Lululemon Diaries: My Life in an Exploitative Libertarian Happiness Cult

Lululemon Diaries: My Life in an Exploitative Libertarian Happiness Cult

In years past, Lululemon has made the news most frequently in matters related to founder Chip Wilson, a man prone to tone-deaf statements who brought his company into permanent association with strange health claims, Ayn Rand devotion, and an aversion to large bodies. After Wilson vacated his management role in 2012 and then his board spot in 2013, the upscale athletic wear brand seemed poised for a change that doesn’t seem to have materialized. The company still attracts attention whenever there’s something wrong with their (notoriously expensive) products, but, as one anonymous employee tells us, it’s how the company treats its people that’s even worse.

Immediately after I started work at Lululemon, I realized that almost all their talk about empowerment and happiness was empty. The years I’ve spent there since have confirmed it: the company’s culture is delusional, hypocritical, and cult-like.

When I started at the store, I was straight out of college, very lost. I had massive student loans and I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. The girl who interviewed me was in her late 20s, edgy, very cool. She seemed so genuine. She talked about how what she did never felt like a job, how Lululemon cared about empowering women to reach their goals, about living your “best life,” about how Lululemon cares about their people. Most of all she talked about the company’s integrity. I went for it hook, line and sinker. I was 21, and I wanted to believe that what she said could be true; I was very naive.

I started as an educator, which is what we call salespeople—but as they constantly tell us, we’re “not selling anything.” Our job is to educate people on the technical features and functions of the garments and empower the guests to make their own choice. I was at a newer store, one that had just opened, before Lululemon was as famous in the States. I was working with a lot of new people who didn’t really know what the company would be about. Within the first couple of weeks after I’d started, half the team had quit.

Since then, I’ve watched hundreds of people cycle through my store and the stores around me. The turnover at Lululemon is one of the highest for any retail company; even outside the store, upper-level management is constantly changing. It’s a company that really purports to be about their people, so you’d think they’d examine this more, especially since their 10-year goal is “getting our global collective scores within the top quartile of happiest people on the planet.” But who measures that, and with what measuring stick?

Everything in the Lululemon corporate culture is based on a bastardized version of yoga: the employee regulations book is called “Pramana,” which is a word that roughly translates to knowledge in Sanskrit. Ironically, Pramana really means true knowledge you gain from experience, not just what people tell you. The theft guide is called “Asteya,” which means “non-stealing”—an ethical guideline from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. That’s typical Lululemon for you; they co-opt something from yoga and warp it until it loses its true meaning. We once made a shopper that spelled out the Sanskrit word Brahmacharya (virtue) in drugs, junk food and hypodermic needles. The company is so disproportionately tone-deaf it’s astounding. They mean to be relevant, and instead they manipulate good ideas until they become totally corrupt.

The emphasis on goodness and “yoga values” can be very insidious, very cult-like. You get constant feedback and “coaching,” which means that you’re scrutinized from the moment you walk in the door till the moment you leave. If you’re in a bad mood when you walk in, you have to do a “clearing,” which is this neo-spiritual way of making you say whatever is going on in your life, and then someone coaches you on how to get over it.

And again, this practice of mindfulness could be good in theory. But when it’s warped by who is in charge, it’s full-on positive psychology meets Tea Party. Ayn Rand’s books are in our “core library,” and you can’t escape that pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mindset. When a customer comes in and is rude to you, it’s your choice to be offended. It’s you not taking personal responsibility for the situation. If you point out something wrong or unethical, it’s labeled as your choice to complain. One of my managers told me she had a conversation with the former founder, Chip Wilson, where he talked about how he didn’t believe in public assistance or welfare, that people who were “entrepreneurial” would survive and be successful.

At Lululemon, the guest is always right, even when you would expect Lululemon to have your back. I had a guest spit on me once, and when I got upset and went into the back my manager told me it was my “choice” to be upset. Guests scream in your face, I’ve had guests follow educators to their cars, and Lululemon does nothing. A guest once threatened he was going to shoot an educator and they made us pay for our own security guard that night out of our controllable budget. You are not doing your job unless you take it up the ass, day in and day out.

Worse, the hypocrisy in Lululemon’s labor practices are often closer to illegal than legal. What they say and what they do often doesn’t line up. I have a friend who works at a store where they hired an educator with Tourette’s. They were like, “This is a place where people aren’t gonna judge you, where you can be you.” Then they fired him because he was “making guests uncomfortable.” My friend was his manager, and had to say straight-faced to the guy that he wasn’t a “culture fit.” It was cruel and discriminatory. There are tons of stories like that.

