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Behind the Label: The Ideologies Behind The Lululemon Manifesto

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This is the latest installment of Behind the Label, a weekly column on corporate social responsibility and greenwashing on EcoSalon.

Very few people can argue with the feel-good affirmations printed on the Lululemon Manifesto. There are practical directives ("Drink fresh water and as much water as you can"); important reminders ("What we do to the Earth we do to ourselves"); feel-good quotes ("Do one thing a day that scares you"); and inspirational action statements ("This is not your practice life. This is all there is"). Loyal customers of the yoga-inspired apparel company carry reusable tote bags printed with the manifesto, hang the recognizable red-hued posters on their walls, and spread the message across pretty much every social media channel there is.

The Lululemon Manifesto is a veritable viral sensation. But what do the words indicate about Lululemon Athletica and the ideologies underlying its operations? The answer is slightly more complicated than "Dance, sing, floss and travel."

Lululemon Athletica was founded in 1998 by Dennis "Chip" Wilson, a husky Canadian businessman who had previously produced snowboarding and ski apparel. According to Lululemon lore, Wilson was exhilarated after taking his first commercial yoga class, and he spotted an opportunity to tap into the growing market of upper middle class female yogis. In 2000, Wilson opened the first Lululemon store in the beachside Kitsilano neighborhood of Vancouver.

The Good

According to Wilson, the company's initial vision was to be a "community hub to provide our guests with knowledge, tools and the components for people to live longer, healthier and more fun lives." But after realizing that this vision could not scale, Lululemon refocused its efforts on staff development, particularly in the areas of goal setting and personal responsibility. The company's vision then shifted to "elevating the world from mediocrity to greatness."

What does that mean, exactly? According to Wilson,

Mediocrity can be defined in many ways. To paint you a picture, mediocrity is doing an "okay job," having a relationship that "works," being just "a little" overweight, or having a job that "pays the bills." Mediocrity is putting up with things the way they are with no firm plan to change the situation by a specific date. Mediocrity is following a predetermined and unfulfilling path. Most people live in a state of mediocrity. Mediocrity is as close to the bottom as it is the top.

In contrast,

Greatness is demanding the best of everything and doing what is required to get it. Greatness is demanding friends who demand the best, demanding the best wife or husband and the best job with the best pay. Greatness is demanding the company you work for to make the best products and be uncompromising in its promise to its customers. Greatness is demanding the best out of one's self.

It's certainly a positive message, one that has resonated with Lululemon fans around the world. The Lululemon Manifesto, which translates the mediocrity-to-greatness concept into a series of inspirational sayings, has served to connect these values of action, wellness, and personal responsibility with the company's pricy line of yoga-inspired athletic wear. By purchasing a $98 pair of sweatpants, customers aren't just purchasing a new piece of apparel. They are buying into a lifestyle and a set of values.

The formula has been wildly successful. Lululemon has built up a loyal community of devotees, and it has hundreds of locations around the world. Despite the recession, annual revenue continues to grow, and earlier this year the company was added to Goldman Sach's list of top stock picks.

The Bad

The words of the Lululemon Manifesto are viewed as inspiring and uplifting.

"Effectiveness is predicated by replacing the words 'wish,' 'should' and 'try' with 'I will.'"

"Nature wants us to be mediocre because we have a greater chance to survive and reproduce. Mediocrity is as close to the bottom as it is to the top, and will give you a lousy life."

"Have you woken up two days in a row uninspired? Change your life!"

But in absorbing these messages, history nerds (hi!) may discern traces of Herbert Hoover's "rugged individualism" - the Republican concept that man is self-sufficient and does not require assistance in tough times (like, say, the Great Depression... we all know how that turned out). They may also observe strains of social Darwinism - the "survival of the fittest" ideology that was used to explain away historical events like colonialism, slavery, and even the Holocaust. Contemporary readers may hear echoes of Mitt Romney's now infamous "47 percent" blunder, in which he chastised people who "refuse to take personal responsibility" because they rely on government programs.

Perhaps most obvious, though, are notions from Ayn Rand's classic 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged, in which the author lays out the tenets of Objectivism, a philosophy stating that man's "pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life." Rand's "Shrugged," and Objectivism have recently been adopted by the Republican Tea Party movement to propel forth its right-wing, anti-Socialist agenda. Needless to say, the messages are a far cry from the liberal ideals that many in the yoga community embrace.

What does all of this have to do with sports bras again?

Well, it's the very same ideologies that underlie the Tea Party movement that form the foundation of Lululemon's mission. According to the Lululemon blog, founder Chip Wilson first read Atlas Shrugged when he was 18 years old, and the book heavily influenced his "quest to elevate the world from mediocrity to greatness" - a quest that later became Lululemon's company vision. Last year, the company printed thousands of reusable tote bags with the words "Who is John Galt?" - a famous line from the book - and distributed them in stores.

Our bags are visual reminders for ourselves to live a life we love and conquer the epidemic of mediocrity. We all have a John Galt inside of us, cheering us on. How are we going to live lives we love?

This emphasis on Rand's ideologies, particularly the "virtue of selfishness," goes a long way to explain some of the highly questionable actions that Lululemon has taken over the past several years.

Take, for instance, the time that Chip Wilson told a conference of North American business owners that "third world children should be allowed to work in factories because it provides them with much-needed wages."

"I look at it the same way the WTO does it, and that is that the single easiest way to spread wealth around the world is to have poor countries pull themselves out of poverty," Wilson told The Tyee, a Canadian publication.

Lululemon has also been criticized for its "survival of the fittest" hiring policies, which tend to favor competitive, type A personalities.

"When we first started, we hired nothing but yogis," Wilson told Fast Company in 2009. "But it didn't work because they were too slow. So we started hiring runners who like yoga. They're more on the ball, more type A."

In that article, Fast Company described Lululemon as a "cult of selling," informed by "a heady self-actualizing cocktail from equal parts Landmark Forum (seminars based on the philosophy of Werner Erhard), the books of motivational business guru Brian Tracy, and Oprah-endorsed best seller The Secret, by Rhonda Byrn."

The result may be positive for sales, if revenue growth is any indication, but it may also be dangerous, as a highly publicized murder case hinted last year. In that case, Lululemon employee Brittany Norwood brutally killed co-worker Jayna Murray after a conflict that reportedly involved a pair of stolen yoga pants. While there is no proof of Lululemon's involvement in the crime, Huffington Post columnist Stewart J. Lawrence questioned if the company's policies may have been a contributing factor.

Lululemon is no typical workplace, in fact. It's highly competitive - indeed, cultish - corporate culture has raised serious ethical concerns for years, and so have the company's exploitative marketing and advertising policies.

The Questionable

The instances highlighted above constitute only a sampling of Lululemon's missteps. Manipulative marketing techniques? Check. Racist "marketing strategies"? Uh-huh. Blatant greenwashing? Naturally. Drug-related secret messages hidden on shopping bags? Yup, even that.

Lululemon has been hailed by the New York Times for its successful promotion of "conceptual consumption" - the notion that "what we buy is not simply some thing but some idea that is embodied by that thing." On the surface, the ideas that Lululemon promote appear to be positive: drink fresh water, avoid chemical cleaners, get the right amount of sunshine, floss.

But it's impossible to ignore the controversial, right-wing ideologies under these messages, and the ethically irresponsible practices of the company behind them. If I'm going to spend $68 on a sports bra, my money is better spent with a company that authentically embodies the values it promotes.


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Read more Behind the Label here.