November 30, 2011

lululemon ambassadors & customers speak out on Ayn Rand, politics & personal responsibility.

image via globeandmail.com

A recent elephant journal blog post by Carol Horton got me thinking.

In the post (a superb examination of the recent lululemon/John Galt fiasco), Carol writes,

“I strongly suspect that the overwhelming majority of Lululemon customers and ambassadors haven’t thought into the politics of the company they’re supporting.”

That’s when I realized that we haven’t heard a lot from lululemon’s ambassadors or the customers in the blogosphere. Other than the occasional soundbite in a news article and a couple of bloggers, the people who help fuel the lululemon mission have been voiceless (lululemon itself has almost entirely refrained from commenting, other than a bland PR statement to the Yoga Journal buzz blog).

So I tracked down a lululemon ambassador, a former ambassador and a former customer and asked them a few questions.

> Bram Levinson (BL) is a yoga teacher and enthusiastic lululemon ambassdor.

> Becky Todor (BT) is a former lululemon ambassador who teaches yoga and studies Occupational Therapy.

> Deborah Bakker (DB) is a yoga practitioner, tango dancer and federal government employee.

This is what they had to say.

How do you, as a lululemon ambassador/customer, feel about the John Galt campaign?

BL: I don`t really have any personal opinion about the John Galt campaign. I have read Atlas Shrugged, and I personally found it interminable. But if the company founder felt that it influenced his approach to business and thinks that other people might benefit from it, then who am I to judge? Yes, people are saying that the novel has become a right-wing manifesto, and it’s largely due to the assumption that Chip uses it as such that this controversy has grown into what it is. But the fact of the matter is that Chip felt the novel is essential to tapping into a sense of self and vision, and I have no issue with him sharing that information.

BT: Up to this point in my life I haven’t felt a pull to read Atlas Shrugged. I was generally aware of Ayn Rand’s philosophies, and have had a nice ‘refresher’ recently due to the lululemon bags. How do I feel about it? I am happy that my relationship with lululemon is relatively non-existent at this point (I do still own a few items that I wear, but I haven’t “bought” anything since my ambassador card ran out years ago). I think Michael Stone’s comments on CTV were pretty accurate. Placing an Ayn Rand quote on a bag seems like an appropriate thing for a company like lululemon to do. I did stop to think if I should continue to wear the items I do own, and ultimately decided that I am comfortable continuing to wear the few items I have mixed in with the other yoga stuff in my drawers.

DB: I was sort of surprised, but not that much… I know that the president of lululemon has said some pretty shocking things for the president of a ‘yoga clothing’ company, and was totally turned off when I heard that employees were made to go to ‘Landmark Forum’ events. I actually was surprised (a) that they made the bags, and (b) how ‘far’ they went in putting their views so squarely out there, knowing that it risked to alienate some of their clientele (but obviously not enough to make a dent in their profits, or perhaps they’re going after all those conservative voting Calgary soccer moms who want yoga butts!).

How do you feel about lululemon’s politics? Do they reflect your own? Does it matter to you if they don’t?

BL: Lululemon’s politics don’t always mesh with mine, no. And that doesn’t matter to me. My feelings are this: regardless of what Chip himself believes in, I have been heavily invested in by his company. I am a die-hard Liberal who believes in sharing the wealth/information/abundance. I believe in free speech and I believe that my opinion does not have to be everyone else’s. If Chip was smart enough to hire people who believed that MY opinions and insight were worth sharing and that I am worth investing in and being the face of the company, then he obviously agrees with me that we all are entitled to voice our truths, regardless of the criticism we may find ourselves deluged with.

