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‘Privileged white wellness’: Lululemon corporate employees speak out on the culture of racial insensitivity

In spring 2020, days after the murder of George Floyd, a high-level Lululemon manager told a team of designers and copywriters she wanted to put “all lives matter” at the top of Lululemon’s website.

Amid Black Lives Matter demonstrations across North America, Lululemon had been scrambling in its Vancouver, British Columbia, headquarters to craft a response to the events suddenly dominating the news cycle.

Over the course of the afternoon on June 1, the company put together a task force to develop copy and graphics to present to top brass and quickly publish to its website.

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 said.

A post shared by lululemon (@lululemon)

Above is an Instagram post and caption with the final copy used on the Lululemon website and social-media accounts.

Many corporations stumbled in their internal and external communication after the murder of Floyd. But even before spring 2020, “all lives matter” had been widely recognized as a phrase that downplayed the Black Lives Matter movement.

The director was given the chance to apologize to a group of about 200 copywriters, designers, and photographers on a conference call — many of whom were unaware of the events for which the director was apologizing. The director left Lululemon shortly after the apology.

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.

The company has become one of the largest apparel brands in North America and a top competitor to athletic giants like Nike and Adidas. Lululemon reported it increased revenue in 2020 by 11% to $4.4 billion.

And it has only accelerated its growth tear under CEO Calvin McDonald, thanks to his strategic investments in growing categories like menswear, e-commerce, and connected fitness, including the acquisition of Mirror in June 2020.

Lululemon has also won awards for its company culture under McDonald, who was named one of the top CEOs of 2021 by Glassdoor.

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. 

Some corporate employees said they felt that the rapid growth of the company had hindered its ability to implement changes, particularly in areas like diversity and inclusion that have long plagued Lululemon. 

The employees who spoke with Insider did so on the condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing their current and future employment opportunities. 

Lululemon



Lululemon


Allegations of racial insensitivity among management

According to one of the copywriters present in the room, several employees reported the director who demanded the “all lives matter” homepage design.

After the director’s tearful apology, a copywriter who had left the company the year prior said she was notified of the incident by her former colleagues and felt compelled to send an email urging members of management to fire the director. 

The email was sent on June 8, 2020, with the subject line “Racism, Privilege, and Inaction at Lululemon” and addressed to McDonald; Chief Brand Officer Nikki Neuburger; Susan Gelinas, the senior vice president of people and culture; Janelle Aaker, a former vice president of global diversity and inclusion; and the Lululemon board of directors.

“It is my ask of you, on behalf of many others who have complained, and who do not feel able to speak on this issue publicly out of fear for their employment, that you remove this person from your company immediately,” she wrote in the email, which has been reviewed by Insider.

The former employee told Insider she did not receive a response, but said the director (who did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story) left Lululemon shortly after her email was sent.

“As a matter of company policy, we do not comment on individual employee situations,” said Stacia Jones, a vice president and the head of inclusion, diversity, equity, and action at Lululemon. “If anyone at Lululemon has a negative experience, we have several ways for employees to share their concerns and feedback, including through anonymous channels.

“Lululemon leadership takes all feedback very seriously, and we thoroughly review every claim before taking appropriate action.”

Another scenario involving racial insensitivity played out just weeks prior at the height of the global coronavirus outbreak in April 2020, when Art Director Trevor Fleming posted a link to a T-shirt on his personal Instagram account.

The T-shirt had the title of “Bat Fried Rice,” with a picture of a Chinese takeout box with bat wings on the front and the words “No Thank You” on the back and right sleeve.

After Fleming shared the shirt on his account, Lululemon received thousands of comments on its official Instagram account criticizing the company for Fleming’s post. Lululemon fired Fleming as a result of the incident.

In an email to Insider, Fleming said sharing the T-shirt, which was designed by an “acquaintance” of his, was a “momentary lapse of judgement” and an incident that he had “spent the past year regretting.”

