So many consumers are environmentally conscious, with perhaps 75 percent of millennials willing to pay extra for sustainable products. Lululemon is perhaps the most famous leggings and athleisure brand; is it taking meaningful efforts to be more sustainable, or simply greenwashing to get by?
We took a deep dive into Lululemon’s products and sustainability pages to see if this athleisure giant is actually making strides toward sustainable. Then, we put Lulu head-to-head with Athleta to see which brand is delivering on sustainability claims.
But first, let’s see which leggings and athleisure brands are setting the bar.
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Which Athleisure Brands are Eco-friendly?
Why not start with the brands that are showing how this can and should be done?
To see our list eco-friendly brands, check out Sustainable Leggings: Which Brands Use the Best Materials?
Boody Eco Wear: Viscose bamboo leggings in the $20 to $30 range. Also, bamboo clothes for men, women and babies.
Wolven: A 1% for the Planet and Climate Neutral certified company with sustainable materials including RPET from recycled water bottles and modal fabrics from sustainable beech forests. (psst: get 20% of the Basics Collection with code BASIC20).
Girlfriend Collective: Leggings and women’s wear made from polyester from recycled water bottles, fishing nets, and Cupro. Caters to women of all shapes and sizes.
Organic Basics: Certified B Corp, 1% for the Planet, incredibly transparent supply chain. Lots of organic cotton products for men, women and babies. Also features Silvertech made from 96% recycled nylon.
3rd Rock: Rock climbing and outdoors gear, including leggings, made from organic cotton, recycled, upcycled and surplus fibers.
Is Lululemon Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is almost never as simple as yes or no. But, by looking at Lululemon’s materials, shipping practices, and certifications, we can get a sense of this brand’s efforts and accomplishments.
What we’re looking for:
Anything that’s not petroleum or plastic-based like nylon, polyester, spandex. These materials drive the use of fossil fuels and shed microplastics in the wash.
Instead, we’re looking for natural and plant-based materials like organic cotton and wool, rayon/viscose bamboo and TENCEL.
What we’re finding:
Lululemon has series of six “Natural Blends” including:
- Boolux – a blend of bamboo rayon, TENCEL, and cashmere
- Cotton fleece – a blend of cotton and polyester (not ideal)
- Pima cotton – cotton paired with spandex for use in t-shirts
- Stretch French Terry – cotton Terry mixed with petroleum based LYCRA (not ideal)
- TENCEL – soft fabric made from wood pulp
- VITASEA – a blend of cotton, spandex and SEACELL — yarn made with seaweed (pretty cool!)
Some of these are more sustainable than others and it seems Lulu can’t help but weave a little petroleum into everything. Further, for every “Natural Blend” fabric there seems a handful of synthetic ones.
In fact, a search all women’s clothing items using “Natural Blends” materials (cotton, Pima cotton, French Terry and wool) brings up 72 results out of 759 total women’s clothing items. That’s less than 10% of its online collection.
Men have even fewer options with just 38 out of 426 items featuring “Natural Blends” fabrics.
Lululemon product material goals
Lululemon set a series of goals to use “percent sustainable materials for our products” by 2025. However, they’re not all that inspiring. Here’s why:
- The material goals rely heavily on plastic recycling, which is a hot mess, an little on organic and natural materials
- The circular design goals are incredibly vague, with almost no detail
- There seems to be little progress
- Other athleisure companies are doing now what Lululemon plans to do by 2025
Shipping and packaging
In 2019, Lululemon set a goal for “60 percent intensity reduction of GHG emissions in purchased goods and services and upstream transportation and distribution (2018 base year)” by 2030. There isn’t much information regarding how they plan to reduce these emissions. Regardless, it’s a meaningful goal and I hope they are able to achieve it.
However, this 2019 report from Motley Fool isn’t exactly inspiring.
“Roughly 67% of Lululemon’s products are manufactured in China and the remaining 33% are manufactured in the U.S., Canada, Israel, Taiwan, Indonesia, and India … However, a mere 6% of the company’s finished goods are actually imported from China, as the rest are either shipped to other countries or remain in China to be sold there.”
Not only is Lulu outsourcing a majority of its labor overseas — which raises several red flags — it busses its products around first to avoid tariffs.
