This past Saturday, yogis, bloggers and Lululemon executives came together to talk leadership, social responsibility and major public f*ck ups (there are many) in front of a group of 100-ish select attendees at the Yoga Journal Conference in NYC. (We say select because we signed up over two weeks in advance and never heard a peep of admittance either way. No matter, we were there and this is how it went down).
Packed in a relatively small room (compared to the rest of the many Hilton ballrooms) the doors were closed, the room was on lockdown, the air was thick with pranic anticipation and curiosity. The topic of the hour, “The Practice of Leadership,” an ongoing series hosted by Off the Mat, Into the World. (The next session on body image is slated for the YJ Conference in San Diego.)
The event’s description read:
“In this session, we will take on the delicate balance of spiritual values and corporate responsibility featuring community leaders, social change activists and lululemon leadership. It will be an open and honest dialogue that gets at the heart of our practice, our role as conscious leaders and how to create community in conflict.”
With such a broad subject, discussion about social responsibility and corporate leadership sounded pretty valid, even promising. But that’s where things got a bit muddy. What was the real question? What answer was everyone looking for? Why was Lululemon even here? Were they going to be eaten alive? Do we care?
Sure, Lululemon folks were walking into a lion’s den, and Seane Corn repeatedly thanked them for being there “because they didn’t have to be,” as did a few others several times throughout the discussion. But, wait, it’s not like this scene was so foreign to them — Lululemon has been a major sponsor of the Yoga Journal conferences for years, after all — they were already very much there. In fact, the reason this whole thing started was because Lululemon approached Seane Corn to participate in a leadership training program they planned to hold at the YJ Conferences. (Those familiar with Lulu at conferences/festivals know that they like to hold lifestyle-y workshops for things like goal setting and leadership). Seane Corn, being the fiery freedom fighter she is, said hell no and, instead, invited them to come talk with the community about their leadership. Well, she actually said:
“I told them that I couldn’t be a part of a training program they were hosting, unless they themselves were willing to model true leadership, which includes ownership. Their lack of transparency and silence around the controversy in 2013 was irresponsible. I was pretty certain the conversation would end there. I was very surprised when instead, they demonstrated to me a true willingness to listen, and a desire to ‘make right.’”
So if any praise should be given here it shouldn’t be to the Lulu execs who managed to muster up their courage and “opened their minds” enough to want to stick their necks out (because, really, imagine if they didn’t show up?), it should, instead, be given to the organizers, Off the Mat, the panelists (many in the community who have led this ongoing conversation) and the people who cared enough to show up in the audience to listen and participate. We can say with certainty that there were no yogis crouched and ready to throw paint on the metaphorical fur wearers, Peta style. No, it seemed everyone attending was generally interested in what Lululemon had to say, and a discussion of what now? What next?
Before you read any further, let this question swirl through your cerebrums for a moment:
Do you feel Lululemon (a corporation) should be held responsible for upholding yogic values, diversity and inclusivity?
(See what your fellow yogis said at the bottom of the page.)
Because this was a 90-minute talk, we’ll give you the highlights.
First, let’s just say we’re pretty sure Seane Corn could lead a pack of popsicles into a hot vinyasa yoga class, she’s that vibrant and charismatic in her words and presence. No wonder Lululemon has been courting her. Corn began the discussion with an intro and explanation of her own issues with Lulu’s lack of transparency and inclusivity, and unfortunate marketing choices (ie. Ayn Rand). We have to love Seane because her intention is pure, her words motivational and her heart in the right place, even if her vision seems, at times, a bit too rose-colored idealist.
Transparency. Accountability. Leadership. Values. Four big words on the menu for the discussion. The talk started at 1:30pm. By the time everyone got through intros, it was already 30 minutes later. The real discussion started when OTM’s Hala Khouri took the mic and began asking questions, opening up the forum.
What’s happening internally around the questionable marketing tactics, the lack of options for curvier women, for communities of color? Is it really a conflict for you? What’s your process been as leaders and are you willing to take risks? Or are you limited by having to please investors?
