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The Student Who Made the Shoemaker Sweat

Customer's protest of Nike labor practices turned into an e-mail exchange heard 'round the world.

March 04, 2001|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the beginning, Jonah Peretti simply wanted to make a statement . . . and order a pair of shoes. There he was, on the Nike Web site, looking at a pair of $50 Zoom XC USA running shoes. The lure for Peretti was that the shoes could be personalized, so he ordered a pair. And the word he chose to be branded on his shoes was "sweatshop."

Less than a week after e-mailing some friends about it, the correspondence between him and Nike would race around the world on the Internet. Nike's media relations department would be on full alert because of the deluge of queries. And Peretti, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, would become an instant celebrity of sorts.

Nike, of course, has come under harsh criticism in recent years for the sweatshop conditions in its overseas factories, particularly those in Asia. A new report commissioned and paid for by Nike described verbal and physical abuse to workers in nine Indonesian factories that make clothes and shoes for the world's largest sports brand.

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It was with this image in mind that Peretti placed his order. The next day he got the news--not altogether unexpected--that his request was being turned down.

Nike's reasoning: The order was turned down "for one or more of the following reasons: 1) Your Personal ID contains another party's trademark or other intellectual property. 2) Your Personal ID contains the name of an athlete or team we do not have the legal right to use. 3) Your Personal ID was left blank. Did you not want any personalization? 4) Your Personal ID contains profanity or inappropriate slang, and besides, your mother would slap us."

Peretti, however, was not about to let the matter slide. He quickly sent a reply explaining that his order fit none of the reasons listed by Nike. And, he wrote, "I chose the ID because I wanted to remember the toil and labor of the children that made my shoes. Could you please ship them immediately."

Nike's reply: Sorry, but the order contained "inappropriate slang."

Peretti went to his dictionary, then pointed out that the word "sweatshop" is not slang at all, but a standard English word coined in 1892. He then politely chided Nike for not allowing him to have his word of choice.

"I hope that you will value my freedom of expression and reconsider your decision to reject my order," he wrote.

Nike replied with a long e-mail that essentially said Peretti, who grew up in the Oakland area, wasn't going to get his way.

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At last, Peretti relented, but not without one last dig: "Could you please send me a color snapshot of the 10-year-old Vietnamese girl who makes my shoes?"

That would have been that, were it not for the Internet. The exchange quickly made its way from his friends to people around the world. "I've gotten e-mails from just about any country you can name," said Peretti. "I'm receiving about 500 e-mails a day from people who have read it."

Peretti said that, truth be told, he didn't expect Nike to go along with his request, but he wanted to pose the company a dilemma. He said Nike got failing marks on that score. "They didn't address the issue at all," he said.

For its part, Nike said it's working hard to improve working conditions in foreign factories and has spent millions doing so. Nevertheless, Peretti isn't going to get his sweatshop shoes. "Nike doesn't apologize for refusing to write something on one of our products that's defamatory," said spokeswoman Beth Gorny.

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