September 3, 2013

Branding the ‘Yoga Lifestyle’.

Lululemon’s Chokehold on a Peaceful Life

Like everything else, when it comes to branded yoga gear, I’m a late adopter. For 10 years I practiced 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 realized 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?

“Notice your inner dialogue, let go of judgement,” said the Gazelle. Nice try.

I looked down at my own garb; Target bike shorts, no-name brand singlet. Suddenly my outfit seemed strikingly pedestrian. I remembered something my mother told me as a kid. People like red cars because they think they go faster,” she insisted. Maybe if I buy some of those clothes I, too, will leap with agility, mused my internal dialogue.

“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 leg-warmers displayed it, sewn into the outer seam for maximum visibility. If I want to be a serious yogi, I realized, I need to fuel my practice with the right kind of clothing.

My intention was sealed when I got my first corporate yoga class as a teacher. I’ve taught yoga to environmentalists, college kids and gym bunnies. I’ve taught my sister after a sibling-rivalry flare up (ill-advised, never again), and even a cousin with pot-withdrawal anxiety. He desperately wanted a joint but settled for Viparita Karani, and emerged sleepy-eyed and calm. It was a proud moment in my teaching career.

But teaching corporate yoga to a room full of bankers? Terrifying.

“Let me guess,” said my friend Jacqui. “You want to go and buy yourself a whole lot of yoga clothes from Lululemon.”

How did she know?

“It’s called hippy teacher complex,” she said. “You think unless you look uber-straight, corporates will think you’re some unapproachable yogi out to convert them to mung beans and tree-hugging.” Indeed, the first thing my stoner cousin said when I started teaching, was “I bet you’re gonna be one of those teachers who’s all ‘Get in touch with your heart chakra’.” He somehow made ‘heart chakra’ sound like ‘purple shoulder fairy.’

How could I appear approachable, without fueling fears of purple fairy cult conversion? I went straight to the MacDonald’s of yoga clothes; the brand that said ‘known quantity’, without saying ‘scary hippy.’ The brand that said ‘tidy yogi,’ not messy.

Jacqui took me to the Lululemon warehouse. I picked out a pair of leggings and gasped at the price; $140. “How do yoga teachers afford it?” “We don’t,” smiled Jacqui, who has her own studio. “They sent us all a box of free clothes when we opened.” I’d read about Lululemon’s Brand Ambassadors; ‘unique individuals who embody the Lululemon lifestyle and live our culture.’

“I‘m a unique individual. I want free clothes too!” I whined as Jacqui gently steered me toward the bargain rack. The sales person packed my choices (a bargain basement pair of $80 tights and a halter top that meant business) into an inspirational bag that read ‘Do one thing a day that scares you!’ and ‘Dance, Sing, Floss and Travel!’

“Women are mad,” said my partner when I got home. “They’re just tights.”

“Yeah?” I said. “Well my Target tights were probably made in some Bangladeshi factory for 50 cents an hour.”

A garment factory in Bangladesh had recently collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people.

These ones were probably hand sewn by a well-paid Canadian with access to health care, and free green smoothies at the Lululemon canteen.”

My partner pulled out the tag from the inseam.

Made in Bangladesh,” he read. “They must mean the other Bangladesh, the one with green smoothies, and factories that don’t crumble.”

I scanned Lululemon’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) page on their website. There was a lot of information about their philosophy and beliefs, but curiously little about specific campaigns. Something about being a walking endorsement didn’t sit well, so I polled my yoga teaching friends. The consensus seemed to be: 1) Their outfits are pretty, 2) Few wore them when teaching.

“We’re in a position of influence. If I’m providing free advertising for their product I want to know if their brand values sit with my personal values” they claimed. Others questioned whether they reinforced the idea that you had to look a certain way to do yoga. “I teach a beginner class where students already think they’re ‘not flexible enough to do yoga.’ I don’t want them to then feel that special clothes will make them a ‘real yogi.’ ”

Red cars, after all, don’t really go faster.

I looked at my new clothes. The colors 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. I could be a 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. ‘If you see cracks in the wall, evacuate!’ and ‘If workers evacuate of own accord due to safety fears, do not force to re-enter building!’ are also good tips, much needed in Bangladesh.

Lululemon’s global business partners could print these tips off and stick them next to their computers, along with other tips like ‘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.

During teacher training we’d been advised on appropriate clothing. “Never show too much boob,” said one teacher. “And if you try and cut the Lululemon labels off your clothes, you’ll end up with holes.” I looked at the massive hole I’d cut in the back of my singlet and wished I’d listened. My studio owner friend Jacqui told me how she’d had to photoshop the label out of her yoga DVD covers.

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, giving everyone an eyeful of your navel.  Their magic pants could make every buttock in the world—be they flat, skinny, big or round—appear preternaturally perky. (Although I quickly realized 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. Camel toe notwithstanding, I can move freely without fear of wardrobe malfunction. Your colour palette is lovely. But couldn’t you take a leaf out of my grandmother’s book, who said ‘good breeding doesn’t need to advertise?’ We’ll still buy your clothes, we just won’t feel like corporate shills when we wear them.

My friend Claire, yoga teacher and marketing consultant, says no. “They’ll never stop putting their logo on their clothes, that’s marketing sense and I’d do it too. What they need to explore is whether they’re still living their brand values after such enormous growth. It’s become a super-brand after all.”

So, Lululemon, if you can’t be discreet, at least help us be proud to be your inadvertent brand ambassadors when we wear you. After all, doesn’t 600 percent profit growth in seven years make you think you could, you know, go large in your corporate social responsibility?

I asked Claire how she would advise them if they were a client. “I’d advise them to revisit yoga’s ethical precepts. There’s nothing wrong with marketing and promotion, but for any yoga-related business, we need to take a different approach to that of a regular high street store. If we’re not, aren’t we’re just capitalizing on the Yoga ‘hype’ and losing its real essence and beauty? Your brand values should filter throughout an organization. It’s the brand manager’s job to say, are “we living and breathing our values?”

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 labor 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 well-being to the kind of girls who will never be able to pay $130 for a pair of tights? You know … the kind of girls who make them?

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Assistant Ed: Andie Britton-Foster/Ed: Sara Crolick
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