Rachel Acheson, Lululemon’s VP of Brand & Community responded regarding marketing materials: “We acknowledge there’s work to be done there,” and said that by going global they will be able to grow and expand, racially as well.
Lulu CEO Laurent Potdevin echoed this sentiment when he said, they will “continue to reach for something bigger and better” and that “going global will be the catalyst.”
The catalyst for what exactly, is unclear. The Lulu team appeared interested in hearing about what everyone thought was wrong with the brand, but the interest really seemed more from a standpoint of how to best sell their yoga pants to ethnic communities around the world rather than how to reach out to the underserved and plus-sized yoga practitioner.
— But, again, they’re selling yoga pants, so why should they have to be anything otherwise? Oh, that’s right, because they try to be. —
Panelist Alanna Kaivalya (who’s been very vocal about her views) didn’t waste any time in pointing out how concerned she is that “people are being introduced to yoga through a corporation” whose top goal is to make money for shareholders, with the number one shareholder being one Chip Wilson. “We keep talking about values…what are these values? Based in Landmark Forum and Ayn Rand?” she asked. “My values are based in yoga. Ok with me if you stick with making clothes and let us do the yoga,” Kaivalya said.
(We’ll note here that nothing else was mentioned nor answered regarding the above questions around Landmark Forum, Ayn Rand or how Lululemon defines their “values” in relation to yoga.)
DIVERSITY AND INCLUSIVITY AND THE FACE OF YOGA
What will you do as a company to be more diverse and inclusive? Are you even interested in doing that? Does it matter?
Potdevin piped in to ask about diversity in the marketplace — “Who does that well? What does that look like?” — as if it was a good enough excuse that no other corporations are being socially responsible and investing in diversity so why blame them for doing the norm? He followed that up with, “Our products are not for everybody. What we do in community is for everybody.”
But panelist Natalia Mehlman Petrzela pointed out that the issue isn’t necessarily that the clothing isn’t available to everyone as a luxury brand, but that the rhetoric and marketing messages claim to be everything for everybody.
— Here’s where, if you’re wondering why we should care about what the hell Lululemon has to do with diversity and inclusivity in yoga, we can offer that it’s probably because they are one of the biggest influences on representation and the face of yoga. —
When the talk turned to diversity, panelist Leslie Booker (Yoga Activist), the only African American on the panel (and one of the maybe 6 or 7 other ethnic people in the room) shared how she always has to explain to people in her yoga classes that the practice isn’t just for one type of person, ie. the skinny, flexible, white woman. She pushed the concept of yoga’s image and demanded that there be some responsibility taken for the “face of yoga” representing what yoga looks like, by the biggest institutions like Lululemon, not forgetting to mention the most popular yoga publication in the country, Yoga Journal.
This is where the conversation took an interesting, dare we say progressive, shift.
Panelist Carol Horton (Think Body Electric) stepped in with her invaluable academic insight, offering that as much as it would be nice to separate yoga from consumerism/Lululemon it’s not that easy. She wondered aloud, as if to bring us all back down to the ground again, how we could create win/win strategies to do something good in the world with the help of mega-million companies like Lulu. She suggested that this talk wasn’t necessarily getting to the “deeper issue of socioeconomic equality,” and she asked us all to take a look beyond yoga pants, to our own communities and personal actions. “We have to be proactive, creative outside of corporate world in yoga service community,” Horton said. The room seemed to collectively nod in agreement.
As for the representation and “face” of yoga, Horton pointed out how important imagery is — “we are a visual culture” — but “could we convey the depth of the inner experience of yoga and make it more accessible? What if people in the corporation were trained about the world, how yoga fits within the world?”
Igniting one of those “Men in Black” zoom effects, Horton’s statements took the conversation from this cramped conference room full of “privileged” yogis to the much broader picture of service and accessibility. Not everyone can afford $90 yoga pants, but how can we leverage the popularity and veritable ubiquity of a brand for the purpose of good?
