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Living With Climate Change: Yoga enthusiasts in a twist over Lululemon’s links to polluting coal-powered factories

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Lululemon, the yoga and fitness apparel brand, finds itself in a tough position.

The Canadian retailer’s
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sustainability website and its updated impact report out this week include some dates and targets for shrinking its emissions and promotes a company “deeply connected to ourselves, each other and our planet.” But it has agitated some yoga enthusiasts because the mostly Asian factories that turn out its leggings, sports bras and hoodies often rely on polluting coal to power their sewing machines.

Stand.Earth, an activist group, has helped stage protests at select Lululemon stores, but on Saturday will take its march, and what it hopes is a large showing of yoga lovers, to Lululemon’s Vancouver headquarters.

In addition, some 1,000 yoga teachers and students across 28 countries — including some who act as Lululemon brand ambassadors — have so far signed an open letter asking the retailer to source its products from factories using renewable energy
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“Burning coal to make hoodies and ‘Hotty Hot’ high-rise pants is unacceptable,” said one yoga teacher, in the open letter.

Coal — whose historic use in powering electricity grids has in large part given way to natural gas
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wind and solar in many countries — still sees its demand rise and fall depending on comparable costs of other energy sources and political will. It remains a popular option in China, India and elsewhere.

Coal accounted for over 40% of the overall growth in global CO2 emissions in 2021, International Energy Agency data shows, as rising demand put strains on the power grid. Russia’s energy squeeze as part of its invasion of Ukraine has also pushed more coal back into the mix in Asia and parts of Europe, which are struggling to secure enough natural gas and aren’t fully converted to alternative energy.

Environmental groups think the private sector can do more, and not soon enough.

“Businesses and companies have a vital role to play in our transitioning away from fossil fuels
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and protecting our health and our future from the impacts of climate change. But while the urgency is clear, Lululemon continues to rely on highly polluting coal-powered manufacturing plants to make its products,” Stand.Earth said in a statement in June, when it launched a protest at a Chicago Lululemon store.

“The solution is for Lululemon to publicly commit to phase out coal and switch to 100% clean, renewable energy across its supply chain by 2030. Despite record growth and high profit margins, and unlike other leading sportswear and fashion brands like Mammut, Kering, and H&M, who have all committed to power their supply chain with 100% renewable energy,” Lululemon has lagged, the group charged.

A company spokesman told MarketWatch in a statement that Lululemon remains “focused on helping to create a garment industry that is sustainable and addresses the serious implications of climate change through goals and strategies that include a rapid transition to renewable energy and energy efficiency.”

“‘We know that a majority of impact is in Scope 3 GHG emissions, including industry supply chains, and we are committed to continuing to innovate across the supply chain and  are actively working with industry partners to be a part of the solution.’ ”

— Lululemon spokesperson

The company said that last year, it achieved a goal of procuring 100% renewable electricity to power all owned and operated facilities, and exceeded its 60% target with an 82% absolute reduction in Scope 1 and 2 greenhouse-gas emissions in all owned and operated facilities. Scope 1 emissions are those a company directly creates in its operations, while Scope 2 covers the impact of the energy it uses. (Read more).

The retailer, and other companies, face increasing pressure to improve control of the more challenging Scope 3 emissions, which cover the impact from suppliers to customers. Emissions, or the pollution generated when oil and gas are combusted, are the leading cause of global warming. That warming in turn is raising sea levels and worsening severe weather, costing lives and economic well-being.

“We know that a majority of impact is in Scope 3 GHG emissions, including industry supply chains, and we are committed to continuing to innovate across the supply chain and are actively working with industry partners to be a part of the solution,” the Lululemon spokesperson said, listing groups it has joined, such as the U.N. Fashion Charter for Climate Action and the Apparel Impact Institute-led Fashion Climate Fund.

“‘ Burning coal to make hoodies and “Hotty Hot” high-rise pants is unacceptable.’”

— Yoga teacher signing the open letter to Lululemon

The company said it is among the members of working groups “engaging with select suppliers to phase out any direct use of coal, among other initiatives that drive transition to renewable energy” but it has not set a timeline for ending its coal affiliation.

“They really stand out with a huge disconnect between what they say they value and what they do,” Laura Kelly, the head of campaigns at Action Speaks Louder, which is organizing the campaign alongside North America-based Stand.Earth, told The Guardian.

“Almost half of the energy which powers Lululemon factories comes from coal,” Kelly said. “But you would be hard pressed to find a company that says they are more ethical.”

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