There's been a lot of talk amongst the online yoga blogging community about a recent panel discussion with the new leadership of the multinational yoga apparel corporation Lululemon. I've always seen Lululemon's prominence in the North American yoga world as a clear sign of how heavily capitalism has impacted yoga here. The fact that so many "yoga people" identify with this single company in some manner or another, says volumes, as does the reality that whatever moves the company has made in recent years attract copious amounts of attention from yoga practitioners (positive or critical) in ways that no other specific organization does.
One of the panelists, Carol Horton, wrote this response piece, in which she offered 4 possible reform directions the new leadership of Lululemon could take to become a more socially responsible corporation. And by extension, it seems to me, one that represents "yogic values" in the North American yoga community and beyond. Carol was one of the editors of 21st Century Yoga, a volume I wrote an essay for, and was happy to be a part of - and thankful for Carol and co-editor Roseanne Harvey's vision and work to make it a reality.
This particular post by Carol, though, with it's positivity about Lululemon's choice to participate in a discussion and also the possible solutions offered, just didn't sit well with me. In my first response, I wrote the following:
Carol, 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.
As far as your 4 visions, my gut sense is that I’d rather see corporations die off than become even more enmeshed as the hubs of our social action and activities. Take #4 for instance. Would a large corporation like Lulu be willing to support community efforts without needing to promote their brand, or use those efforts to market how “great” they are in the community? In other words, how likely is it that a sponsored yoga program in a lower income neighborhood, for example, would be string free, or mostly string free? Would they be willing to forgo the “look at us helping the poor people photos” and the piles of data collecting to “demonstrate” to the world how much “good” we’re doing? I’ve worked in non-profit settings on the other end of sponsored programs (corporate and foundation), and more often than not, there are so many strings attached that not only significantly limit what can happen on the ground, but also require that groups with limited financial means must hire people specifically to tackle all the busywork called for to help with maintaining the donor’s public image. At the end of the day, it’s less about truly giving, than being seen as “a giver” who “cares.” The only real way to change that dynamic is for these companies to do the work without any expectation of “being seen,” or being able to market or brand in any shape or form.
In response to several comments by different authors, including mine, Carol responded with this:
One thing that people need to think about is whether they care at all about the differences in how some corporations are run versus others. For example, does it matter to you that Costco is known for its relatively good labor practices, whereas Walmart is not? You can say it doesn’t matter because until the whole system is transformed, it’s all no good. But in the meantime, there are a lot of workers who care very much if they have a more or less decent wage, working conditions, etc.
Closer to the Lululemon issue, consider the difference between Patagonia and Lululemon when it comes to environmental and labor issues. Just from what’s available online, I’d say that Patagonia is far ahead. If consumer pressure could move Lululemon up to the point where Patagonia is, I would consider that quite worthwhile to support. Again, it’s not transforming neoliberalism etc., but, who among us has the power to do that? So there are some very pragmatic issues to consider here.
It seems like political views in the yoga community (at least as it shows up online) fall into three camps: 1) leftists who are very theoretical and dismissive of practical everyday issues as insufficient to effect enough change to matter, 2) libertarians who don’t believe in policies , regulation, labor standards etc. because individual choice and market forces are all that needed and legitimate, and 3) the vast majority who are deeply apolitical and don’t have the slightest interest in any of these issues. So the level of engagement that this Lululemon stuff demands falls through the cracks. There are just not a lot of people who want to engage with these questions in this community. Which is somewhat disappointing, but also understandable in many ways.
In closing, I’ll just add that from being involved in the development of the NY YJ conference event, it seems clear that it was an Off the Mat-driven development and that it was not engineered by Lululemon’s PR department. In fact, I was VERY surprised that they agreed to it. And, I think that it was a really good event if for no other reason than it set a precedent for being able to bring up issues such as the relationship between yoga advertising, body image, and identity, and the social location of yoga in our highly unequal society in a way that’s never been done before. So, I am appreciative of the fact that the company supported that – and that they’re willing to do more. It’s hard for me to see what’s really in it for them, and still think they may want to pull out of the future events.
Now, I think her 3 categories are fairly representative of the broader North American yoga world. Although she left out a forth one, which it seems to me might be the one that best fits where she's at right now. Here's what I'll offer in response.
