Since its inception in 1998, Lululemon Athletica has stretched its breadth of influence from just yoga apparel to all corners of the fitness and wellness world. They pride themselves on the community their stores have created through their ambassador programs, in-store and online classes, and the unflappable devotion of their clientele.
With their root-chakra in yoga apparel, the brand has more than 500 stores in 17 countries. Worth more than 40 billion USD, the Vancouver-based and world-dominating source of leggings is only growing with no signs of slowing down.
“Be Human, Be well, Be planet” is the mantra of Lululemon’s 2020 Impact Agenda. A short and sweet one-stop shop for their 2020 FY sustainability, corporate ethics, and diversity/inclusion report, it is full of all the talking points a company needs to signal that they are making changes to be a more inclusive and environmentally conscious company. But how are they actually doing?
Human Rights 4/5
“We share our strategy against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, a global climate crisis, and systemic inequities in our society. The world is calling on us all to learn, act, and do better for future generations. In formulating our Impact Agenda, we started with a simple and challenging question: How might we create and accelerate meaningful, positive change?” Lululemon CEO, Calvin Macdonald
Positive change starts at the beginning. And those at the starting line are the garment workers of the global supply chains.
The fashion industry is chalked full of racial inequality where huge profits are made on the backs of garment workers in the global south. According to Labour Behind the Label, out of 74 million textile workers worldwide, 80% are women of colour. Racial inequity and cultural appropriation in movement and mindfulness fashion brands are no different when it comes to the rampant co-opting and profitization by western brands on eastern philosophies like yoga and mindfulness; philosophies rooted in the very countries where their apparel is manufactured by garment workers for meagre pay and in documented abusive conditions. No where in the Bhagavad Gita’s teachings on mindfulness are stretchy pants mentioned.
In 2020, female workers in a Bangladesh factory that made leggings for Lululemon claimed that they were routinely beaten and physically assaulted at work. The workers provided detailed accounts of how they were called demeaning and derogatory names and forced to meet unreasonable overtime targets. These workers were also paid less than 9,100 taka a month –about $130– which is roughly the retail price of a pair of Lululemon leggings.
Once word got out, Lululemon did take swift action and cancelled all orders from this factory and “launched an investigation.” But no mention was made as to where the investigation led to, whether reparations were paid to the abused workers, or if action was taken to prevent this factory from continuing to subjugate future works to further abuse.
According to Lululemon they have achieved a Fair Labor Association (FLA) accreditation, and hope to make “empowerment programs” available to more than 100,000 makers across their supply chain by 2025. There isn’t much information about what happens in these programs besides that they will vaguely involve human rights education, women in leadership, and practices for resilience and wellbeing.
In one actionable move towards systemic change, Lululemon implemented a Foreign Migrant Worker Standard in Taiwan. From the program: “It outlines our expectations with respect to foreign migrant workers, including a commitment to ensuring that workers will no longer pay hiring fees, a long-standing practice in the garment industry. Initially, we rolled out the standard in Taiwan and engaged with our vendors to understand and raise awareness of ethical recruitment and some of the unique challenges faced by foreign migrant workers. Together we created a two-year program that included collective dialogue and problem solving and the development of tools necessary to effectively implement “no fees'' road maps. By the end of the program, our Taiwanese vendors had eliminated worker-paid fees, with the exception of one that is still working on implementation. This benefitted approximately 2,700 foreign migrant workers.” Based on the lessons learned from the program, the company is seeking to expand the Worker Standard to other manufacturing regions outside of Taiwan. Transparency and accountability are key, and although this program sounds great, it is important to explore the necessity for third party watch dogs as neutral arbitrators outside of Lululemon’s to ensure that the workers continue to see their rights respected throughout the process and into the future.
Environmental Care 2/5
Environmental Innovation 2/5
Lululemon has earned some pretty dismal scores when it comes to sustainability. 2/5 for environmental care? Yikes.
Lululemon’s goal is to shift to 75 percent sustainable materials in all of their products by 2025 and to move towards manufacturing 100 percent of their products from sustainable materials. They also plan to improve their end-of-use solutions for their products by launching a circular system by 2030.
So what does all that mean? “End-of-use” is the end of the road for the life of fabric. This could be whether it is recycled, reused, donated to charity where only 10-20 percent of it is donated locally, repurposed into other materials where less than 1% of the material used to make clothing is recycled into new garments, or more often than not, dumped in a landfill –North America alone sends 10 million tonnes of clothing to the landfills each year.
Nowhere in their Impact report does Lululemon define what their current end of use cycle is or how they plan to improve the process.