The labor practices are also warped because of Lululemon’s business plan, which is centered on not explicitly advertising. They’ve structured it so educators market for them for free when they’re “in the community,” which means you take classes wearing Lululemon as often as you can. One of the benefits is that they’ll reimburse you for two classes a week, but you’re not on the clock. Once the company got sued for this, they couldn’t explicitly order you to do it anymore, but you still know the expectation. You have to “be in the community” a lot if you want to move up. I know people who take two or three classes a day when the pressure is on to be “out there, on your own time, off the clock.

It’s not just frustrating; it can be legitimately harmful to the employees. When an educator I knew broke her ribs at a boot-camp class she was attending for the store, she was not allowed to work and was denied worker’s comp and disability. She owed thousands in medical bills, but again, it was her “choice” to be at class—even though the store paid for it and it was implied that she had to go.

There are so many other legal gray areas. In general, you work more than you’re paid for because you’re not allowed overtime. Managers often work up to 20 hours a week off the clock. For management, very often at the end of a shift, either you have to go home and get in trouble because you didn’t finish what you were needed to, or you clock out and keep working. Everyone knows that happens, but no one talks about it. That’s your job description: to be “entrepreneurial,” which is Lululemon’s code for working yourself to the bone without question.

Another example: at a nearby store when the store manager was fired and a bunch of other people in the store quit, the remaining manager was basically was told she needed to cover all the shifts and manage the store by herself without getting increased pay. She worked open to close for months, was never compensated for it, never got a promotion. This Thanksgiving our store was encouraged to open on Thanksgiving. We opened at 5 p.m.; several educators worked 5 p.m. to 12 a.m. and then were scheduled to be back at 5 a.m. for Black Friday. Mind you, this is a company that has “friends are more important than money” emblazoned on the manifesto.

I get it; it’s retail, and with retail in general, there’s always someone in your face telling you that you did something wrong. But at Lululemon, it’s incredibly personal, while you’re constantly being told not to take anything personally.

When you first come to Lululemon, they goal-coach you. You put your goals up on display in the store. They tell you not to make excuses, pinpoint what you really want. Goal-coaching is actually very helpful, unless you’re saying, “Well, I have student loans,” or “I’m going to be homeless because I don’t make enough money to live” and they’re like, “Why do you let that limit you?”

Part of your job description is called “getting related,” which means you have to be friends with your coworkers, or you’re not fulfilling your job. Mostly we are all friends, but it can feel very intrusive, because everyone knows what’s going on in your life all the time. Everything’s literally up on the wall.

Lululemon is all about ideals. The man and woman Lululemon designs for and creates marketing for is called our “muse”: the man is called Duke, and the woman is called Ocean. Anything you do, you appeal to that ideal, imaginary muse. Ocean makes six figures, she doesn’t want to have kids, she has a master’s degree, her core workout is yoga and she also likes running and spinning. The whole idea is that your guest is never going to actually be Ocean. It’s aspirational. They can try, but they’ll never be.

There’s an ideal employee, too, who’s a different person than the ideal guest. A person in leadership at Lululemon is relentlessly positive, willing to fully buy in without question and super “entrepreneurial.” Upper-level managers all talk in the exact same weird fake Canadian accent. You don’t necessarily need to be thin, but you need to work out constantly: if you don’t, you’re not a culture fit. The company is also extraordinarily white.

In general, a lot of the people in leadership don’t have very much grounding in how a business should be run. Many of the women have never had other jobs, have only ever worked at this one company; they’re people who didn’t know what they wanted to do with their lives and then found Lululemon. When you start, if you’re not a college graduate, or someone who just needs a part-time retail job—or a person who’s like, a dancer or yogi supplementing their income—you’re made to feel wrong for your scheduling, for needing time off for children, or for noticing the many OSHA violations (like one infamous, big store that has their fridge and microwave in their bathroom since the break room is so small).

So there are class issues at Lululemon, definitely. Many times, I’ve had people work at the store in hysterics, crying, miserable, willing to literally do anything because they’re not making enough money to live on their own. Lululemon has had the same base pay for the last seven years. It’s never been raised. It’s $12 an hour or less in most cities, which is the middle of the road for retail. There’s a decent bonus structure, but who the fuck can survive in the wealthy areas Lululemon puts their stores in on $12 an hour? Lululemon loves “the collective,” but not enough to increase the base pay for an educator, or to have paid leave for new parents, or 401(k)s.

That’s really the worst thing about Lululemon: they insist they care about you despite much evidence to the contrary. Most other retail companies don’t try to pretend that they give a fuck, but Lululemon tells you every single day: “Educators are the most important people in the company.” People believe it, too, especially if they’ve never worked for anyone else. But while snacks, free yoga classes and a clothing discount is great, those aren’t the benefits that matter. That doesn’t help people buy groceries or plan for retirement.