First off, this post - partly a reply to yours - offers some of the reasons I'm skeptical of all this reform work around Lulu. In particular, consider these lines:
"I am concerned that Lululemon might be looking for their own marketing technique of “commodity activism” using OTM and the face of Corn to sell products to a yoga community, but might simultaneously be exploiting or marginalizing groups globally all under the comodification of social justice and community outreach, branding Lululemon as the apparel of “yoga activists.” Horton suggests that we all do our research on Lululemon and make up our own minds about their practices. What I found is that over 70% of the manufacturing of Lululemon is made in developing countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam – a large percentage of the workers being women and children, and Lulu is netting $340 million (2012) in annual revenue off the backs of women, children, and predominantly poor people of color. So, let’s say Lulu begins using more people of color in their marketing to attempt to make yoga look inclusive. On the surface, like the Nike commercial, one could argue that this is a good thing. But, there is too much of a hypocrisy for me if those same products being modeled by North American women are being manufactured through the exploitation of people of color in the global south. Even more dangerous, what if Lulu takes the suggestion offered by Horton in her 4th point, that their already existing ambassador and community outreach programs take more specific steps to work in communities that are at-risk or don’t have access to mainstream yoga studios? It would seem contradictory to me to have Lulu ambassadors in the global north going into at-risk communities teaching yoga (which also reminds me of some very dangerous versions of paternalistic volunteerism) when impoverished and exploited workers in the global south are working every day in dangerous conditions to make the clothes these teachers would likely be wearing."
Far, far too often what happens when corporations become involved in social justice issues is that they reinforce the dominant narratives, even when some people gain some material benefits. And in particular, Dr. Kauer's points about First World benefits at the expense of the Global South are very sobering, and also difficult to address under current corporate structures.
My main point is not to outright reject any effort to make corporate reforms like some of the things Costco has done. In fact, I readily support your first two reform points ("yoga body image" and labor/environmental standards). What I'm speaking to, though, is to recognize that even what they do is woefully incomplete, and that one of the targets people in the yoga world who really care about this is needs to be at the structures of corporations themselves. And be willing to include and uphold big picture, systemic change visions, even if they seem completely out of reach in out lifetimes.
We need to stop being naive enough to believe that a simple change in leadership in a multinational in the current system is going to bring about drastic transformation. Even if the new CEO really desires to make Lulu a truly beneficial social change agent, the very structures of corporations and our economic system as a whole place severe limits on that possibility. We also need to recognize that giving up the dreams of justice in favor of solely taking whatever table scraps the elite offers is really just a road to misery. Because the elite of tomorrow will still have the power to take away whatever the elite of today give the rest of us. Witness all the social programs and buffers that have been stripped away in the U.S. over the past 3 decades, with a similar pattern slowly unfolding in Canada under the Harper Administration.
The radical visions need to be part of the active effort picture, even when short term gains are being pushed for and made.
Since you've offered a 3 prong split description of the yoga community, I'll offer a two pronged one of the left activist world.
The first group are those who nearly always opt for the practical, doable, achievable, even if they know in their heart of hearts that sometimes this means betraying their deepest desires and intentions. Anyone who supports the Democratic Party on a regular basis falls into this category, but I've also witnessed this behavior amongst more radical leftists who reject the Dems, but will only involve themselves in issue campaigns with specific, short term goals and aims.
The second group are those who reject most or all reform efforts, and are only focused on long term, grand scale systemic change efforts. They'll join efforts to pressure specific politicians or corporations on specific issues, but for the most part, they view the current system as oppressive and non-redemptive. Some are also involved in creating "new society" on a small scale in their communities, while others are mostly battling against the current systems.
Now, I tend to fall into the second group, but I think this split needs to be bridged. Because as it is, we spend far too much time fighting each other and dismissing each others' frameworks as completely wrongheaded. When the reality is that we need both practical, achievable goals, and also radical, long term systemic change work. And the thinking and visioning around all of it needs to be much deeper, and much more daring and intelligent.
I'll be honest. I'm highly skeptical that a community like the North American yoga community (as it mostly stands) will make any major effort in the near term to move beyond essentially cheering on minor corporate and political reforms. Why do I say this? Because the the majority of "our" community are direct beneficiaries of neoliberalism and the colonialist mindset that created it. Which is why most can afford to be apolitical or loosely political (like voting during elections). And amongst those who are more politically active, the lure of pushing solely for reform-based outcomes is far too seductive. Because doing anything more would mean risking the social position and privilege they currently enjoy.
Notice how when significant efforts to enforce Native treaty rights and overturn settler-colonial patterns occur, for example, how the majority of "allies" suddenly become opponents. They'll support charity programs, education programs, affirmative action programs, etc., so long as none of it directly impacts their privileged status in any shape or form. Even something as simple as changing a racist sports team mascot name becomes a heated battleground uniting liberals and conservatives across the racial spectrum in an effort to keep their team's "traditions" alive.
Along those lines, it's fairly easy to see a company like Lulu making some reforms either as a result of direct pressure from yoga folks, and/or as a public relations campaign, and that will be that. Yoga folks will applaud their efforts, elevate them as a corporate beacon, and the bulk of the activism around the company will disappear. With those who seek to continue with more systemic efforts being dismissed or publicly shamed. It's already far too common to find the "don't be a downer, Lululemon is awesome" kind of responses amongst yoga folks.
Since this is already a long post, I'll end it here. I invite your comments and considerations.
*Photo of collapsed Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh, in which over 1100 workers died, and over 2500 others were injured. Several prominent North American appear companies had clothing manufactured in this sweatshop. While Lululemon was not one of them, some of their products are manufactured by workers under similar conditions in Bangladesh.