October 31, 2002
Nike Greenwash Decision a Double-Edged Sword
by William Baue
While some cheer the California Supreme Court ruling against Nike as a victory for truth in
advertising, others consider it a potential defeat for CSR reporting and increased corporate
In the May 2002 decision of the Kasky v. Nike case, a majority of four California Supreme
Court Justices ruled that the sportswear maker’s public statements constituted commercial
speech. The other three justices dissented, saying that the statements amounted to free speech.
The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution extends utmost protection to freedom of speech, but
subsequent laws have placed tight restrictions on commercial speech. Companies must maintain truth
The legal team representing self-described environmentalist Marc
Kasky charged Nike (ticker: NKE)
with negligent misrepresentation, fraud, and deceit in communicating its global labor practices.
Nike contended that its press releases and letters to college presidents, athletic directors, and
newspaper editors contributed to the public dialogue on globalization, and thereby did not
represent advertising. The case, which began in 1998, now proceeds back to the lower court to
determine the veracity of Nike’s public statements.
On the one hand, the
Court’s decision against Nike sends corporations the message that they cannot
“greenwash,” or represent their social and environmental practices as more responsible
than they are in reality. One could reason that the decision will thus promote transparency and
honesty in disclosure of social and environmental practices. However, some companies may react by
becoming fiercely tight-lipped for fear that any statements could expose them to litigation risk.
Many may come to view all public statements as commercial speech. Such statements would include
corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports and communications with socially responsible
investment (SRI) firms and shareowners.
“The Kasky decision will have considerable
adverse consequences for CSR reporting and the ability of SRI funds to secure accurate
information,” said Harvard Constitutional Law Professor Laurence Tribe, who is also
Nike’s Counsel of Record in its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. “I regarded the
decision of the California court as extremely dangerous to free speech as well as seriously wrong
as a matter of constitutional law, and because of the importance of the issue I agreed to undertake
the assignment for Nike,” Prof. Tribe told SocialFunds.com.
Not all who are
familiar with the case fear that companies will clam up in reaction to the decision.
“The California statutes upon which Mr. Kasky’s case rests have been on the books
for some time,” said Adam Kanzer, general counsel and director of shareholder activism at
Domini Social Investments. “Companies might become a little more cautious about their public
statements. But they view CSR reporting and information disclosure in general as a means of
building brand and engaging investors. This case doesn’t change that. The only thing that
may have changed is the perception of risk.”
Currently, companies voluntarily follow
CSR reporting guidelines such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). In the wake of the
Kasky v. Nike decision, companies may indeed decide that the risk of litigation in
California, where almost all multinational corporations sell products and services, eclipses the
benefits of voluntary reporting.
“Fear of the possible consequences of disclosure is
often a big factor for companies on the brink of reporting,” said Mallen Baker, development
director for UK-based Business in the Community, which advocates corporate social responsibility.
“So far, it has been more or less true to say that companies do not suffer negative
consequences from honest disclosure--only from covering up. If everything that companies say is to
be evaluated on different, more restrictive rules to what anyone else might say, then even honest
disclosure becomes a risky business.”
Mr. Baker suggests as a solution the
development of a more robust, credible framework for CSR reporting.
needs to be consensus about what constitutes core data in social reporting,” Mr. Baker told
SocialFunds.com. “[T]he current situation raises a big challenge for the GRI.” The
Global Reporting Initiative could not be reached for comments.
Despite this lack of
consensus on what information the GRI should report, the GRI is elsewhere considered the best
standard for holding companies accountable for social and environmental responsibility. For
example, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in South Africa requires listed companies to follow GRI
guidelines. Similar regulation in the U.S. might solve the problems posed by the Kasky v.
Nike dilemma. Indeed, both those who support the California Supreme Court’s decision and
those who question it point to the GRI as a potential solution.
The full impact of the
case on CSR reporting and information disclosure is not known because the case is not over yet. It
appears that Nike is going to continue pushing the argument that its statements about its global
labor practices should be considered as free speech and therefore protected. Mr. Kanzer sees
potentially grave consequences for investors if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the California
ruling in favor of Nike.
“Let’s say Nike is given free speech protection on
statements made about its contracted overseas factories because the subject is considered a public
dialogue,” said Mr. Kanzer. “What will the implications be, for example, for the
environmental risk information that the SEC currently requires companies to disclose? How about
discussions of a corporation’s executive compensation package? There is a risk that
we’re headed down a very steep slippery slope. Nearly every corporate communication could be
said to raise issues of public concern. Investors may find themselves with no means of obtaining
accurate information about any topic that could be considered part of a public dialogue.”