All God’s Children Got Shoes: Using Our Corporate Social Responsibility Witness Toward Freedom and Dignity

“I got shoes, you got shoes, all God’s children got shoes.”
African American Spiritual

Basic necessities such as shoes and decent clothing were rare among slaves, but expressions of protest and hope were not. The meaning of the spiritual I Got Shoes was hidden from the oppressors but clear to those who sang it as they worked the fields: outrage at the cruel treatment of those who had no right to declare ownership of human beings, and confidence that justice would ultimately prevail. The day would come when they would attain freedom and dignity; all of God’s children would get shoes.

As many as 45 million people today are trapped in modern forms of slavery, including forced labor. Victims typically work in inhuman conditions for little or no pay as part of the global supply chain. Many of the consumer goods we use in our everyday lives are tainted by forced labor including food, clothing, and electronics.

Adidas is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of sporting shoes and apparel, and it is one of the multinational companies identified by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute as linked to forced labor by Uighurs in factories across China. Uighurs are a persecuted ethnic minority from China’s western Xinjiang region; an estimated 80,000 of them were relocated to factories across the country between 2017 and 2019. The Uighur factory workers undergo constant surveillance and are forced to live in segregated dormitories. They are also forbidden to practice their religion, are unable to go home, and are required to undergo ideological training outside of working hours.

A group of faith- and values-based investors, including the Pension Boards of the United Church of Christ, requested information from Adidas on any direct or indirect relationship the company has with factories involved in the state-sponsored forced-labor scheme. Adidas denies having any such relationships and points to its adoption of the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights and the Due Diligence Guidelines for Responsible Business Conduct of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development as its framework for corporate responsibility.

Is the matter now settled? Hardly. Corporate engagement is typically a stepped process and the next step will be face-to-face talks with Adidas officials. The Pension Boards will be at the table. Depending on how the talks unfold, there may or may not be a further step of a shareholder resolution, which is an increasingly effective tool for addressing corporate policies and practices regarding environmental, social, and governance concerns.

Adidas is just one of 83 companies implicated in utilizing Uighur forced labor, and the Uighur situation is one of many across the globe. Our engagement with Adidas is part of a broader effort focused on the apparel industry and human rights. According to the Walk Free Foundation, the clothing industry ranks second only to technology in the amount of money it directs toward modern slavery.

While human rights are a Pension Boards emphasis in our corporate social responsibility work, we clearly cannot engage in every instance of real or suspected corporate misconduct. In order to extend our reach, we work with other faith- and values-based investors such as our partners in the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR). The ICCR coalition of over 300 institutional investors represents cumulative managed assets of over $500 billion, assets that are leveraged to catalyze justice-oriented change by many of the world’s largest and most powerful corporations. We will continue that work until “all God’s children got shoes.”

- Rev. Dr. James Moos, Executive Director, Faith and Finance Ministries