News Business & Policy Lululemon Criticized for Using Coal-Powered Factories to Make Clothes This campaign raises some complicated questions about sustainability and consumerism. By Katherine Martinko Katherine Martinko Twitter Senior Editor University of Toronto Katherine Martinko is an expert in sustainable living. She holds a degree in English Literature and History from the University of Toronto. Learn about our editorial process Published September 16, 2022 01:41PM EDT Fact checked by Haley Mast Fact checked by Haley Mast LinkedIn Harvard University Extension School Haley Mast is a freelance writer, fact-checker, and small organic farmer in the Columbia River Gorge. She enjoys gardening, reporting on environmental topics, and spending her time outside snowboarding or foraging. Topics of expertise and interest include agriculture, conservation, ecology, and climate science. Learn about our fact checking process Share Twitter Pinterest Email Jeremy Moeller / Getty Images News Environment Business & Policy Science Animals Home & Design Current Events Treehugger Voices News Archive Yoga apparel company lululemon is coming under scrutiny for how its clothes are made. A new campaign says that many of its products come from coal-fired factories in Asia, a fact that is inconsistent with lululemon's claims to be a sustainably-minded and ethical company. An open letter to Glenn K. Murphy, chairman of the board, has so far collected 1,698 signatories from 30 countries, all self-identified as either yoga students or teachers. The letter asks that lululemon commit to phasing out coal and sourcing 100% renewable energy to power its entire supply chain by 2030. The letter states that using coal power is harmful to people in countries that produce the clothing, such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Cambodia, and China. "Fossil fuels like coal cause dangerous climate change and air pollution that is responsible for the deaths of millions of people around the world each year. Nearly one in five premature deaths globally are attributed to air pollution that's caused by fossil fuels, according to a 2018 Harvard study." The letter goes on to say that "lululemon's current climate commitments fail to adequately address its pollution. In fact, its total [greenhouse gas] emissions are increasing due to the company's rapid growth." In order to meet the Paris Agreement targets, the company must take immediate action. Stand.earth has spearheaded the campaign, along with another organization called Action Speaks Louder. It points out that lululemon scored lower on sustainability efforts than other brands, such as Nike, Puma, adidas, and even H&M. Lululemon's rating in the 2021 Fossil-Free Fashion Scorecard was an abysmal D-, due to this failure to reduce GHG emissions. (For reference, Patagonia, poster child for sustainability, only got a C-.) From a press release: "This year, lululemon was announced as the official Team Canada Olympics brand—ironically dressing athletes whose sports are being threatened by climate change. Lululemon's Team Canada mittens, which came under scrutiny by fans for costing $68 a pair, were made in Vietnam, where 53% of the electricity came from burning coal, and only 5% from renewable energy." Lululemon's Team Canada gear on display in Toronto, October 2021. Vaughn Ridley / Getty Images Canada, Germany, and France combined spew less pollution than the global fashion industry as a whole, Stand.earth says. Thus, it is "impossible to solve the climate crisis without the fashion industry taking bold climate action." And due to lululemon's prominence as one of the biggest and most rapidly-growing brands, it needs to lead by example. Stand.earth has organized a protest to take place at lululemon's headquarters in Vancouver, British Columbia, this weekend. But Is It Really That Simple? While decarbonization remains an important goal, the issue at the root of this campaign strikes this Treehugger editor as being more complicated than it appears at first glance. This is not meant to be a criticism of the campaign, which is trying to achieve something good, but more a call to consider various aspects of the issue. What is sustainable, after all? I own a single pair of lululemon workout shorts that I purchased in 2011 and have worn 2-3 times a week ever since. They still look as good as new. It's quite astonishing, actually. Items I've owned from brands that fared better on the Fossil-Free Fashion Scorecard have been long destroyed and discarded (hello, H&M), forcing me to replace them. So I can't help but wonder if the production method is less harmful when items are virtually indestructible and last for years, if not decades. And what is driving the company's colossal growth? It's rampant consumerism by wealthy buyers—in countries like Canada, France, and Germany that may not spew as much direct pollution as the countries that create our fashion goods, but are the reason they do so. Developed nations have merely outsourced the environmental footprint for their fashion habits elsewhere, making it easy to blame others. And yet, many of those same consumers do not want to pay the true cost that would be incurred if production took place in their own home countries, with (hopefully) cleaner energy supplies. Those $88 leggings might be $150 if they were sewn in the U.S. or Canada. It's one thing to sit at home and criticize developing nations for still using coal, but if we're not willing to put our money where our mouths are, then it's hardly a fair request to make. Perhaps these same campaigners could commit not to order clothes online, to avoid using delivery trucks that also spew fossil fuels, generating a significant portion of air pollution, and contributing to congestion in cities. As reported in Treehugger, "E-commerce now accounts for approximately 13% of U.S. retail sales, up from 5% in 2012." A 2020 study forecasted that "the number of delivery vehicles in 100 major cities worldwide will surge by 36% over the next decade [and] annual emissions from the package delivery sector will increase by about a third, to reach 25 million metric tons—equivalent to the annual carbon emissions of Jordan, a country with a population of around 10 million people." That seems like a worthwhile component to tackle—and one that's more about what we can do, rather than pointing fingers elsewhere. I often get the sense that people in developed countries just want to be able to keep shopping recklessly, assuaging their consumerist guilt by telling themselves that things are made with renewable energy. Stand.earth's call for "solar panels, wind turbines, sustainable fabrics, and renewable energy" strikes me not only as being a tad unrealistic and out of touch, but also an attempt to maintain the status quo, which is clearly flawed and excessive. What about reducing consumption? What if we embraced the idea of sufficiency instead and said, "I have one or two pairs of leggings, and that's enough to last me another 10 years." (Read about my all-time favorite leggings that lasted nine years!) Unfortunately, though, that's far less fun than continuing to buy all the latest seasonal trends and styles that are released by a savvy brand for their hordes of hungry customers. I wish this campaign success, but as usual, I think it's important to examine our own questionable habits before we go about blasting others for theirs. We may just find that the two are closely and uncomfortably intertwined.