BT: I have mixed feelings about the company’s politics. I knew relatively little about Chip Wilson when I became an ambassador. At that point I started looking into the company a bit more and quickly formed an impression that the dude isn’t very ‘yoga.’ It sounds a bit naive, but at the time, as a new yoga teacher I was really interested in bartering, so the idea of ‘exchanging’ my teaching skills for a yoga wardrobe was really appealing. I’d also spoken to a couple of teachers I admired who had had good experiences and had good things to say about the community. I was thinking microcosm rather than macrocosm and didn’t reflect on what associating myself with the company as a yoga teacher was promoting. I realized as I began wearing the clothes that my part in the exchange was not so much the free classes I offered in the store – it was when my students in other classes started noticing my new clothes and asking if they should shop there too. The exchange was really free clothes for free advertising – I was aware that that was part of the deal, but I had underestimated how much of an impact my new wardrobe would have on my students. At the time, my conflict in values was that I didn’t believe that yoga pants needed to cost a certain amount or look a certain way – they had to be comfortable and allow movement.

DB: I don’t like lululemon’s ‘politics’, and yes it does matter. I don’t shop there anymore, prices aside! I think paying $100 for yoga pants is ridiculous, even though I’ve had mine for 6 years! I also see all of their ‘dance, love, floss, travel’ as kind of pop-psychology bullshit, given what I know now about the company. I have much more respect for companies like Patagonia, Prana, Zobha, etc.

What do you feel lululemon has to offer the local yoga community? Do you think they act on behalf of the community or in the interest of their profits?

BL: I feel that lulu offers the local community a chance to experience yoga, free of charge, with the leaders in their communities. This obviously is also an opportunity to get people into their retail spaces to be exposed to the product, but let’s not forget that they are a business. People in the yoga community are very quick to judge anyone who isn’t giving yoga away, but at the end of the day, this is still a business. It still represents people’s livelihoods. I will always do what I can to make it accessible to anyone and everyone, which is in line with my philosophy that yoga is and always should be inclusive. However, people working in yoga still need to survive. They still need to pay bills. Obviously, Chip is doing monumentally well, and doesn’t fall into the category of your average yoga teacher. But I believe that he has gotten to where he is because he has a strong sense of investment in his people, and he has been able to combine that focus with a savvy sense of business. Both his profits AND the community benefit from the lululemon stores, and to me, that is something to be proud of.

BT: As a yoga teacher without a yoga community in Montreal, I initially felt a sense of community and sharing when I started to participate in ambassador events (again the micro view, and I think this is what gets a lot of teachers involved). Ultimately, over the year, I realized this was due to certain lovely individuals whom I met through the company, rather than the culture that the organization itself promoted. When I became an ambassador I had recently left a small yoga studio that talked the talk without walking the walk and I think lululemon does the same thing. I think that by offering free classes, there are some people (students especially) who have access to yoga. Demographically speaking, in most of the classes I taught at lululemon, most of the participants could at least aspire to afford the clothes, whereas in other community classes I’ve taught, that has not been the case – so they are effective at drawing in their target audience. Based on focus groups I participated in, community is used as a tinted lens through which to promote profits. They are good at this and I think a lot of the staff believe it. In the end I feel that my year as an ambassador confirmed that I wasn’t really cut out for the lululemon community. It was an interesting experiment, but the promise of community and sharing I had initially felt had dissipated, and I felt a sense of relief when I stepped away. I’d be surprised if my experience is unique and I don’t think lululemon is concerned since they have a whole new bunch of ambassadors ready to step up to the plate and sell their brand each year.

DB: Well at the local level, I think they do offer something. I know yoga teachers who, in my opinion, really embody the values and ethics and practice of yoga and yet are involved with lululemon (as ambassadors, teachers, etc.). I really like the idea of the ‘ambassador’ program. And my frends who have participated have had really good things to say. I also think that having goals in life, and taking steps to achieve them, taking care of your body, friends, relationships, the earth, and living full, reflective, loving, active and authentic lives are really important. Can I draw a distinction between what happens say on Ste Catherine street and at the board room or head office level, i.e. setting company policy, making decisions about advertisements, marketing campaigns, etc.? I think this is where there might be a growing dischord of values and ethics. Generally I think they act in interest of their profits and profits only, even though they may make efforts to create ‘community’ in their stores. This is simply, in my opinion, a way to create a personal connection to the ‘brand’ to keep people buying.

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