February 28, 2001, Wednesday - NBC News Transcripts - SHOW: TODAY



KATIE COURIC, co-host: There's a new gimmick on the Nike Web site that's been getting lots of attention lately. The sportswear manufacturer has a program called Nike ID that lets people design and personalize their own shoes. In addition to selecting things like color, customers can pick a word or phrase and have it stitched near the Nike swoosh.

Well, recently, an MIT graduate student ordered shoes, but the company refused to fill the order. The reason? He asked for the word 'sweatshop' to be stitched on the side. Jonah Peretti ordered the shoes. And Vada Manager is director of Global Issues Management at Nike.

  Good morning to you both. Thanks for joining us.


Mr. VADA MANAGER (Nike Global Issues Management): Good morning.


COURIC: Let me start with you, Jonah. You ordered Nike shoes with the word 'sweatshop' on the side. What made you do that?


Mr. JONAH PERETTI (MIT Graduate Student): Well, I visited Nike's Web site, and the whole thrust of the Web site was that Nike is about personal freedom and freedom to choose. And to me, it seemed like a contradiction with Nike's labor policies, which are legendary for having abuses.


COURIC: So that--you were making a political statement, if you will?


Mr. PERETTI: So I was making a statement, a humorous statement by selecting the word 'sweatshop.'


COURIC: All right. So you made the order, but Nike sent you an e-mail saying that your order had been canceled for one of the more following reasons. Your personal ID contains another party's trademark or other intellectual property. Your personal ID contains the name of an athlete or team we do not have the legal right to use. Never heard of the sweatshops, have you? Your personal ID was left blank. Did you not want any personalization? Or, your personal ID contains profanity or inappropriate slang, and besides, your mother would slap us. All right. Well, what was your reaction when you got that e-mail?


Mr. PERETTI: Well, it--the four reasons they gave didn't apply to the word 'sweatshop.' Sweatshop isn't a tea--sports name or a registered trademark. So, I decided that I would write them back and tell them that, that it didn't apply and could they please send me the shoes.


COURIC: And then you received this e-mail back from Nike customer service after doing that. (Reading) "Your Nike ID order was cancelled because your--the ID you have chosen contains, as stated in the previous e-mail correspondence, "inappropriate slang." So, let me bring in Mr. Manager.


How is the word, "sweatshop" inappropriate slang?


Mr. MANAGER: Well, first let me explain that the filter on Nike ID was originally designed to screen out things such as racial epithets, sexual orientation epithets, gang symbolism and other inappropriate language. It does say on the Web site, the--the language has always been contained there, that we have the right to refuse derogatory language or words and cancel an order within 24 hours of it being made.


COURIC: Right.


Mr. MANAGER: Perhaps--in--in--in retrospect, perhaps the first e-mail that Mr. Peretti received should have included that particular language in the e-mail. And Mr. Peretti has already done a service for his fellow consumers. We have corrected that e-mail so that future consumers will receive an e-mail that indicates that they have inappropriate language that we would decline to put on the shoe. And, in addition to curtailing e-mail traffic back and forth between consumers, consumers will get a phone call follow-up allowing them to choose another ID if they chose--choose to want to do that.


COURIC: Right. Well, Mr. Manager, I guess it's still--the question remains unanswered, why is this inappropriate slang? I mean, I can understand not wanting to put racial slurs or--or gang messages on Nike shoes, but what is so inappropriate about "sweatshop..."


Mr. MANAGER: Well...


COURIC: ...except from a Nike PR perspective?


Mr. MANAGER: Well, Katie, the word "sweatshop" doesn't apply to our factories. We would not put anything that's derogatory or offensive on our turf. That would be almost like asking, for example, "Good Morning America," if they were to take out an ad during the "TODAY" show hour, saying that all of your stories were false, and--and your guests didn't know what they were talking about and you running that ad. Or The New York Times, for example, buying an ad in The Washington Post saying all their sources were false. We have the right, and we have no obligation to put on a--on a shoe information that we consider to be derogatory to the product. No company in the world would do anything like that.


COURIC: All right, Jonah, what's your reaction to that explanation?


Mr. PERETTI: Well, I'm not another shoe company trying to compete with Nike. I'm just--I--I've read in the papers for years about labor abuses at Nike. So, I feel like the--the word is inappropriate slang in Nike town, but maybe not anywhere else.


COURIC: And, Mr. Manager, you know, these--these ID shoes are advertised as being about quote, "Freedom to choose and freedom to express who you are."

By censoring what can be written on the shoes, aren't you res—restricting someone's individual freedom?


Mr. MANAGER: Well, not at all. Again, I think that there are always limitations, to certain degree, of speech. Obviously, again, here's a copy of the shoe itself, and this is where the ID would go. We have no obligation to put on a shoe information that we would consider to be derogatory or defamatory to our company and our product.


