It seems something in the spandex ain’t stretching to authentic diversity and inclusion at Lululemon. The activewear and lifestyle brand—which boasts over 500 storefronts and over $4.4 billion in 2020 revenue—was one of many companies to proclaim their support for Black lives in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder last year. But like many companies, the Vancouver, British Columbia-based brand struggles to keep that same energy in its culture and practices, according to corporate employees who spoke with Business Insider on the condition of anonymity.
From the outside, Lululemon exudes an aspirational lifestyle, with its high-tech activewear and brightly curated 500-plus retail stores designed to reflect the company’s core values of “personal responsibility, entrepreneurship, honesty, courage, connection, fun, and inclusion,” according to its website...But according to 12 current and former Lululemon corporate employees who spoke with Insider, the company’s image stands in stark contrast to their experiences behind the scenes at the company’s corporate offices.
Regular readers of The Root may remember the infamous “Bat Fried Rice” incident which beleaguered the brand just after the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a global pandemic in April 2020. To recap, the issue involved a post by a Lululemon art director who posted to Instagram a picture of a T-shirt featuring an illustration of a Chinese takeout box with bat wings and the words “No Thank You” on the back and right sleeve. That employee was fired as a result and has expressed regret for his insensitivity, but as Insider points out, it wasn’t the only incident of bias that affected the brand last year.
In the days following Floyd’s death, as the company rushed to craft a response to the tragedy and resulting cries for racial justice, an internal “task force” of designers and copywriters was assembled to revise the company’s website homepage. However, as reported to Insider, their intention to lead with “Black Lives Matter” was quickly kiboshed by a “high-level Lululemon manager” who demanded it be replaced with the phrase “All Lives Matter.”
The team of about 10 employees had spent hours mocking up a version of the homepage featuring “Black Lives Matter” as the headline.
That’s when they were interrupted by a manager, according to four former and current employees close to the matter.
These people said the manager, a director who they added had not been previously involved in the project, demanded that the group use new “approved copy.” Near the beginning of the proposed text, the phrase “all lives matter” appeared in capital letters.
“We are not writing Black Lives Matter. That’s not where we’re at,” the director told the group, according to two employees present in the room.
After significant debate, the employees — several of whom are Black, Indigenous, and people of color — agreed to create two designs to present to leadership: one with “all lives matter” and another with “Black Lives Matter.”
While “Black Lives Matter” was ultimately selected, an employee who was involved in the homepage project said they felt “triggered and traumatized” and described it as “one of the most disgusting moments” in their time at Lululemon.
“After all of these Black employees, all these people of color, said we cannot go forward with this and please don’t make us have to mock this up for you, and her saying we have to do it—it was a very traumatic experience,” the employee told Insider.
Ultimately, an Instagram post published by Lululemon on June 1, 2020 would include the caption:
Thank you for all of your thoughts as we continue this important conversation about the systemic inequity, racism and oppression faced by the Black community. Black lives matter.
Our words have power. And we know they are not enough. We need to take action. You’ll find our first three commitments above. And you’ll see more from us over the coming weeks and months.
We also know that our community cares about justice, equity, safety, and holds each other to the highest standards. We’re asking you to join us on this journey.
We’ve included some actions you can take. Please add to these lists. This is just the start of what we need to do.
Additionally, after several members of that team reported her, the aforementioned exec was compelled to issue a “tearful apology” via conference call to about 200 employees, many of whom were entirely uninvolved and unaffected by the incident. She left the company soon after.
That’s one example of one problematic executive, but as described to Insider, the issues run far deeper. Take, for instance, Lululemon’s innovation division, which goes by the name “White Space.” The name itself is intended to evoke “this ‘blank space,’ the white space of ideas,” as one exec stated. But when employees expressed discomfort with both the name and demographics of team and asked leadership to consider a name change—even adopting the more race-neutral “Lululemon Labs,” as one of the team’s subsections is named, they were met with opposition.
“We have a team called White Space, and there are no Black people on the team,” one former White Space employee said.
Another former White Space employee said that after the issue was initially raised, a senior leader on the team encouraged employees to reach out to have a one-on-one discussion. But the employee said his request to meet with the executive went unanswered.
“We brought it up, like, ‘Hey, it’s kind of offensive. We get what you meant by it, but dude, there’s literally white in the name and you guys are all white, so maybe reconsider, you know?’” the employee told Insider.
In place of the one-on-one, that exec held a forum and asked staffers to voice their concerns publicly—a format one employee said put “very sensitive racial issues” on display. By putting staffers on the spot, many were reluctant to speak up, despite their discomfort. As such, the name remains unchanged.
There were more incidents cited by Insider, but most telling might be its recollection of “the inspiration for Lululemon’s ideal customer” when the company launched 23 years ago.
When Lululemon founder Wilson launched the company in 1998, he created two muses, “Duke” and “Ocean,” that were meant to inspire the company’s merchandise and brand strategy, he told The New York Times Magazine in 2015.
Wilson described Ocean as a fashionable and single 32-year-old woman who makes $100,000 a year, owns her own condo, and works out for an hour and a half every day. Duke, the muse for Lululemon’s menswear, is a 35-year-old man who makes more money than Ocean and loves surfing in the summer and snowboarding in the winter... But before Lululemon stopped using them, Duke and Ocean came to be known as Lululemon’s ideal customers — and some employees felt they were its ideal employees, too, the former Lululemon executive told Insider.
“Duke and Ocean” were reportedly retired in 2017 “and play no role whatsoever in the hiring process,” according to Stacia Jones, Lululemon’s global head of inclusion, diversity, equity, and action, since last October. Nevertheless, at least one former employee told BI that Lululemon was a bastion of the “privileged white wellness” that typified the entire industry—in fact, the company reportedly didn’t even have a budget for diversity and inclusion prior to 2020. (It now has a budget of $5 million with a team of 20 international employees.)
“We are proud of the progress we are making to become more diverse, inclusive and equitable across all aspects of the employee experience, from recruiting and hiring to leadership and development,” Jones told BI. “While we are still early in our journey, we are fully committed to the tangible steps we’re taking that will help create systemic change so that we truly reflect the communities that we serve.”
But the employees who spoke with Insider aren’t buying it, saying the efforts are “performative” and compelled from external pressure rather than internal response.
“I would like to see a better executive leadership team that actually has people of color,” one former employee told Inside. “You can say that you’re doing this work and it’ll take time for it to trickle down. I still don’t think that they are. It just seems like performance activism.”