Opinion: How sportswashing found a home at UBC

Rowan Barclay is a fourth-year student studying neuromechanical and physiological science in the School of Kinesiology. He is interested in climate science and sustainability along with the physiology of healthy aging. Rowan has recently founded an organization on campus called Pick Up UBC dedicated to keeping the campus litter-free and hopes to inspire like-minded individuals to be stewards of the environment.

Amid losing a war to Sparta in 416 BCE, the Athenian state entered several chariot racing teams into the upcoming Olympics. Athenians, known at the time for their skill in the sport, used the games as an opportunity to divert their citizens’ attention away from their military downfalls and towards their Olympic successes. In this way, sport was used by political leaders to enhance their legitimacy while promoting nationalism and distracting their audience from ethical violations on the home front.

More recently, news reports drawing attention to the systematic subjugation and persecution of Uyghur Muslims in China and of migrant labourers in Qatar were drowned out by coverage of the 2022 Beijing Olympics and the 2022 Qatar World Cup, respectively. Just like in antiquity, these sports mega-events were used to gain viewers' conscious or unconscious consent for human rights violations through what sociologists of sport call sportswashing

The entrenchment of sport in our world and the emotional attachment we have to our favourite teams or players can allow us to be exploited by governments’ issue management schemes. This leaves us vulnerable to lending dangerously unquestioning support to sponsors or event hosts solely due to their positive association with a sport. 

Corporations use these same tactics. For example, in the 20th century, cigarette companies were prominent sponsors of sports leagues such as the NFL, MLB, and NBA. These companies sought to be associated with the joy of sport and the vitality of athletes rather than the discussion of serious negative side effects associated with their products. Today, ethically and morally questionable corporate sports sponsorships have taken a new form. 

In September 2021, while sitting on MacInnes field I was approached by an activist who was handing out pamphlets on the irresponsible use of coal in power plants used by Lululemon to manufacture their products. At the time I didn’t think much of it, but when I learned of Lululemon’s sponsorship of UBC athletics the memory of this interaction returned. Given the opportunity to write about a sports-related subject for one of my classes, I decided to investigate for myself what this environmental activist had shared about the Vancouver-based athletic apparel company. 

After some research, I now hold the opinion that Lululemon is exploiting the sentiments and experiences of UBC varsity sports as a distraction from their unethical and unsustainable practices. 

In my view, there are two places where Lululemon falls short when it comes to responsible manufacturing. The first is their unjust labour practices and the second is their lacklustre commitment to sustainability

Lululemon has a history of these issues going back several years. In 2013, after the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh which killed over 1200 people and injured approximately 2500, the company was criticized for being one of the last companies to sign the new Bangladesh Safety Accord. More recently, a 2022 report from McMaster University's Governing Forced Labour in Chains research group said that despite Lululemon being lauded for their supply chain transparency, significant, pressing human rights concerns within their manufacturing network remain.

The United Nations defines sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. On sustainable manufacturing, Lululemon is far from meeting its own goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. The company claims to have reduced the percentage of absolute greenhouse gas emissions in all owned and operated facilities by 82 per cent since 2018. 

However, absolute greenhouse gas emissions are a measure of emissions per dollar of revenue — so if total revenue rises then total emissions may increase. And to quote Lululemon’s 2021 impact report, owned and operated facilities are “facilities where lululemon has direct operational control [such as] stores, distribution centers, and offices. [This] does not include manufacturing or transportation and logistics along our value chain.” 

This narrowed definition indicates a refusal to take full responsibility for sustainable practices along the full supply chain in areas where emissions are the highest such as manufacturing and power plants. By contrast, Patagonia, a Lululemon competitor, operates a Supply Chain Environmental Responsibility Program that seeks to reduce its negative environmental and social impact from the retail store level all the way to raw material suppliers. Moreover, evaluations of Patagonia by third parties have demonstrated the company’s very real commitment to sustainability. Lululemon’s impact reports are a step in the right direction to full accountability, however, after sifting through the fine print I find there is not much substance behind their words.

Lululemon’s 2021 impact report shows that the company has made significant progress in both increasing the percentage of products made with sustainable materials and the percentage of sustainable materials procured for their products. Lululemon defines sustainable materials as “materials contributing to improved environmental and/or social impacts compared to conventional versions.” So far so good. However, their definition of sustainable products is “products made with at least 25 percent sustainable materials.” 

Under Lululemon’s terms, products can be made of 75 per cent unsustainable materials and still be considered sustainable. 

Their 2022 impact report goes on to show that the company updated its definition of products made with preferred materials (formerly sustainable products) to “[products containing] at least 25-50 per cent or over 50 per cent preferred materials” which looks like a step in the right direction, but is just their old and uninspiring definition rephrased to appear more impactful.

Late last year, Climate action group Stand.earth said in a report that Lululemon was “travelling dangerously in the wrong direction” on emissions, and criticized the company’s most recent impact report, writing “greenhouse gas emissions from Lululemon’s global supply chain are projected to be as much as nine times higher than its 2030 target”.

I care about the UBC community and I don’t want to see the integrity of our student population exploited by a company that promotes what I see as faux-sustainability, while positioning themselves as leaders in sustainable fashion.

Lululemon’s products have a reputation for quality and comfort. However, should those properties outweigh Lululemon’s disappointing record on workers’ rights and climate action when our university chooses who to partner with?

My view is that the company is not as interested in claiming responsibility for the social and environmental issues entangled in its manufacturing and raw material supply chain as popular belief may suggest. As such, we should not let our support for UBC sports be manipulated into consent for Lululemon’s practices.