Business

Lululemon marketing complaint could be a test of Canada's greenwashing laws, expert says

A Vancouver non-profit is calling on Canada's competition regulator to launch a greenwashing investigation into Lululemon — saying that the athleisure brand is misleading consumers about its environmental practices.

Complaint comes amid swell of public pressure on Vancouver-based athleisure brand

Two people passing a Lululemon store.
People walk past a store by yoga wear retailer Lululemon Athletica in New York, March 30, 2017. A Vancouver non-profit is calling on Canada's competition regulator to launch a greenwashing investigation into Lululemon — saying the athleisure brand is misleading consumers about its environmental practices. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

A Vancouver non-profit is calling on Canada's competition regulator to launch a greenwashing investigation into Lululemon — saying the athleisure brand is misleading consumers about its environmental practices.

The complaint, which was filed by the organization Stand.earth last Thursday, says Lululemon's Be Planet sustainability campaign from 2020, in which the company said it would work to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, is contradicted by a 2022 impact report that outlined Lululemon's progress in reaching its climate goals.

The impact report shows the company's Scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions — indirect emissions that occur as a result of a company's activities, including those produced by customers using its products — increased from about 471,100 tonnes in 2020 to 847,400 tonnes in 2022. Lululemon wrote in its report that this area "needs acceleration."

The company also wrote in 2020 that it "leaned into investments and partnerships to develop sustainable materials that demonstrate our leadership in product innovation and environmental harm reduction." 

Last year, Lululemon partnered with a startup to create clothes from recycled nylon and polyester. But the report from Stand.earth notes that many of the company's products continue to be made with polyester or nylon, both of which are materials manufactured from fossil fuels.

"We think in this case, Lululemon is telling its customers a bunch of things about the products, that they are environmentally friendly, climate friendly, restorative to the Earth — and that none of those things are true," said Todd Paglia, executive director of Stand.earth.

"That's what the Competition Bureau is set up to crack down on, and we're asking them to do so in this case," he added.

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It isn't the first time that Stand.earth has brought attention to Lululemon, either, presenting the company with a "coal medal" in 2022 to highlight its coal emissions after the brand was chosen to design Canada's Olympic wear during the Beijing Games. 

"There's a lot of greenwash out there. We picked Lululemon because they're the most egregious, but there are lots of companies out there that I think are selling themselves as green," said Paglia.

"They are such a big brand and so much is expected of them," he added. "They can actually be part of the solution to the climate crisis that we're facing by driving the company towards what they say they are already doing."

A swell of public pressure

A thin black tag on a blue pair of shorts.
Lululemon shorts are seen with a tag describing material components. The description includes the body of the shorts, listed at 95 per cent nylon and five per cent elastane, and a pocket lining as 100 per cent recycled polyester. (David MacIntosh/CBC)

A spokesperson for Lululemon told CBC News the company is focused on helping create an industry that is "more sustainable and addresses the serious impacts of climate change."

The company is committed to its decarbonization plan, the spokesperson added, with the aim of meeting its 2030 climate targets and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

"We recognize that the majority of impact comes from emissions within the broader supply chain," the spokesperson wrote, adding that the company reported on its own emissions in the 2022 annual report.

The complaint comes amid a swell of public pressure on the Canadian brand. A recent Bloomberg story highlighted members of the yoga community, including former Lululemon ambassadors, who have distanced themselves or severed ties with the company, disappointed by its track record on climate change.

Danielle Hoogenboom, a yoga instructor and activist who lives in Vancouver, worked on a Stand.earth campaign two years ago that called on Lululemon to transition to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2030 — a goal the company says it has met in its owned and operated facilities.

"They're one of Canada's most influential companies, one of the biggest fashion brands in the world that promote a healthy lifestyle, but they're fronting," Hoogenboom told CBC News. "They're not really doing what they say that they are going to do.

"I think there's an infinite amount of potential for there to be a really great shift in the way that business is done. And I would love for [Lululemon] to just step out as an absolute leader," said Hoogenboom.

A test of Canada's greenwashing laws

The Lululemon logo is affixed to a large brick building, photographed from above and overlooking a neighbourhood.
Lululemon's offices in Vancouver's Kitsilano neighbourhood are pictured on Dec. 9, 2022. While complaints about deceptive marketing are generally quicker to resolve, these cases can sometimes take years to move through the Competition Bureau's system, said Keldon Bester, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Monopoly Project. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

Marianne Blondin, a spokesperson for the Competition Bureau, confirmed in an email to CBC News that it received the complaint alleging that Lululemon has engaged in deceptive marketing practices. "There is no conclusion of wrongdoing at this time," she wrote.

"As the Bureau is obligated by law to conduct its work confidentially, we cannot provide further details related to this matter."

If the complaint moves forward, it wouldn't be the first time Lululemon is investigated by the Competition Bureau. 

In 2007, the athletic-wear company removed unsubstantiated claims that a clothing line infused with seaweed had health benefits, following a decision by the regulator that it violated the Textile Labelling Act.

While complaints about deceptive marketing are generally quicker to resolve, these cases can sometimes take years to move through the system, said Keldon Bester, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Monopoly Project and a former special advisor at the Competition Bureau from 2019-2021.

"Deceptive marketing claims are one of the most frequently brought cases by the bureau. So relative to other parts of the competition, Canada's competition law, they are quite common," he told CBC News.

"What we are seeing now with this complaint and the more recent RBC greenwashing complaints is whether these broader criticisms of potentially misleading sustainability claims will be recognized not only by the Bureau but by the tribunal who ultimately decides," he said.

"These cases are going to be important tests of the limits of Canada's greenwashing laws."

While deceptive marketing cases sometimes involve fining an offending company, the goal is often a change in behaviour, added Bester. Still, the Competition Bureau is not required to keep the public updated on active investigations.

"I think it won't be a snappy resolution by any means," Bester said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jenna Benchetrit is a senior writer with the business content unit at CBC News. She has also covered entertainment and education stories. A Montrealer based in Toronto, Jenna holds a master's degree in journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University. You can reach her at jenna.benchetrit@cbc.ca.

With files from Anis Heydari and Laura MacNaughton

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