The cult of Lululemon

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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.

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.

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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

99 comments

  • The markup from retailers is outrageous,Ned Kelly would be embarrassed by the profiteering from these supposed ethical businesses .I just asked my partner and they import from overseas.Costs would be USD $4.00 to $8.00 for a small run say min buy 1000 pieces FOB Dhaka.The absolute max costs for warehouse inventory would be AU $12.00.Sell price to shop $70.00, Shops sells it customer for $140.00
    Why do we buy from Australian retailers

    Commenter
    plain speaking
    Location
    Balmain
    Date and time
    July 03, 2013, 9:58AM
    • Great article and thanks for drawing this to our attention. Is there an email address for Lululemon so I can also write to them?

      Commenter
      JenniferK
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      July 03, 2013, 12:07PM
    • I think this is very ethical, don't they provide much needed employment to the poor?

      If your numbers are right then you are free to go into business yourself and make a fortune.

      Commenter
      Darryl Melbourne
      Date and time
      July 03, 2013, 12:43PM
    • JenniferK, did you try looking on their website? There's an email address at the bottom, under "Contact us". I mean, really.

      Commenter
      AK2
      Date and time
      July 03, 2013, 1:15PM
    • I don't, I love eBay.

      Commenter
      Johnny.
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      July 03, 2013, 1:20PM
    • @JenniferK let me google that for you... :)
      http://lmgtfy.com/

      Commenter
      Nic
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      July 03, 2013, 2:21PM
  • Great article. Will be fascinating to see whether positive changes come from this. It's crazy to think that cutting the profit by a dollar or two per item could make a radical difference to health and environment conditions at the point of production. Ethically oriented labels have a significant and untapped opportunity - think Fair Trade for Clothes.

    Commenter
    Rimski
    Location
    Mullumbimby
    Date and time
    July 03, 2013, 10:32AM
    • This is not the first time I've read about very sheer groin coverage in this brand of pants. I don't understand why anyone would spend $140 on yoga pants especially when you can see your undies and bits through them. Too much money and not enough sense...

      Commenter
      HotYoga
      Location
      BrisVegas
      Date and time
      July 03, 2013, 10:58AM
      • It's part of the cult ideology! Women's nether regions must always be accentuated in Lululemon land.

        Commenter
        Mellah
        Date and time
        July 03, 2013, 12:00PM
    • Or maybe pay more attention to your practice and your life and don't buy into the marketing cult of a brand. I've been doing yoga for years in all sorts of loose or stretch comfortable clothes, some worked better than others but considering the practice has been around for thousands of years longer than the current fabric technology I think we can all survive without it.

      Commenter
      Sherri
      Location
      Melbourn
      Date and time
      July 03, 2013, 11:02AM

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