The benefits are not good. Employees in the corporate office in Canada comply with different laws and get a full year of maternity leave at full pay, but for anyone else, there’s no paid maternity leave. You have to use disability, at only 60 percent of your pay, which is not enough to live on—and you’re required to use all your paid vacation first, which is only 10-15 days for upper managers, but if you’re lower than a manager you don’t have any paid vacation at all.

So if you’re a queer employee and not carrying your child, you’ve got nothing in terms of maternity or paternity leave. It’s all unpaid, since you can’t use disability. How is treating gay employees differently than straight ones fair, or legal? Lululemon is always talking about reaching your goals in terms of love and relationships. But what if your goals are to have a child, or you’re a single parent, or you have to take care of a sick loved one? You can clearly go fuck yourself. It’s an incredibly profitable company—their pants retail for upwards of $100 a pair, and in a week a store will make in the triple digits. I just went to a conference where they made hand-printed books about the culture of Lululemon to give out every employee in the whole company, but they can’t pay for these benefits that people really, really need?

Voicing this stuff at work would not just be frowned upon; I’d be seriously risking my job. Lululemon is all about closing rank. If you say anything about anything you think is fucked up, you’ll immediately get a feedback-for-improvement form about your lack of positivity. In the stores, I’d say 50 percent of people buy the whole party line. The people who actually rely on the jobs, they just tend to stay quiet, because if they say something, they’ll end up getting fired. And leaving is awful—you have to do your exit interview in front of your manager, so you can’t say a lot of things or their “happiness metric” will suffer. In general, it’s hard to leave Lululemon on good terms.

And all this being said, I really don’t hate this company. Most of the people who work for the company are good people at heart. I believe they could change if they actually wanted to. It’s that belief that makes the reality so jarring, so sad.

Over the weekend, I went to the #GetQuietLiveLoud tour for the company. It’s wasn’t required, but like all things at Lululemon, it was implied that as a manager, you need to go. We started with a meditation. We were told to clear the space, get your mind together. There was a video presentation about “The Collective.” That’s the new branding, the Collective—it’s basically celebrating the culture of Lululemon, who Lululemon is, saying that all of our mistakes don’t mean anything. Lots of, we should love Lululemon, because it’s our family, it’s the only company that cares about the people who work here. It feels crazy. They kept using the word Collective, which made me feel like I was in a sci-fi movie.

Laurent, the new CEO of the company, came from TOMS, which is a company that does treat their people well. They have paid maternity leave, paid paternity leave. Blake Mycowskie, the founder of TOMS, just wrote an article for Glamour about it. It’s funny that it doesn’t make Laurent think about how he’s now running a company without many of those same benefits.

But anyway, Laurent spoke at the conference, talked a lot about the law of attraction—which, if you want that shoved down your throat, work at Lululemon. You’ll never hear the end of it. If you think negative thoughts, you bring negativity on yourself. (The pseudo-science is everywhere. It basically says on Lululemon bags that sunscreen gives you cancer.) He talked a ton about being our best selves, about “being in choice,” which is another phrase we use at Lululemon to explain away qualms—it’s a Landmark idea, which is the program you go to seminars for. Laurent kept talking about “real talk” and “being transparent,” which is laughable. Lululemon is the least transparent and real company. I get my news about Lululemon from Googling it.

It was a lot of forced inspiration. At one point I didn’t clap, and someone looked at me like I was spitting in Lululemon’s grave. Everyone kept saying, “Stop asking for permission, and start asking for forgiveness, and just take ownership of the future of the company and our own future.” They went on and on about our “killer sales,” but also about how “we could sell anything because the magic is in our people.” They really can’t hear themselves. Those people, their educators, don’t have basic benefits: competitive pay, sick days, 401(k)s, fully comprehensive health care. Illegal activity is rampant. I recognize this, and I’ve been thinking about leaving for a long time, but it’s very hard to get out of retail.

But, is Lululemon the most evil company out there? No. They’re a group of well-meaning people that continue to fuck up. I’ve gotten to learn a lot, trial by fire, and I’ve met some amazing people. My store in particular is a great store. Recently we hired on a bunch of new people that don’t buy all the corporate stuff as much as they do elsewhere, so in that respect, it’s a pretty good day-to-day experience.

Still, there’s no getting around the fact that the essential corporate strategy is basically to get people working and create this insane cult-like loyalty, and if anyone dissents, you just coach them out of their job. Nothing changes, no one acknowledges the hypocrisy, or the legitimacy of employee’s concerns. You have to stick to the party line. After the conference, I came back to the store, and I couldn’t say that any of it was a load of horseshit. If I did, I’d get fired. Instead, I just have to present it to my team, shove it down their throats. And everyone just has to smile and take it.

Story as told to Jia Tolentino, illustration by Tara Jacoby

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