No, Adidas didn’t christen a Cambodian trade union leader as its co-CEO. And no, the German sportswear juggernaut did not launch a line of clothing, featuring “lust-have” designs by Bad Bunny and Pharrell Williams, that stiffed Cambodian garment workers wore “non-stop” for half a year to make visible their suffering.
It was all part of a publicity stunt by prankster activists The Yes Men, working with the Clean Clothes Campaign, to “highlight Adidas’s hypocrisy” when it comes to reports of wage theft and other labor rights violations.
“The news of their game-changing ethics program is sadly fake, but the suffering of Adidas workers is all too real,” said Mike Bonanno of The Yes Men.
The Adidas-spoofing press release, which made the rounds at the start of Berlin Fashion Week on Monday, touted “bold new plans” to “own the reality” of its supply chain, beginning with the appointment of “Vay Ya Nak Phoan” as co-CEO alongside Bjørn Gulden, who took over the reins of the company from Kasper Rørsted on Jan. 1.
“The first step to fixing injustice is admitting the truth and making it visible,” said “Phoan,” whose “name” means “textile” in Khmer, in the pseudo-announcement. “By literally wearing the toil of workers on our sleeves, we make it impossible to ignore.”
“Phoan’s” first act in office was to sign the Pay Your Workers agreement, a genuine campaign by the Clean Clothes Campaign and other labor organizations urging fashion purveyors to compensate their workers in full, protect their right to freedom of association and negotiate a severance guarantee fund. She was also meant to resolve several cases of labor rights violations in Cambodia and Myanmar by reinstating union members who were fired for organizing, paying millions in truncated wages and legally owed severance and “significantly” raising wages.
The hoax culminated in a show, held in central Berlin to a sold-out crowd, that appeared to unveil Adidas’s “Derelicte”-style Realitywear line “baked-in” by blood, sweat and tears and “bio-imprinted” with the records of daily working life. Some models had their cheeks literally branded with the famed logo.
“We are not going to hide our past transgressions or sweep our current labor disputes under the rug,” Gulden was quoted as saying in the ersatz statement. “We are going to own the reality and correct course.”
But Gulden said no such thing. And “Phoan” was in actual fact Len Leng, a Cambodian journalist who possessed the role so convincingly that the crowd of fashionistas at the runway event was taken in completely, even if some were confused by what they were seeing.
“We wanted to raise awareness about the conditions for garment workers, not only in Cambodia but around the world,” she said in a video shared by the Clean Clothes Campaign on Twitter on Thursday. “Because I believe in promoting a better environment for workers.”
Though an escalation of ongoing demonstrations to demand action from Adidas, this wasn’t a protest in the “traditional sense,” said Ilana Winterstein, urgent appeals campaigner at the Clean Clothes Campaign. Rather, it was a “vision” of an “alternate reality” where the one-time Ye collaborator steps up for its lowest rung.
“What we wanted to do was highlight that Adidas, in this case, has all the power,” she said. “They could change everything; they could dramatically recenter workers and prioritize workers’ rights if they wanted to.”
The fictional Realitywear range, Winterstein added, was “deliberately offensive.”
“This brutal reality of Adidas workers today is hidden underneath all the nice, glossy advertising and hollow CSR-speak that Adidas use all the time; they center women’s empowerment in a lot of their stuff but the reality is that it’s built on exploitation,” she said. “We’ve got such a twisted industry, where the reality is just broken, and yet somehow they pretend that it’s not. And they spend millions in advertising to show the world how much they care, rather than actually putting money to actually protect people’s human rights.”
Maxine Bédat, executive director of the New Standard Institute, one of the endorsers of New York State’s Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, said she wasn’t sure if impersonating Adidas would lead anywhere.
“I don’t want to play down any efforts to bring attention to these critical issues, but for me personally, I don’t know if the spoof had clear messaging or will lead to the concrete actions this industry so desperately needs,” she said. “We need laws and with them accountability.”
Adidas, which days earlier came out on the losing side of its Thom Browne lawsuit, said it wouldn’t be commenting on “the events and fake emails/releases,” though it rejects any allegations that it has somehow failed the workers who make its clothes and shoes.
“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,” a spokesperson said. “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.”
A 50-strong team of experts works with supplier countries “every day” to ensure that the tripe-stripe firm’s workplace standards are met, the spokesperson said. In 2021, Adidas conducted more than 1,200 factory audits. In the case where its standards are breached, it has a “sanction mechanism” in place that can result in the severing of the business relationship.
But The Yes Men, in a final act of cheek, responded on Adidas’s behalf, writing in a follow-up press release that the “false statements are a hoax and do not represent the position of Adidas AG or the Adidas board of directors.”
Speaking as the brand, they said that the 300,000 Cambodian workers who were deprived of $11.7 million during the April-May 2021 national lockdown “must make do without,” even though the amount represents a minuscule fraction of its profits.
“Since Adidas has had strong profits, there is no motive for withholding pay,” the announcement said. “In other words, Adidas will not be paying workers more, period. Because they are not ours. They are their own people, with autonomy and dignity.”
Neither is Adidas responsible for the actions of its suppliers, The Yes Men said.
“Adidas is not responsible for everything our suppliers do or don’t do, who they pay or don’t pay, and whose rights they respect or not for small economic gains,” they said. “If Adidas suppliers deem it necessary to engage in wage theft because of our aggressive purchasing strategies, it is within their rights to do so.”