COURIC: Mm-hmm.


Mr. MANAGER: There are other things that we refused to put on a shoe. This is the first time that we have refused to put an ID on that has caused this kind of stir.

There have been other things that people have attempted to slip through the filter. And again, it was originally designed to protect things against gang symbolism, etc.

And I'm sure there's a lot of happy principals and parents who think that they--we certainly don't want shoes out there with drug references or any—any inappropriate gang symbolism in their schools or in their homes.


COURIC: And you understand that, Jonah? Are you cool with that...


Mr. PERETTI: Oh, yes.


COURIC: ...restricting some of the things being stitched on the shoes?


Mr. PERETTI: Yes, I didn't expect to get my shoes anyway. I--I use—chose the word "sweatshop" as a challenge to Nike.


COURIC: In fact, for years, Mr. Betta--I me--Mr. Manager, rather, Nike has been accused of--I know you have a problem with the sweatshop moniker, but it's been accused of mistreating workers in places like Vietnam, Thailand,

Mexico and just last week an organization called The Global Alliance, and I want to also add that Nike helped finance this report, but, came out with a report about your Indonesian factories. And--and the report claimed workers are verbally and physically abused, sexually harassed, there are health and safety concerns. So, obviously, you've got some problems.


Mr. MANAGER: Well, certainly, no one condones sweatshops, Katie. And, in fact, Nike has always committed to doing what's right, whether it's controversial or even painful to us. As you correctly pointed out, we are the ones that helped fund that report. We are interested to know and wanted to be committed to find out what was going on in those factories. And we put together a pretty good remediation plan of independent monitoring and a grievance process and other training programs to try to address the root of those problems and get those issues corrected. And we shouldn't be penalized for being courageous enough to lay ourselves bare in that regard by putting information that's adverse to the company out there. But at the same time, we certainly believe that we want to 'just do the right thing,' get this issue corrected, and we certainly acknowledge that there—not everything in the Nike manufacturing world has been as perfect as we would like it to be.


COURIC: And--and your final e-mail was: (Reading) "Thank you for the time and energy," Jonah, that you wrote to Nike, "You have spent on my request.

I have decided to order the shoes with a different ID, but I would like to make one small request. Could you please send me a color snapshot of the

10-year-old Vietnamese girl who makes my shoes?" Did Nike accommodate that request?


Mr. PERETTI: No, I didn't hear from Nike until--th--this is the first time

I've talked to Nike since that last e-mail.


COURIC: Having said all that, you e-mailed all these--this e-mail conversation with Nike to many friends. You've gotten a huge response. Are most people supportive of what you did? Or di--and--some are supporting Nike in—in what it did, correct?


Mr. PERETTI: Well, the vast majority of people are sending me letters of support. And I think a lot of people are--are sick of--of companies like

Nike that spend so much time promoting their brand, but then don't really care that much about their workers and the way their products are produced.


COURIC: And, Vada Manager, I understand this has actually helped business on this particular Web site, is that right?


Mr. MANAGER: Well, I wouldn't necessarily put it in the category, for example, the virile e-mail marketing that the "Blair Witch Project" used to promote its movie, but I think one of the unintended, or in the category of every cloud has a silver lining, this certainly has had an interesting impact upon the business. I looked at some of the consumer numbers, prior to coming on the show, yesterday, and in some categories of consumer e-mail traffic and contact between Nike and consumers, is up 75 percent in some categories and 100 percent in others. So, I--I think in one instance, there's certainly more awareness of the fact that we personalize shoes...


COURIC: Right.


Mr. MANAGER: ...and we're the only company in the industry right now that's doing athletic shoes on a personalized and customized basis. So...


COURIC: And are you feeling more pressure to improve working conditions overseas?


Mr. MANAGER: Oh--oh, certainly. I think we've said that ourselves, that--that con--we find ourselves in a the continuous improvement mode with regard to doing that. So, with any shoes or clothing that you buy, I think you ought to ask that question of any company where you produce products or where you buy products as to whether or not they're living up to their obligations. And I think that's a fair question. We certainly have made that question and--and made that answer...




Mr. MANAGER: ...available to an--people ourselves.


COURIC: Interesting story. Raises a lot of interesting and important issues. Vada Manager from Nike and Jonah Pretti, an MIT graduate student, that's your title. Thanks very much for joining us. Appreciate it.


Mr. MANAGER: Thank you.


Mr. PERETTI: Thank you.


COURIC: And coming up next, TV star Heather Locklear.


Hi, Heather.


Ms. HEATHER LOCKLEAR ("Spin City"): Hello.


COURIC: But first, these messages.