Yoga, Lululemon, and the Common Good: Is a New Paradigm Possible?Posted on May 1, 2014 in Blog
If you had told me a few weeks ago that I’d soon be spending a weekend in NYC as a panelist at a Yoga Journal conference event along with Seane Corn and the CEO of Lululemon (among others), I’d have laughed and said you were crazy. And if you had nonetheless insisted on going on and telling me that not only would I be part of this event, but that doing it would radically reorient my feelings toward Lululemon – a company that I’ve long had a visceral aversion to – I’d have felt worried.
Why? Because the first thing that jumps to mind in such a scenario is a simple equation: Struggling yoga writer + unexpected corporate support = co-optation. And I’ve poured far too much of my mind, heart, and soul (not to mention, family finances) into my yoga madness to want to entertain that possibility. (Rationally, however, I remain well aware of the power of that basic formula, and that it happens all the time.)
Nonetheless, I want to take ownership of the fact that participating in the “Practice of Leadership” panel last Saturday has left me with a much more positive feeling toward Lululemon than I would have ever expected. And I’m OK with that. I’m willing to change my views as circumstances alter. And it seems to me that both Lululemon and the larger North American yoga culture that it’s a part of are changing – fast.
Times of rapid change create new openings. Could interested members of the yoga community step up to work proactively with the new possibilities being generated? Might this time offer an opportunity to (among other things) dialog with Lululemon about how best to shift the collective energies generated by yoga and yoga-based businesses in more socially conscious, positive directions?
I don’t know. But I think it’s worth a try. And from what I understand, the leadership of Off the Mat, Into the World, which organized the “Practice of Leadership” event, shares this perspective. If we want to leverage such a paradigm shift, however, we need all the support we can get. That means that if you care about how yoga interfaces with the world of which we’re a part, we need you (if you’re interested).
Cynics and skeptics may well ask: How the hell can a corporation known for lionizing Ayn Rand, defending child labor, and fat-shaming women possibly contribute anything worthwhile to yoga, let alone positive social change? Certainly, something like this would have been the first question to pop into my mind until quite recently, when I started researching the company more thoroughly in preparation for the panel.
Now, however, I’d say that while this is a legitimate question, it’s based on incomplete information. Because what I discovered in prepping for the panel is that such an uncompromisingly hostile orientation toward the company is unfair. Which is not to say that it’s entirely wrong, or that the many of the criticisms that have been made of Lululemon aren’t warranted. They are. Rather, it’s to acknowledge that the entirety of the situation is (as is often the case) more complex and multi-dimensional than any such simplistic all-bad (or, for that matter, all-good) assessments allow.
I like to research issues that I’m interested in. This is not only my personality, but what I’ve been trained in and practiced professionally for many years. So, when I was (much to my shock) invited to be on this panel to discuss “corporate responsibility and spiritual values” with Lululemon execs and others, I started doing research to prepare.
My research progressed on several fronts: 1) studying the company website, 2) reading relevant news and blog coverage, 3) upping my knowledge of labor and environmental issues in the international apparel industry, and 4) last but not least, reaching out to a number of yoga teachers and studio owners I know personally who’ve been (and in some cases, remain) involved with Lululemon as Ambassadors or studio partners.
What I learned was extremely interesting – and, for me, paradigm shifting.
In a nutshell, I found that while research strategies #1-3 tended to reinforce my negative perceptions of the company, the personal feedback provided by #4 did not. Instead, I found myself in the rather uncomfortable position of receiving some passionate testimonials about how great a company Lulu is – at least on the local level – from people who I not only like, but hold in high esteem for their intelligence, hard work, and commitment to contributing meaningfully to both the yoga community and the world.
For example, one woman who I have the highest regard for shared the following feelings about squaring her personal experience with Lululemon with its recent corporate fiascos:
I haven’t spoken publicly about it because my experiences are mostly personal. But I have experienced the people who work at Lululemon to be extremely, almost over-the-top supportive, and with no personal or corporate gain. No other company or organization (including yoga studios), in my experience, goes out of their way to make a personal connection with the community (in and out of their store), to create community experiences that people remember (whether that’s large yoga events, a weekly free fitness experience, or just making a personal connection at the store and genuinely caring about a person).
Their culture is very unique. The comments that are associated with the founder – I don’t know that that’s the common mindset throughout the company. At least it’s not the mindset that I’ve gotten, and have just chosen to ignore it because it’s inconsistent with my experience . . . I realize that there is a bigger corporate culture and corporate system, but I would say that my experience at the local level is uniquely and extraordinarily positive.
I have the ultimate respect for the way that they support their staff and team members to set and reach goals in their lives. What other kind of community, whether professional, religious, or social does that? I think the people who I’ve known who work there get farther in their lives than some yoga teachers due to this support system. I’ve never walked into a situation where people I’ve just met have been so generous to help with a project or networking, or taking on your particular project as if it’s their own as they have at Lululemon. And that is what I associate with the company and the brand.