WHAT DO YOU STAND FOR?
Seane Corn: What does Lululemon, as a collective, stand for? What’s the energetic bottom line?
We’d like to say there was a clear answer here, but there wasn’t, which pretty much sums up where Lululemon stands at the moment, with a new CEO, a tattered public image and an unclear future. But they held their own, even if a lot of the questions were tip toped around and answers began with,”Let me just start by saying…” which is the classic redirect. But who can blame them? They’ve had a (relatively) shitty year, their marketing team can be found somewhere nosed between an Ayn Rand book and their own groove pants’d booties and the yoga world isn’t quite sure who their beloved lemons are anymore.
Perhaps the most memorable moment from the Lulu side came when Acheson admitted that as a company, “We lost some of our core values in the last year. We lost some of our quality and we lost our integrity.”
Potdevin was proud that Lululemon is “not 300 stores but one store 300 times,” adding that “authenticity and corporation are not mutually exclusive.”
Another favorite moment came when the floor opened up to questions from the audience. Stepping up to the mic was a lululemon shareholder – surprise! She mentioned how she’s not a customer because she’s “not the right size.” Ouch. But being invested in the company, literally, (and also a yogi?) she offered two points of advice: 1. Lululemon needs to take a look at how they define marketing and how they operate in the community, and 2. they need to think about the ambassador community and what areas are lacking attention.
Another audience member gave us all some good questions to ponder: What do we actually mean by “yoga community”? And inclusivity? Are we really benefitting that particular group of people?
Seane Corn ended the talk by saying it’s all just the beginning. She challenged Lululemon to be radical and to change the business model, to be sustainable and conscious and to be, well, a leader. She left us all with a call to challenge ourselves, to hold ourselves accountable.
All in all, it was too much to cover in too little time in a too small setting. Why not open it up to the larger community? Or host a Q&A online? Perhaps this is down the road, but perhaps we will have all moved on by then…to other companies who mirror and align with our individual values and ideals.
Some Qs for thought: Did Lululemon need to be part of this discussion? Could there have been just as much conversation or maybe even better conversation without them? Should we just forget about trying to rope them into our ideals of conscious consumerism? Or are they already too intertwined to ignore? Could they become a better force for good?
We asked this question of the hour on facebook and twitter Saturday afternoon: Do you feel Lululemon (a corporation) should be held responsible for upholding yogic values, diversity and inclusivity?
The majority of answers ranged from:
- Yes, they claim to be a “yoga” company, and if they really are, then they should be held accountable.
- Yes, they are too immersed in the culture and add to fears for people intimidated by trying yoga. They must take responsibility.
- No, they sell yoga pants, they’re a private business and no one is being forced to buy their products.
- No and Lululemon needs to step away from being a “yoga” company in general.
- It’s not lululemon, it’s the practitioners and customers. We have the power to choose.
- Who cares? I’m over it.
Please feel free to keep the dialogue going and share your opinion in the comments.
Post-panel remarks from Natalia Melhman Petrzela, who’s written about the “blame it on the ladies” Lulu pants problem:
“I was impressed lulu top brass was willing to engage (and publicly!) with those of us who have been so critical of them. However, I don’t think we were able to delve deep enough into the issues or truly dialog because there were too many panelists, too little time.”
Full list of panelists:
Seane Corn, Facilitator, Founder Off the Mat, Into the World
Hala Khouri, Facilitator, Founder Off the Mat, Into the World
Laurent Potdevin, CEO, lululemon athletica
Delaney Schweitzer, EVP, Retail Operations, lululemon athletica
Rachel Acheson, VP Brand & Community, lululemon athletica
Carol Horton, Blogger and Author of Yoga PhD
Alanna Kaivalya, Author of Myths of the Asanas and Sacred Sound
Leslie Booker, Yoga Activist
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Professor and Wellness Activist
Andrea Marcum, Founder of U Studio Yoga
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