Lululemon has recently drawn heat from a Stand.earth campaign targeting the athletic apparel company’s reliance on coal-powered electricity in several Asian factories. On the surface, this seems like a valiant campaign against a polluting, emissions-belching fossil fuel. Who would want to wear a pair of #Coalsweats? No doubt: coal must be replaced by renewables around the globe, and fast, if we are to avoid dangerous climate change. That said, this campaign may actually impede the apparel industry’s transformation toward sustainable practices.
Stand.earth is seizing media attention by urging people to tweet at Lululemon CEO Calvin McDonald, asking him to move the company away from coal and other harmful fossil fuels. The hope is that with enough noise and potential reputational harm, Lululemon will redouble efforts to make its supply chain more sustainable. The problem is that the campaign harms Lululemon’s brand while asking it to change a part of the system over which it has no leverage. Neither Lululemon, nor any other apparel company, has sway over how Vietnam, Cambodia, and China produce their electricity. Plus, the factories in question are neither owned nor operated by Lululemon (Lululemon’s suppliers contract with the factory, as is normal for apparel companies with long supply chains).
Lululemon does have power over its owned and operated facilities—and here it is committed to using 100% renewable electricity by 2021. The company has made several other commitments to climate and energy goals, including science-based emissions reduction targets and increased engagement with manufacturing partners for energy efficiency. Of course Lululemon can and should keep doing more to mitigate its environmental impacts, but this is a company that is leading the sustainability charge in an industry of fast fashion and waste.
Targeting specific companies in this way tarnishes their brands. That’s a great outcome if the company in question was a sustainability laggard. And many of Stand.earth’s campaigns target the laggards or where there is leverage. But quite often campaigns target sustainability leaders because they are the ones who (1) make commitments, and (2) are transparent about their supply chains. Without transparency, NGOs couldn’t even find out about factories like the ones targeted in this campaign.
Targeting sustainability leaders when they don’t have leverage disincentivizes any company from sticking its neck out, from making commitments or being transparent. Lululemon is not the problem. Sustainability requires targeting the bad actors, not mostly the good ones.
So, let’s focus our efforts on the bad actors, or where companies and governments have leverage. Like this Stand.Earth Campaign on old growth forests.