Why Roger Federer Finds His Brand in the Crossfire

Image of On Cloud running shoes
June 20, 2024

Investigative journalists of the Swiss National Radio and Television service just released a detailed critical review of the sustainability practices of On Running, a Swiss sportswear and shoe brand. The media report describes a range of inconsistencies in the brand’s environmental sustainability claims and its conduct relating to footwear factories in Vietnam.

These allegations should be of concern to the Swiss government. On Running is the official sponsor of the Swiss Olympic team, and the new report is neither helpful for Switzerland’s reputation nor is it in line with the expectations expressed in the Swiss National Action Plan for Business and Human Rights.

The news also should be of concern to Switzerland’s most popular citizen: retired tennis star Roger Federer, who serves as brand ambassador of On Running and a shareholder of the company.

Media exposés have targeted celebrities for sustainability failures in the past. In 1996, Kathie Lee Gifford, an American television personality, was confronted with child labor and sweatshop conditions in factories that produced her clothing line. Gifford had been unaware of these conditions and at first denied the allegations. In the face of mounting evidence, she eventually committed to getting involved with addressing the serious labor issues.

The Gifford scandal led then-U.S. President Bill Clinton to put together a White House task force consisting of industry representatives, civil society, and U.S. universities that had started campaigning against sweatshop labor being exploited to produce branded university goods. Together they were asked to figure out how to stop the “race to the bottom” in the global apparel supply chain. The result of these conversations was the formation of the Apparel Industry Partnership, which in 1999 became the Fair Labor Association (FLA), a multi-stakeholder initiative (MSI) with the mission to protect global labor rights.

Today the FLA is a strong MSI that includes more than 40 of the most advanced global apparel, footwear and agriculture brands. The FLA standard and its system of evaluation and verification is among the most rigorous corporate accountability systems in the world. By way of disclosure, I worked for the Fair Labor Association 20 years ago and Michael Posner, the Director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, is currently the FLA’s chair of the board of directors.

The FLA offers a way forward for Federer and On Running. The legendary athlete and the Swiss government should ask the company to remedy its alleged labor issues and to join the FLA to ensure that such problems do not occur again.

In a recent commencement speech at Dartmouth College, Federer said that given his status as a retired tennis star, he could relate to students who now still need to figure out what to do with their lives. Given the media revelations about On Running’s business conduct, one could say that he now has his future work cut out for him. The on-court excellence and ethical sportsmanship he once brought to tennis form an admirable foundation for him to steer On Running in the right direction. The Swiss government would certainly be his ally. Switzerland actively supports a range of MSIs in different industries with the aim of advancing responsible business conduct by Swiss companies. A national hero like Federer — actually, he is admired the world over — is the perfect person to lead this new campaign.


See all