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August 3, 2021updated 03 Nov 2021 5:49am

Olympic sponsor still has ‘Gaps’ in sustainability

Gap's Athleta has supported Simone Biles in prioritising mental health, but it remains to be seen if Gap extends the same sustainability ethics to all its workers.

By GlobalData Thematic Research

News is pouring out of Japan as the Tokyo 2020 Olympics enters its second week. One story staying at the top of news feeds involves US gymnast Simone Biles, who has so far pulled out of five of the six artistic gymnastics finals she qualified for, citing mental health concerns.

Biles is undoubtedly one of the most impressive gymnasts anyone has ever seen. She won three successive World All-Around titles before her first Olympics in Rio, where she led Team USA to Gold and collected three further Golds and a Bronze in the individual competition. The gymnast has sported the image of a goat on her leotards in major competitions, referring to her popular designation as the Greatest of All Time.

The clear favourite going into almost all her events, Biles’ withdrawal from the Team final after only one apparatus surprised anyone even vaguely aware of her prowess. She subsequently withdrew from the All-Around, Vault, Floor and Bars finals. She has received an outpouring of support from fans and sportspeople, with particular praise for prioritising her mental well-being.

Biles’ sponsors have similarly attracted praise for standing by the gymnast as she works through this difficult time. Notable among these is Athleta, which uses 71% sustainable materials and places heightened importance on female empowerment.

But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Athleta is a part of Gap Inc, which has received its fair share of bad press surrounding the treatment of its workers and use of sweatshops. Gap was one company, among many, whose response to the Covid-19 pandemic left a lot to be desired. After initially cancelling some orders and imposing discounts on others, it was not until July 2020 that the company agreed to pay in full for all orders that had been in production when the pandemic began, four months after the World Health Organization (WHO) categorised Covid-19 as such.

Athleta may mark a change in Gap’s approach. As a certified B corporation, Athleta has undergone a rigorous assessment of its social and environmental impact and is committed to balancing purpose and profits. However, there remains room for doubt as the Good On You website states that there is no evidence that Athleta ensures payment of a living wage to all workers in its supply chain.

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It is easy to stand behind an Olympian, especially when she is so widely loved and admired. To do otherwise would likely amount to social and economic suicide. The true test of a company’s principles is whether it chooses to extend the same support to those at the bottom of the corporate food chain.

Retail giants are unlikely to unilaterally step away from maximising profitability and traditional practices involving poor labour standards while they can still get away with it. However, that’s not to say that we are doomed to only ever see skin-deep efforts and tokenism on these issues. Consumers can flip the cycle of exploitation by capitalising on companies’ profit motives. The GlobalData environmental, social and governance (ESG) action feedback loop demonstrates this:

By choosing to shop with companies whose ESG credentials stand up to scrutiny, customers push businesses in a more ethical direction. The major retailers may not want to accord their workers the labour standards they deserve, but they might not get the choice.