So last Saturday, the highly anticipated conversation with lululemon executivess, bloggers, ambassadors, and activists went down at the Yoga Journal conference in NYC. Presented by yoga service organization, Off The Mat Into the World, lululemon and Yoga Journal LIVE, the conversation involved some high profile noisemakers in the yoga community, including Seane Corn and Hala Khouri, lefty blogger Carol Horton, and former ambassador/rabble rouser Alanna Kaivalya, among others.
IAYB couldn’t squeeze in a trip to NYC for the convo, so I followed the action on Twitter via #yogaisbiggerthanpants and read YogaDork’s excellent recap. But all week I’ve been waiting for Carol Horton, panel participant and vocal critic of lulemon, to post about her thoughts on the event. A long, meaty, thought-provoking blog post finally popped up on my social media feeds this morning, and it was well worth the wait.
Carol started off by expressing her surprise that the event was even happening, and that she had been invited to be part of it. Even more surprising, however, is that she came out of the panel with a changed perspective on Lululemon as a company.
… 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).
It appears that the shift was partly inspired by the conversation itself, and partly informed by her pre-conversation research work. As you’d expect from any former academic and blogger, Carol thoroughly studied the company’s website, read relevant news and blog coverage, and upped her knowledge of labour and environmental issues in the international apparel industry. But as she notes, she gained paradigm-shifting insight from talking to present and current brand ambassadors, and hearing how lululemon supports teachers at a local level. She discovered that there is a massive gap between the corporate culture of lululemon and the employees who carry out the work on the ground.
Carol closed her post by listing how the paradigm can shift in grand ways over the next five years, and articulating her hope to see “the yoga community and yoga-based businesses working together to leverage change.” Her reflection on the event prompted an immediate response from blogger J. Brown:
I do fear that you may have been successfully snowed by people who are much better trained at such things then we are. Don’t get me wrong, I am sure that all the people you spoke to were totally earnest and great people who said what they really felt. And your suggestions, while interesting and helpful even if you are being subtly manipulated some, are the exact PR that they were looking for in organizing the event at YJ Conference. Truth is, things rarely happen from the bottom up in large corporations and we have little reason to think they will start now.
I can’t see what Lulu is doing as anything other than a PR repair campaign. As much as it would be nice to think that they actually intend to a beacon of change in the corporate world, the fact is that they’re still arranged in the traditional corporate manner, and are at the ultimate demand of their shareholders’ wishes. Being embedded within a global system that is, by design, about squeezing profits out of anything and everything in the world, these companies talk big, but never deliver precisely because they refuse to actually change how they are organized in the world. Using capitalist structures to transform capitalist created social problems isn’t gonna happen. The main reason Lulu was there, in my view, was to use you all as market research, so they can change just enough of what they’re doing to keep folks happy. To be honest, the very fact that the North American yoga community puts so much attention and energy towards a corporation, either to defend it or to get it to act more yogic, says volumes.
Ooof. Admittedly, IAYB devotes a lot of time watching and commenting on lululemon. I actually do think it’s important to monitor and engage with them because they carry considerable klout within the yoga community. As Carol noted, they do support teacher’s careers, often giving emerging teachers visibility and connections in the community, in addition to thousands of dollars worth of clothes (I actually find their support of teachers a little unnerving, more about that later). In this sense, the corporation has a hand in defining the direction of yoga both as a profession and cultural phenomenon, whether we like it or not.
As well, Lululemon has become synonymous with yoga, has turned the practice into a social status/fashion statement, and their advertising imagery reinforces ideals of the “yoga body.” Some think that with this presence comes some level of responsibility. As panelist Natalia Mehlman Petrzela notes in her HuffPo recap, “…because lululemon and yoga culture have become so intertwined, the company has an ethical obligation to wield this influence responsibly.” In contract to Carol’s gushing and hopeful blog post, Petrzela warns us about commending lululemon too much for simply showing up to this conversation – what really matters is if and how they change their policies.
There was a lot of thanking Lululemon for taking the hot seat, and they certainly took a risk engaging publicly with their critics. Yet it is the company’s tremendous power that enabled this scenario: a packed room of yoga luminaries and interested citizens devoting time and energy to help Lululemon brainstorm how it might save itself and win us back. The thanks will be due if (and I hope when) Potdevin and his team treat seriously this moment as the beginning of a deeper conversation that culminates in large-scale, concrete action dedicated to expanding access to the wellness culture Lululemon has paradoxically both helped create and to which it constrains access.
The good news is this conversation is just the first in a series that will be held at upcoming 2014 Yoga Journal conferences, covering several themes that have emerged in lululemon’s publicity and the dialogue/criticism surrounding the company. Before we get too caught up in assessing the success (or lack thereof) of this conversation, we have to remember that it’s the beginning of a process, and that ultimately, change takes time.
Nevertheless, it’s exciting to watch unfold. If you’d like to see how things evolve, sign up for the Practice of Leadership list to receive news and be a part of this ongoing conversation.
Featured image via YogaDork.