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How Adidas Became the Shoe Industry’s Unwitting Racial Equality Case Study

What does it take to drive change?

Over the past few weeks, as the coronavirus pandemic was sweeping across the United States, another storm was forming.

An eight-minute video depicting the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of a white police office in Minneapolis laid bare decades of racial inequality in the country. Amid mass protests and national unrest, black people and their allies shouted resoundingly: Enough is enough.

To be sure, scores of footwear (and other) brands swiftly joined the chorus. Both the players that have always been vocal on social issues and those that have been historically quiet released marketing messages supporting Black Lives Matter and made financial commitments to the cause.

Adidas was no different.

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In addition to a historic retweet of longtime rival Nike’s video calling for an end to racial injustice, the Germany-based brand took to its social media accounts to post its own anti-racism message.

But behind the scenes, at the North American headquarters of the shoe industry’s second-largest brand, something big was brewing.

Julia Bond Adidas employee protest
Adidas employee Julia Bond leads a protest at the company’s North America HQ in Portland, Ore.
CREDIT: Anonymous

Early Rip Currents

In November 2018, in a letter addressed to then-newly minted Adidas North America president Zion Armstrong, an employee purporting to speak on behalf of minorities at the company urged the new leader to “diversify representation” in the firm’s upper ranks, alleging racial and ethnic disparities.

Around the same time, multiple sources — identifying as racial and ethnic minorities — told FN that white leaders at the athletic brand’s Portland, Ore.-headquarters had failed to promote and treat people of color fairly.

“North America senior leaders foster, encourage and reward an exclusive all-white environment made up of the same individuals that are consistently promoted and spotlighted,” said one employee at the time, who accused the brand’s leaders of withholding opportunities from African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics and other minorities while unjustly promoting their white counterparts. “They ostracize people of color and cultivate a high school ‘clique’ environment.”

The influx of negative stories from minority staffers came as Adidas was clocking double-digit growth in the North America market and riding the wave of a massive revival, boosted by its collaborations with A-list music artists and fashion influencers like Kanye West and Pharrell Williams.

In 2019, the company would add to its superstar roster the ultimate “get” of present-day entertainers, Beyoncé — all while enjoying the now-estimated billion-dollar success of West’s Yeezy franchise.

But as months dragged on, little was changing internally.

Adidas employee protest
Employees protest at the Adidas North America HQ in Portland, Ore.
CREDIT: Anonymous

In fact, in July 2019, a new crop of Adidas minority employees — namely Asian and LGBTQ staffers — came forward to detail new claims of being disenfranchised at the brand.

“The people who are rising at the company are [predominantly] white males,” said one employee, who identified as both Asian and LGBTQ. “I have requested mentorship meetings with senior leaders at the brand — whom I’ve often seen having these kinds of meetings with young white males in the cafeteria — but my meetings always end up being canceled.”

Meanwhile, black employees brought to light more claims of facing discrimination at work, describing instances that left them “sad” and “defeated.”

A Surging Tide

Early this month, 13 black employees at Adidas united to form a coalition with the explicit goal of yielding swift and permanent change in how the company supports its black team members and community at-large — with an added emphasis on pushing the brand’s top management in Germany to drive the organizational reset.

On June 2, the group — then representing about 100 employees — delivered to Adidas North America management, including president Zion Armstrong, a 32-page deck, dubbed “Our State of Emergency.”

In addition to claims that management “doesn’t grasp the discrimination minorities might face” and that “the difference in perception is largest in Germany,” the document had listed four major “asks.” The coalition had demanded the company invest in its black employees; the black community; the fight for racial justice and change for black people — and demonstrate accountability.

Adidas employee protest
Employees protest at the Adidas North America HQ in Portland, Ore.
CREDIT: Anonymous

As top execs mulled the demands, hundreds of minority staffers had agreed among themselves to a sit-out, in which they would all turn on their “out of office” emails until they had received the details of a go-forward strategy from management.

Meanwhile, other employees, organized by Julia Bond, an assistant designer for Adidas Originals apparel, had started gathering at the company’s HQ daily to protest purported discrepancies between the brand’s public messaging around racial justice and its own treatment of minority employees. Bond and her supporters had also asked management for an apology regarding the company’s treatment of black team members.

Calming Seas?

Last week, Adidas leaders held a meeting in which they laid out several major steps the company planned to take “immediately” to address pass wrongs and create a better culture that is inclusive of black employees.

“First, we need to give credit where it’s long overdue: The success of adidas would be nothing without Black athletes, Black artists, Black employees, and Black consumers. Period,” the brand wrote in chain of tweets, which included a photo with the words “Black Lives Matter.” “It’s time to own up to our silence: Black Lives Matter. Here is how we are committing to change across People, Communities, and Accountability.”

Adidas employee protest
Employees protest at the Adidas North America HQ in Portland, Ore.
CREDIT: Anonymous

The company pledged to, among other things, increase to $120 million its investment in programs that support black communities over the next four years. What’s more, it promises that 30% of all open internal and external positions will be filled with black and Latinx talent, while 50% of all open positions will be filled with diverse talent. Adidas further committed to enforce a “zero tolerance” policy on racial discrimination, noting, “If there is evidence of retaliation, offenders will be terminated. To ensure fairness and safety, we are putting in place a third-party investigator to govern our policy and keep us accountable.”

It concluded, “This is our commitment to the Black community and the world. We can change, and we will. This is just the start.”

By several accounts, it’s a critical series of steps that represent a marked tide change for the brand, but according to insiders, it puts the footwear industry only marginally closer to where it needs to be in terms of racial equality.

Like many black thought leaders, historian Crystal deGregory told FN she believes much work remains — and the price that many have paid in order to yield progress is far too great.

“Black sacrifice of life and limb in public service, public defense and even public death is not enough to warrant the dismantling of the systemic and structural racism that is as complicit as stolen, copied and commodified black culture for sale,” deGregory said. “Maybe this time there will be real change — [moves] that begin to upend white supremacy and its weaponizing of racism, changes that seek and secure black freedom without condition. This will fundamentally [shift] what it is like to be both black and white in America.”

As more citizens are galvanized to speak out, for many companies, it may just be a matter of time before the next shoe drops.

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