By 2025, Lululemon hopes to be using at least 75 percent sustainable materials for their products. “Sustainable materials” typically includes those that are recycled, renewable, and regenerative, and hopefully ones that are socially responsible and made using less resources. Given the nature of athletic apparel, most of Lululemon’s products are made of spandex and polyester - fabrics made using plastics and other synthetics. And although synthetic clothes can be recycled, they are the main pollutants of micro-plastics making up 35 percent of the total release found in the world’s oceans. This isn’t just an issue at the end-of-life for synthetic clothing but throughout their entire lifespan. Every time we wash our favourite workout wear, micro-plastics are released into the water and end up in the world’s oceans. A 2015 study published in Nature, found that not only are micro-plastics from the washing-cycle of synthetic clothing one of the main sources of plastic pollution in our oceans, but that they are also present in the digestive tracts of fish and shellfish sold for human consumption.
Another of the company’s targets is to source 100% renewable electricity to power their shops and facilities by 2021–no word if they are on track to meet this goal– and to reduce carbon emissions across their global supply chain by 60 percent to meet the Science-Based Targets by 2030. Nothing revolutionary here as this is the general target set by most corporations. While these goals are admirable, their implementation requires accountability and transparency within all segments of the supply chain to make long-term changes and impacts.
To speed this process up, Lululemon plans to focus on virtual power purchase agreements for clean energy in North America, and internationally with renewable energy credits (RECs). But if you read our spotlight on Aritzia you’ll remember that this is basically a game of cups where energy as currency is shuffled around to make a company appear “greener” than it is. There is no oversight process required to keep the use of RECs accountable. Once they are bought and sold, the credit itself can be traced, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is going directly to fund a renewable power source. Once electricity is used, it gets dumped in the electrical grid, is mixed in with all the other electricity, and is technically no longer “clean.” So much for that.
Lululemon’s low environmental scores are based on the fact that all of these goals are just projections for the future with little account of where the company currently stands. Lululemon can make claims of mindfulness, wholeness, and wellness for people and the planet, and as informed consumers, it is up to us to hold Lululemon accountable to turn these goals into actions.
Corporate Ethics 4/5
Job Quality 4/5
From their Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Action (IDEA) mission, they hope to “disrupt inequity in wellbeing through movement, mindfulness, and activism” by listening to the demands of their least represented employees and community members. But representation matters. Marginalized folks are all too familiar with corporations signally virtuous changes with an oversimplified rhetoric of corporate inclusivity.
No one can deny that the yoga and wellness world is deeply privileged and primarily occupied by thin, white, and able-bodied individuals, and that diversity and inclusion in this industry needs a huge shake-up. According to the founder Chip Wilson, the brand’s ideal customer is "a 32-year-old professional single woman named Ocean who makes $100,000 a year." Ocean is also "engaged, has her own condo, is traveling, fashionable, and has an hour and a half to work out a day," Wilson told NYT. Lululemon is trying it’s hardest to shake this image since Wilson left the company, but is it just an intent for change or can Lululemon move past it’s white-washed image and make real systemic changes?
In an example of woke capitalism at its finest, Lululemon got rightfully roasted on Twitter for a workshop called, “Decolonizing gender” organized by one of it’s ambassadors and promoted by Lululemon on the company’s Instagram account. The workshop included the ironic theme of “resisting capitalism,” a concept that in and of itself is a radically important conversation, but when presented through the platform of a multinational corporation was radically tone-deaf.
When it comes to addressing the overarching lack of diversity in the company, Lululemon plans to aim for 40 percent racially diverse representation within their employees and an increase to 30 percent racially diverse representation of their directors and assistant store managers by 2023.
This comes after a very recent Business Insider report where Lululemon employees admitted to feeling pressured to push for an “All Lives Matter Campaign” after the death of George Floyd. According to the report, in what employees claimed to be “one of most disgusting moments” at the company a Lululemon director initially refused to accept a “Black Lives Matter” campaign and instead had their team draft up a milling “All Lives Matter” version instead. From the report: “After all of these Black employees, all these people of colour, said we cannot go forward with this and please don’t make us have to mock this up for you – and her saying we have to do it – it was a very traumatic experience.” The director ended up leaving the company and apologized to the employees involved.
They do get points for addressing their gender pay gap and the aim for full pay equity by 2022. This rightfully should be a priority as female-identifying employees represent 78 percent of the sales team, 75 percent of the workers in the supply chain, 50 percent of their board of directors, and 60 percent of the senior leadership.
So what can we do with this information? As consumers, we need to look at fashion and how we approach it, as a tool for social change and to give stake to the impact our purchases have on the people and the planet. We need to recognize that the elitism of sustainability is part of the wellness world and that brands like Lululemon are very good at leveraging the narrative of ethical consumerism instead of the understanding that becoming greener and cleaner is in buying less, not more.