Not a great move in terms of sustainability.
And in terms of eco-friendly packaging, Lulu’s not doing so hot. I find packaging to be a good indicator of a company’s commitment to sustainability. It’s entirely controllable and there are plenty of eco-friendly and non-plastic options.
While Lululemon has made the switch to Forest Stewardship Council certified paper packaging materials, it’s still using plastic polybag mailers. The company acknowledges that these mailers are wasteful and hard to recycle, but has nothing more than plan to “continue to explore ways of reducing polybags and improving content and recyclability.”
Lululemon certifications and partnerships
Lululemon is part of the following industry, NGO and government partnerships:
- UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action
- Sustainable Apparel Coalition
- Canopy Planet Program
- The Climate Group RE100
- Textile Exchange
- The Microfibre Consortium
The company also has aggressive goals to reduce its overall carbon emissions, conserve water, and use more sustainable materials.
This is all great, and I hope Lululemon achieves its goals. However, what bothers me, is how late to the party Lululemon is, and how little its efforts are showing up on the front end.
For example, it takes some serious effort to find Lulu products that aren’t made with a heavy dose of synthetic fibers. Also, there is little reporting, at this time, on the company’s progress in achieving its goals.
- How far toward 75% recycled nylon are they?
- How much water are they saving per year?
- What percent of GHG emissions have they reduced since 2018?
As an American consumer, it seems the most likely outcome of ordering from Lululemon is receiving a plastic-infused garment in a plastic polybag that was made in China and took a detour on the way to the United States.
Things may change in the next few years, but, for now, it’s hard to take Lululemon seriously in terms of sustainability.
Lululemon vs Athleta
In recent years, Athleta has emerged as Lululemon’s biggest competitor. But is Athleta, which is owned by Gap, any more sustainable than Lulu?
Let’s run the same test and see how they compare.
Athleta set a goal to made 80% of their products with sustainable fibers by 2020. Sustainable fibers include:
- Polyester from recycled water bottles
- Recycled nylon from scraps and Econyl from recycled fishing nets
- TENCEL Lyocel and TENCEL Modal from trees in sustainably managed forests
- Organic cotton
- Primaloft Eco Insulation from recycled plastic bottles
Like Lulu, that’s a lot of petroleum based products, even if they are recycled. However, Athleta claims to already make 76% of its materials with sustainable fibers, whereas Lulu is shooting for 75% by 2025.
The sustainable fibers selection is greater and easier to find on Athleta then on Lululemon, where a search for “organic” or “tencel” yields no results. However, I do wish Athleta made their products sortable by sustainable fibers.
Athleta shipping and packaging
Frankly, I don’t see much directly from Athleta regarding shipping emissions or packaging. However, it’s parent company, Gap, has a few goals:
- Become carbon neutral across its value chain by 2050
- Eliminate single-use plastics by 2030
- On track to reduce 50% “absolute reduction of GHG emissions in our owned and operated facilities globally”
Overall, Gap’s emissions reduction goals look very similar to Lululemon’s. Both companies are more or less aligned with “science-based” goals (aka the Paris climate accord).
The fact that neither Gap nor Athleta has much to say about its packaging isn’t a great sign…
Athleta certifications and partnerships
Athleta’s parent company, Gap, has a number of sustainability partnerships. Gap mentions them throughout its many sustainability pages. Knock yourself out.
However, Athleta’s status as a B Corp is very encouraging. B Corporations are third-party verified to be “business forces for good.” The process includes adhering to environmental and ethical standards.
Athleta is also doing a better job of tracking and reporting its progress on sustainability goals. They didn’t achieve all of their 2020 goals (who did) but at least they are reporting their progress. And, in some cases, Athleta has already achieved what Lululemon hopes to achieve by 2025.
While not perfect, Athleta is further along in terms of sustainability than Lululemon. As a customer, I can easily find products made with sustainable fibers online. Although, plastic-free shipping seems unlikely at this point.
Further, Athleta’s status as a B Corp provides some assurance that a third party is tracking and verifying its sustainability efforts. We can’t say the same for Lululemon.
Feature photo: Athleta catalogue and computer montage by the author.