When it comes to branded yoga gear, I’m a late adopter. For 10 years I practised Iyengar in the yoga equivalent of a crusty old boxing ring. No frills, just a few fun ropes hanging from the walls, and a teacher who had about as much truck with ‘yoga fashion’ as she did with us exiting Shoulderstand before 10 minutes were up.
But my first Power Yoga class was a revelation. Endorphins! Poses were held for mere seconds, as opposed to hours! But I was also struck by something else: these strong, lithe bodies all bore a strange mark. As the Gazelle-like teacher guided us to ‘be in our own bodies’, I realised it was on every student in the room. Rows of pert buttocks were stamped with the fluoro white symbol; a cross between the Om sign and an upside horseshoe. The symbol was small, discreet, yet somehow very, very loud. Was it a cult?
“Return to the breath,” said the Gazelle. Bugger the breath, I wanted to know if she too bore the stamp. Indeed, it was there on the headband restraining her flowing locks. It shone from the back of her top, a complicated series of straps and holsters, and even her legwarmers displayed it, sewn into the outer seam for maximum visibility. If I want to be a serious yogi, I realised, I need to fuel my practise with the right kind of clothing.
Inside a Lululemon store
BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 26: Lululemon Athletica (Photo by Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe via Getty Images) Photo: Boston Globe
My intention was sealed when I got my first corporate yoga class as a teacher. Fuelled by what my friend and fellow yoga teacher Jacqui calls the “hippy teacher complex” (“Unless you look uber-straight, corporates will think you’re some unapproachable yogi out to convert them to mung beans and tree-hugging”), I headed straight to a Lululemon store.
I picked out a pair of leggings and gasped at the price; $140. “How do yoga teachers afford it?” I asked Jacqui, who has her own studio. “We don’t,” she smiled, “They sent us all a box of free clothes when we opened.”
My partner declared me mad for paying that much for a pair of tights when I got home. But I argued that unlike the sweatshop knock-offs, my new tights were probably hand sewn by a well-paid Canadian with access to health care, and free green smoothies at the Lululemon canteen. It was the perfect comeback – had the tag not said “Made in Bangladesh”. “They must mean the other Bangladesh,” he said. “The one with green smoothies, and factories that don’t crumble.”
I looked at my new clothes. The colours were so pretty. The logo so prominent. But my niggling conscience overruled vanity. The factory in Bangladesh that collapsed wasn’t one of theirs, but human rights activists were calling for companies to not only talk ‘transparency’, but to actually be transparent enough to publish their factories’ addresses so they could be independently verified. I emailed Lululemon and asked them if they’d be willing to do it. It couldn’t hurt; they’d probably even send me a box of free clothing for bringing it to their attention. They already have ‘Brand Ambassadors', so maybe I could be their ‘Transparency Ambassador’!
They replied promptly and at length. Over 350 words detailing their unwavering commitment to ethical business practices. Commitment was comforting. As was the knowledge that they supply their Bangladeshi "global business partners" with "practical tips for managing compliance labour, social and environmental issues". Practical tips are great, I know I love them. ‘Drink more water’, for example, is a good tip. ‘Don’t take shortcuts when building your factory’, is another. Not to mention: ‘If you see cracks in the wall, evacuate!’ and ‘If workers evacuate of their own accord due to safety fears, do not force to re-enter building!’. Lululemon’s global business partners could print these tips off and stick them next to their computers, along with their uplifting company slogan. (‘Do one thing a day that SCARES YOU!’ and ‘Dance, Sing, Floss and Travel!’) But sadly, I'll never know if these 'tips' were implemented because , way down at the bottom of Lululemon's email was a refusal to publish the address of their supplier.
So why continue to wear their clothes? Because they’re good! They allow you to move freely in poses, their tops don’t bunch up around your shoulders in downward dog, or ride up your belly. Their magic pants could make every buttock in the world – be they flat, skinny, big or round – appear preternaturally perky. (Although I quickly realised why my magic pants were on sale. Let’s just say they were revealing enough in the ‘crotchal region’ to have one arrested for indecent exposure.)
So please, Lululemon, please heed my call. I love your hi-tech design. Your colour palette is lovely. And while there’s nothing wrong with marketing and promotion, for a Yoga-related business, wouldn’t it make sense to practise what you preach?
So here are a few ‘practical tips’ from yoga’s very own ‘brand values’: the Yamas and Niyamas. Satya is one. It means ‘truthfulness’ – about where your factories are so they can be independently verified. Aparigraha is another. It means ‘Non-hoarding’. You already sponsor events that give maximum exposure of your brand to your target market. Right on. But can we call that ‘advertising’ rather than Corporate Social Responsibility’? And finally Santosha, gratitude. I know your founder thinks child labour isn’t all that bad, but how about a little giving back? I don’t know - what is the profit margin on manufacturing something for 50 cents in a Bangladeshi factory, then selling it for $140? Is it enough to sponsor programs that promote health and wellbeing to the kind of girls who will never be able to pay $140 for a pair of tights? You know … the kind of girls who make them?
Alice Williams is an author and yoga teacher. She tutors in media writing at the University of Melbourne, she is totally not open to bribery or being sent free things. @Alicewillalice. Alice-williams.com