions for workers in its supply chain. Adidas’ Workplace Standards oblige our suppliers to progressively increase workers’ 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 corresponding statutory minimum wage.”
A company spokesperson noted that “around 50 experts around the world work every day in supplier countries to ensure our workplace standards are applied and met. In 2021, adidas conducted more than 1,200 supplier factory audits. If our standards are violated, we have a sanctions mechanism that can lead to the termination of the business relationship.”
Asked whether Adidas was considering legal action against The Yes Men, an Adidas spokesperson declined to comment on Tuesday.
Despite the fray on social media and the mainstream media, Adidas shares closed Tuesday at 150.62 euros on the Deutsche Borse — up slightly.
In an interview on Tuesday, Michael Bonanno, who co-founded The Yes Men with Andy Bichlbaum 22 years ago, said he staged the spectacle 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 January 1 after being poached from rival Puma.
Working with the Clean Clothes Campaign, The Yes Men sought to highlight the labor needs they said were suffering in Adidas’ supply chain.
Asked about exactly which factories and countries Adidas uses and which The Yes Men are concerned about, Bonanno deferred comment to Ilana Winterstein, a campaigner for the Clothes Coalition, which helped organize the event. That labor rights organization is among dozens of others, as well as unions, pushing for the Pay Your Workers deal.
“Part of the reason we’re starting with Adidas is because they present themselves as ethical leaders in the industry,” she said. “Of course, [other people do as well.] Much of their marketing is around female empowerment. Eighty percent of garment workers are women, and there’s nothing empowering about what’s happening to these women at all.”
“The problems are global and systemic throughout the apparel industry,” Winterstein said. She said Adidas allegedly owes workers at eight supplier factories in Cambodia $11.7 million in unpaid wages since the pandemic began, based on an investigation by Public Eye.
She said brands tend to support voluntary initiatives “to make themselves look good, but in reality they do nothing for the rights of garment workers or the protection of human rights.” The Pay Your Workers agreement is legally binding, she pointed out.
None of Adidas’ competitors have signed the contract
Arriving in Berlin, where he planned to stay a few more days, Bonanno said he was in upstate New York, where he teaches art and technology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He dismissed the possibility of Adidas taking legal action, explaining: “I’m worried about my own safety? No, I’m not endangering anything. Workers are at risk. They live on the edge of existence levels. They are not allowed to go to the toilet during the shift.”
Yes Men has no paid employees and works on a project-by-project basis targeting corporations and organizations on a variety of issues. Jeff Walburn orchestrated the event in Berlin with a team of about 20 people.
Other campaigns are planned for other brands, but Bonanno declined to say which ones to avoid risking the element of surprise. While gas companies such as Gazprom and Shell have previously been targeted, The Yes Men have also targeted mining, fashion and legal organisations.
“Fashion, apparel and retail are still very much on our radar. Carrying out this project introduced us to a whole world of corruption and hardship that we had not seen before,” said Bonanno. “I will never think about my clothes the same way. It really opened my eyes. With that in mind, we will do more on this issue.”
Asked about the financial ramifications, brand damage and potential consumer backlash, Bonanno said, “Brand damage — that’s the bottom line. Unless companies do better, they will be subjective to this kind of criticism.” He admitted that Adidas shares took a hit on Tuesday – “oops,” he said.
While Nike, Under Armor and other sports brands have yet to sign the act, Bonnano said Adidas “has an opportunity to be the first big company to do the right thing. They could get so much good news out of it… It’s not really an excuse to say that no one else is doing it.”