In a personal conversation I had with someone on the regional level, it sounds like they’re not too happy when they hear those comments from their CEO. They worked very hard to create their quality of culture, which is what I personally have experienced and associate with the brand. When I hear people boycotting the brand, I take a stand too, and support my local Lululemon stores knowing that I support the jobs of these individuals.
To be sure, not every response I received was so passionately pro-Lulu. But none were strongly negative, either. One woman, for example, was alienated by the company’s mandatory “goal setting” exercises, and felt that they couldn’t understand – let alone respect – why she refused to participate. Nonetheless, she had none of the vitriol against the company evidenced by many others who’ve commented on it publicly. In all cases, having personal dealings with the company at the local level dramatically tempered whatever negative feelings were held toward its corporate policies and/or the controversial statements made by founder and ex-CEO Chip Wilson.
While hardly a scientific survey, the consistent line that threaded through the various personal reflections on the company I collected was that there were a lot of really kind, well intentioned, and supportive people working in their local Lululemon store. No one was happy with Wilson’s offensive comments. One woman said that they made her feel “ashamed” to be an Ambassador. Most, however, reported that much as they disliked the messages coming out of HQ, they chose to ignore them because they were so incongruent with their exceptionally positive experience with the company on the local level.
I try to listen to other people’s experiences and take them seriously, even – and in some cases, especially – when they’re incongruent with mine. In this case, the fact that I had previously had no personal experience whatsoever with Lululemon other than reading about it and walking into some random store a few times (I don’t own any of their clothing) made me feel that it was particularly important to listen carefully to the perspectives of others who have been directly involved. Doing so changed my perspective on the company, causing me to believe that there was a surprising disjuncture between what has been happening on the ground with many (perhaps most?) local stores, and what we’ve seen coming out of national headquarters.
My perspective shifted further as I had the (entirely unexpected) opportunity to talk with several company executives, both as a part of the panel and in one case, over coffee in Chicago. I had expected “the corporate brass” to be arrogant, smug in their taken-for-granted social position, and disdainful of all but the most elite sectors of the yoga community. My experience, however, proved this negative projection wrong. Much like my friends who had had positive experiences with store employees at the local level, I’ve found the Lulu execs that I’ve interacted with to be unpretentious, respectful, intelligent, likeable, and good listeners. In short, my gut level sense is that I like these people.
I think it’s worth noting that many people who share my own left-of-center political orientation tend to unreflectively dehumanize (and therefore demonize) many, if not most individuals who work in the corporate sector as stooges of a monolithically evil system of global capitalism. Without digressing into a dissertation on 21st century political economy, I’ll just say that in this case, I believe such projections are not only unwarranted, but unproductive.
Lululemon has an exceptionally good base of local level operations to build on. They have new leadership at headquarters, including a CEO known for his commitment to corporate responsibility. They are willing to dialog with interested voices in the yoga community, including outspoken progressives such as Seane Corn. So, why shouldn’t those of us who care about social issues try and work with them to shift the company – and the larger yoga culture that it’s part of – in a more consistently positive direction?
Personally, I feel like this is an opportune moment to explore the possibility of win/win/win scenarios that might be good for both Lululemon, the yoga community, and the world.
To skeptics and cynics, this will undoubtedly sound like deluded idealism at best. That’s OK. Bring on your critical commentary and incisive questions. (Just be civil about it.) We need such perspectives to keep any potential initiative from falling into meaningless rhetoric and/or PR fluff.
To staunch loyalists who love the brand and can’t understand why so many people have problems with it – do your own research, and reconsider. To those who simply want to focus on their own practice and aren’t interested in related social issues – that’s OK, maybe later.
But for those who are curious about what concrete steps might be taken to leverage some potential win/win/win paradigm shifts, I have a few suggestions. Obviously, I’m not a business consultant, so they may be full of holes I don’t see. That’s one reason why we need a growing conversation – to get more, and perhaps better ideas on the table.
Another reason is that even if nothing remotely like what I envision ever transpires at Lululemon, simply getting the yoga community more engaged with questions of corporate – not to mention, consumer and civic – responsibility will be a tremendously positive change, in and of itself. After all, if and when a solid level of interest in these issues is generated, if Lululemon proves impossible to work with, we can move on to greener pastures.
Here a few paradigm shifts that (best case scenario) I can realistically imagine happening within the next five years:
1) Transforming the “Yoga Body.” The dominant cultural understanding of the “yoga body” could shift from that of a young, thin, beautiful, bendy white woman to one that includes a diverse array of ages, body types, genders, races, and ethnicities – all united by a shared experience of working with the body/mind through asana to discover new resources for healing, transformation, and liberation. In the process, the default orientation of yoga newbies could shift from one of inadequacy (“I’m too fat/old/inflexible/etc. to do yoga”) to one of open possibility (“What’s special about yoga is that it adapts to work with every body.”)
