Lululemon is working hard to get in on the ever-expanding—and ever-marketable—sustainable fashion game. But they’re playing it all wrong.
In the fall of 2020, a consortium of four fashion powerhouses—Lululemon, Adidas, Kering, and Stella McCartney—revealed they’d been granted exclusive access to biotechnology company Bolt Thread’s innovative vegan leather, Mylo. The material is made from mycelium, the root-like structure of mushrooms. Sustainable apparel and accessories were on the way.
Fast forward to February 2022, and Lululemon’s fungi-based debut was ready to be swooped up into the online shopping carts of the fashionable masses. The vegan leather was featured in two limited-edition bags: The 2-in-1 Meditation and Yoga Mat Bag and the Barrel Duffle Bag. But while the bags make use of the sustainable vegan leather, the problem is that Lululemon hasn’t made Mylo a permanent fixture in its material rolodex.
As the number-one athleisure brand, Lululemon generated about $4.4 billion in net revenue in 2020, according to market research firm Statista. Not only is the company backing out of what could have been an incredibly impactful collaboration, but it’s also not doing its part to mitigate the environmental impact of the thousands upon thousands of items it generates—which are largely made with non-biodegradable materials like polyester, nylon, and spandex.
In order for Lululemon to make good on its promise of joining the ranks of truly planet-friendly fashion brands, it must transform its business model entirely—using sustainable fabrics, not just in a few one-off items, but in all of its products.
Sustainable revamp or marketing scheme?
Lululemon isn’t the first brand to partake in a little greenwashing. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, there’s been a 71 percent surge in Internet searches for sustainable items in the past five years. Fashion and beauty brands know that consumer trends translate into sales, and they are scurrying to appease consumers’ growing demand for eco-friendly products.
Case in point: Chanel’s new not-so-eco-friendly-eco beauty line, N°1 de Chanel. The packaging was more sustainable than its previous products, sure. But its use of red camellia extract promotes an over-reliance on the natural world. Then there’s Louis Vuitton’s new luxury sneakers. Their most sustainable kicks yet, the shoes are made with recycled rubber, corn bioplastic, and regenerated nylon. That’s great, but what about all the textile waste the brand generates?
And lest we forget Garnier’s new No Rinse Conditioner, which comes sealed in a cardboard-integrated tube. Per the company, the conditioner saves 100 liters of water per tube and boasts a 92 percent smaller carbon footprint than its wash-out counterparts. Again, round of applause. But what about Garnier’s other chemical-laden, water-intensive products that come housed in plastic bottles? Even Adidas, a leader in making truly sustainable upgrades to its products—such as low-carbon running shoes and kicks made from ocean plastic—seems to be missing the point: sustainability and mass production are at odds.
To be fair, Lululemon’s website does boast plans for upping its sustainability metrics (LIVEKINDLY reached out to the brand to elaborate on its sustainability metrics and is awaiting a response). For example, they’re innovating more sustainable materials, creating circularity, and using less water. By 2025, the company aims to use 75 percent of sustainable materials in its products and reduce freshwater use by 50 percent.
In the spring of 2021, the company launched a pilot trade-in and resale program called Like New “to accelerate progress towards a circular ecosystem by 2025.” Customers can trade in gently used Lululemon apparel in exchange for a gift card. The company reinvests 100 percent of resold items’ profits to in-house sustainability initiatives.
Last year, the company somemade headway on its goal of producing more sustainable materials. It announced the launch of its plant-based, Bio-nylon leggings, made in partnership with San Diego-based biotechnology company Genomatica. But while the leggings could (heavy emphasis on the word “could”…) help cut nylon-related emissions by 90 percent (conventional nylon is made from crude oil-derived plastic)—they don’t biodegrade.
“We’re actively exploring other sustainable materials, including natural, biodegradable ones,” the company’s CEO, Calvin McDonald, said at the time. “But our partnership with Genomatica comes out of the realization that we can’t really afford to wait. We need to make these immediate improvements while simultaneously working on next-generation materials.”
But waiting is exactly what Lululemon is doing. The company, which has been around since 1998, has had more than enough time to wholly lessen its environmental impact. If its goal is to be kinder to the planet, why not implement real changes now? Why continue to use original fabrics like Luon—which are made from the likes of polyester, nylon, and spandex, all synthetic materials that are non-biodegradable? In lieu of these, the company could use materials that are actually sustainable, such as Mylo, which is readily available, so why are they skimping out on using them?
Lululemon: Go green… like, for real
A number of brands are already making terrific strides in terms of sustainable fashion. As the leading athleisure brand, it’s about time Lululemon joined the club.
Seattle-based Girlfriend Collective is one such company that puts the planet over profit. The activewear brand emphasizes sustainability and minimal production. The company garnered a Good On You’s best environmental rating, “Great,” for using recycled materials, reusing fabric scraps to minimize textile waste, and reducing water waste. (Good on You is a third-party evaluator of ethical and sustainable fashion. A source for brand ratings, it ranks fashion brands on a scale from 1 (We Avoid) to 5 (Great). To put this into context, Lululemon scored a 2 (Not good enough).
Girlfriend Collective’s list of eco-friendly materials includes recycled polyester, fishing nets, and plastic. (Its best-selling pair of leggings is made from 25 recycled water bottles.) The company’s Regirlfriend program recycles most of its old pieces to turn them into new clothes. It also uses 100 percent recycled and recyclable packaging.
The list of truly sustainable athleisure brands—which Lululemon could and should be taking notes from—continues. Founded in 1991, People Tree (which sports a “Great” Good On You rating) uses sustainable materials like organic cotton and Tencel, a material made from wood pulp, as well as non-toxic dyes. If Lululemon wants to be truly sustainable it must move away from unsustainable materials like nylon and polyester entirely, opting for recycled and/or eco-friendly materials instead—and not at a later date. Now.
Of course, sustainable fashion isn’t about one specific product or one specific brand. It’s a collective effort—solutions that must be applied across the entire fashion industry, from sourcing and production to sales and marketing. Similar to its consortium with Adidas, Kering, and McCartney, Lululemon would benefit from partnering with brands like Girlfriend Collective, People Tree, and the like. Instead of hoarding their sustainability secrets, brands could collaborate and share their proprietary knowledge on best plant-based friendly practices and fair working conditions.
The truth is, Lululemon won’t be sustainable until it changes its business model. It must reduce the amount it produces and transition to using sustainable materials across all of its collections, not just a few one-off products.
The views expressed in opinion pieces are those of the author(s) and do not represent the policy or position of LIVEKINDLY.