By Erdene Batzorig
For many Vancouverites, lululemon is not only synonymous with yoga itself, it’s part of the city’s uniform. Walk down any street and you’re bound to come across someone sporting a pair of lululemon’s high-waisted yoga pants or a crop-top tank, or maybe they’ve got that post hot yoga glow going accompanied by flowy, loose layers. In short, lululemon rules the streets of Vancouver.
But I’m here to share an uncomfortable truth: your favorite pair of lululemon yoga pants were probably made with coal.
No, I’m not talking about the fabric. (We’ll need to save the conversation about clothes made from synthetic fibers, a.k.a. “fracked fashion”, for another time.) What I’m talking about is how yoga pants are made—in factories located around the world, but largely centered in major fashion-producing countries like Cambodia, Bangladesh, and Vietnam, that still rely on coal to power their factories.
You wouldn’t know from their sculpted branding campaigns or flashy sustainability marketing jargon, but lululemon, like most fashion brands, has struggled to implement sustainability initiatives—like breaking up with coal and other fossil fuels, which is essential for tackling our global climate crisis—and certainly not at the speed and scale that is urgently needed.
While other sectors like tech are helping countries build solar farms to support the energy demands of data centres and electronics manufacturing, many fashion brands including lululemon, have unfortunately doubled down on false climate solutions that do nothing to address the actual problem: the fact that their factories are powered by coal.
Firsthand experience with coal pollution
I know firsthand the price of living with coal pollution, and how its silent toxicity affects millions of children and families. I was born in Mongolia and raised there until age 11. Winters in Mongolia are extremely cold, and coal was the main source of heat and power for the majority of the city where I grew up.
Waking up to soot covered black windows was a normal experience we would joke about with friends and family. Blue skies during wintertime were a rare sight, and we spent the colder months in an apocalyptic, monotone vibe of thick air pollution. (Think “Winter is Coming” from Game of Thrones).
Lung diseases like tuberculosis and laryngitis were so common, the hospitals were constantly overwhelmed, and I personally spent long periods in the hospital because of recurring sinus problems. It was not fun to spend nights in the hospital alone, but it was better than non stop coughing fits.
My lived experience is why, when I hear of million dollar companies like Lululemon still relying on coal to power their supply chains and not being transparent about it, it makes me sad. But it also pushes me to urge them to do better.
Fashion industry's emissions rising
While governments around the world scramble for solutions to reduce their climate pollution, emissions from fashion brands are rising, and they’re actually making the problem worse. The fashion sector already contributes about five percent of the world’s climate pollution (more than the aviation and shipping sectors combined). With massive growth planned in the post-COVID economy, an unchecked expansion of the sector means fashion brands could contribute up to 25 percent of the world’s emissions by 2030.
How did the fashion industry get to this point? For decades, countries like Vietnam and China have relied on coal to power the plants supplying electricity that powers the factories making clothes for companies like lululemon. While many parts the U.S. and the European Union are steadily phasing out their toxic coal power plants, many major fashion-producing countries are actually considering increasing the number of coal plants throughout the next decade.
This increase is in large part due to the increasing demands on these countries’ energy grids, which comes from factories that support fashion brands that are constantly producing more and more clothes. All of this is happening at a time when the world desperately needs the exact opposite: a wind-down of coal plants and a collaborative, comprehensive push by businesses and governments alike to promote solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources.
Living up to Vancouver's green image
Lululemon is a Vancouver favourite, and I know what I’m saying doesn’t come easy. The company deserves to be recognized for the strides it has taken on sustainability. It's a member of several global initiatives, but even the UN fashion charter’s recommendations don’t go nearly far enough to meet the scale and pace at which fashion brands should reduce their emissions.
Last month, lululemon launched a resale and take-back program in an effort to inch closer towards circularity. This is a good step to disrupt the problematic “take, make, dispose” culture in the fashion industry. But if lululemon is truly serious about sustainability, it needs to stop ignoring the elephant in its wardrobe.
Unfortunately, lululemon’s current climate commitments just don’t cut it. They won’t cut emissions fast enough to actually tackle the climate crisis, and they also rely on false climate solutions like intensity-emissions reductions (a.k.a. reducing the amount of energy it takes to produce a single piece of clothing...while massively increasing the amount of clothing produced every year) and renewable energy credits (a.k.a. paying someone else to build renewables while continuing to rely on coal).
Don’t get me wrong—I count many of my friends among lululemon’s ride-or-die fans. And I know they all share the core values that the yoga movement promotes: a universal consciousness, a shared ethos to love and protect all beings. So how can a company like lululemon continue to make its clothing in factories that produce so much air pollution it is literally poisoning people?
As Vancouver pursues its lofty goal of becoming one of the world’s greenest cities, it seems to me that companies headquartered here should strive to live up to those values, too. Lululemon’s customers love #TheSweatLife slogan, but the saying takes on a different tone if you consider how the company’s sustainability policies are actually partly to blame for contributing to the climate pollution that is cooking our planet. It’s not so fun to be sweaty then, eh?