Lululemon (along with other corporations, studios, and even individual yoga teachers) could leverage this change by strategically selecting the images used to represent yoga so that they’re as inclusive as possible. At the same time, they/we could chose to work with photographers and designers who are skilled at crafting images of yoga that illuminate the inner experience of the practice. Shifting the “inspirational” element of yoga photography away from its current fixation on gymnastic-style advanced asanas and toward the practice’s ability to revitalize the life force within would make it appear much more accessible and meaningful. Given that successfully doing this would actually widen the market for yoga, it’s not an unreasonable commitment to make from a business perspective. And, having more people feel less intimated by (or even excluded from) yoga would be good for the yoga community, and the world.
2) Improving Labor and Environmental Standards in Yoga-Related Industries. This would be a far tougher shift than changing the public image of yoga. In my opinion, however, it’s a substantially more important one to make. Why? Because it has the potential to positively impact the lives of untold numbers of people who don’t share the social privileges of the average North American yoga practitioner. If we care about being socially conscious, then the circle of our concern needs to widen to include those outside of our own particular communities, and even nations.
These are complex issues and would require a separate post of their own to even begin to unpack adequately. That said, imagine a scenario in which yoga clothing manufacture becomes known as a sector of the apparel industry that’s leading the way in terms of progressive labor and environmental practices. This would give “yogic values” some relevant cultural meaning in an age of global corporate capitalism.
What would encourage companies like Lululemon to invest in upping their game in this notoriously difficult to navigate arena? That’s easy: Demand from their customer base. “We” can’t ask “them” to do the hard work required for no reason other than their own socially responsible values – because even if top execs hold them, they’re still responsible to company shareholders. In order for the company to invest more resources in improving labor and environmental standards, shareholders need to see that the yoga community cares about how the clothes we practice in are manufactured – and that we’re paying attention to what different companies are doing. The more that this happens, the more there will be compelling business reasons to orient the company’s branding, reputation, and investments in such socially responsible directions.
3) Integrating Personal Growth and Professional Development with Social Awareness. The yoga community is heavily into “personal growth,” and from what I know, Lululemon shares this orientation so much that it’s part of their professional development program. The most notorious element of this commitment is, of course, the company’s investment in sending employees who’ve been with the company a year to Landmark Forum. Bracketing all of the (in my mind, well deserved) controversy surrounding Landmark, I think it’s safe to say that this type of training is one that focuses very much on the individual and personal, and very little, if at all, in the social, cultural, political, and economic realms.
Yet if a company (or an individual) wants to become more socially responsible, it stands to reason that they actually have to know something about the society of which they’re a part. And in today’s highly complex and rapidly changing world, this requires education and training. What if programs designed to explore yoga’s social position, and real and potential relevance in our society (and the world) became an optional component of Lululemon’s professional development training? For example, employees might be given the option to do their one-year company training either at Landmark, OTM, or the Leading Change Network. This could have incredible ripple effects not only throughout the company, but the yoga community and, by extension, society at large.
4) Connecting Local Community Building to the Yoga Service Movement. As noted above, Lululemon’s exceptional strength as a company (beyond their product line) seems to be their track record in creating a strong sense of community centered around their local stores. While I don’t know the details, my understanding is that each store has considerable discretion in terms of envisioning what that looks like and how best to pursue it. While this sort of decentralization is great in many ways, it doesn’t generate a shared vision or strategy when it comes to supporting positive work in the world that goes beyond the immediate task of helping the company’s chosen Ambassadors and studio partners.
What if local store managers were regularly briefed on important developments in the rapidly expanding world of yoga service and outreach (i.e., bringing yoga to nontraditional setting such as community health clinics, low-income schools, prisons, V.A. hospitals, mental health centers, etc.)? And, what if they were given concrete strategies for reaching out to local yoga teachers engaged in this work, in order to better support and connect them to other parts of the local community?
Such a paradigm shift wouldn’t require significant corporate restructuring or reallocation of resources. Rather, it would simply require working with what’s already in place more deliberately and strategically. This could be a “win” for the company in terms of branding, morale, and corporate culture. It could also be a “win” for the local yoga community by integrating its “mainstream” and “service” components, which almost certainly have much to offer each other. And, most importantly, it could be a “win” for the larger community, which, at least in most places in the U.S., will include many people who would love to access yoga’s healing capacities, but lack the means to attend classes.
While these ideas are ambitious, I don’t believe they’re unrealistic or out of reach. That said, realizing them (or anything similar) demands collaboration and synergy, with the yoga community and yoga-based businesses working together to leverage change. While this is a good time to focus on Lululemon, there’s no reason that the conversation needs to stop there. Rather, the initiative launched by the “Practice of Leadership” event can and should be an opportunity to spark an ongoing dialog about how best to realize the potential of yoga to be a powerful force for healing, justice, and liberation in our troubled and divided world.
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