“I fully understand the insensitivity that is associated with the design he made and deeply regret the pain I caused anyone as a result of posting the link to his shirt,” Fleming wrote.

The scandal followed an earlier incident in Lululemon’s history, when founder and then-CEO Chip Wilson wrote in a since deleted post that the company’s name was chosen as a marketing ploy to attract Japanese consumers. Wilson declined to comment for this story.

“A Japanese marketing firm would not try to create a North American sounding brand with the letter ‘L’ because the sound does not exist in Japanese phonetics,” Wilson wrote on the company’s blog. “By including an ‘L’ in the name, it was thought the Japanese consumer would find the name innately North American and authentic.”

It’s funny to watch them try and say it,” he added.

Chip Wilson Lululemon founder

Chip Wilson, Lululemon’s founder.

Reuters


‘White Space’ comes under scrutiny

Employees said the “all lives matter” and Fleming incidents galvanized some staffers around improving inclusivity at the company. But some employees said they continued to face resistance from management, including when the company’s innovation division known as “White Space” came under scrutiny later in the summer for its name and lack of diverse employees on the team.

A former Lululemon executive said the name “comes from this ‘blank space,’ the white space of ideas.”

According to two former White Space employees, attempts to change the name last summer were met with opposition from leadership. 

“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. 

“We have a subsection of the team called Lululemon Labs, which we could have easily adopted for the entire team,” the employee added.

Instead, the employee said a senior executive opted to hold a forum on the matter with about 60 Lululemon staffers and asked those who had issues with the name to speak about them publicly.

The employee said he felt uncomfortable with the nature of the meeting, which he said put “very sensitive racial issues” on display. He said he felt that it might have had the effect of silencing staffers, particularly junior-level employees who may have been hesitant to speak up in front of leadership.

Today, the White Space name remains unchanged. 

The inspiration for Lululemon’s ideal customer 

A current employee said Lululemon’s core consumer was “a rich white lady that lives in the suburbs.” 

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.

Jones, the brand’s global head of inclusion, diversity, equity, and action, told Insider that Duke and Ocean “have not been used at Lululemon since 2017, and play no role whatsoever in the hiring process.”

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.

One former employee told Insider that Lululemon exemplified “privileged white wellness” in a way that reflects that wellness industry at large.

A separate former employee at Lululemon added he was frequently the only person of color in meetings or on teams.

He said that in 2018, after a diversity-and-inclusion training session at Lululemon’s headquarters, a white manager approached him with a concern. She told him she didn’t understand why they couldn’t use the term “colored” in the workplace, he said.

“You could tell she just wasn’t getting it,” he said. “It was putting the labor on me as a BIPOC person.” He quit his job at Lululemon shortly after the incident.

Lululemon

A Lululemon ad campaign.

Courtesy of Lululemon


Lululemon makes changes

Lululemon hired Jones, the former chief diversity-and-inclusion officer at Abercrombie & Fitch, in October. The company also introduced extended sizing last year, making its products more available to a wider variety of consumers.

“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 Insider. “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.”

And while it did not have a budget for diversity and inclusion before 2020, according to a former employee with knowledge of the matter, Lululemon established diversity-and-inclusion financial commitments during the pandemic and launched its first employee-demographic survey.

Jones said Lululemon has had a Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Action (IDEA) budget for several years, and was expanded in 2020. The company said it now has a team of 20 employees around the world focused on diversity and inclusion with a budget of $5 million.

Lululemon also established eight employee-resource groups, four advisory committees with executive and senior leadership to advance progress on diversity and inclusion, and listening sessions hosted by McDonald with employees who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color, Jones said.

“We continue to review and improve our policies and processes to root out any instances of institutional bias that exist,” she added.

All the employees who spoke with Insider said they felt many of the changes Lululemon had made to improve diversity over the past year were performative and the result of pressure from customers and the general public. 

“I would like to see a better executive leadership team that actually has people of color,” a former employee said. “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.”



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