Should we boycott Lululemon?

This week, you may have seen media reports of exploitation in Bangladeshi factories supplying clothing for the popular activewear brand Lululemon.[1] The reports were chilling and deeply concerning – female factory workers described being verbally and physically assaulted, denied sick leave and pressured to work without proper food or rest.

The systematic exploitation of workers, particularly female workers, in the supply chains of fashion brands is unconscionable. And it didn’t take long before the talk of boycotts came up from customers on social media:

“I will never purchase from you again.”

“Don’t buy Lululemon clothes.”

All orders should cease in countries where shady underhand practices and poor wages are happening.”

This sort of reaction isn’t surprising; boycotts have been used for centuries as a way of disrupting industries or creating change on a mass scale. They’re a way for us to put our ‘money where our mouths are’, they’re easy to do, and they quickly appease our desire to ‘punish’ offenders by hurting their hip pocket.

But is that really the most effective way to improve the lives of these workers?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Why Boycotts are problematic:

The global fashion industry employs over 80 million people across the world, many of whom are working in developing countries, and many of whom are desperately trying to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. In Bangladesh alone, where the factory under investigation is located, 4 million people rely on this industry for their livelihood.

While the global fashion industry has potential to be a force for good by providing jobs and generating economic growth, it also has the potential to do so much harm – so often the garment supply chain is riddled with exploitation, unsafe working conditions, and poverty-level wages.

So, the problem isn’t that brands are manufacturing their clothing in developing countries like Bangladesh – it’s that they aren’t doing enough to protect their workers.

When exploitation is exposed, a boycott may seem like an immediate and dramatic way to send a strong message to a company. But we need to remember that there are people – often incredibly vulnerable people – working in the supply chains of those companies. If a boycott gains the critical mass to be successful, and a brand stops its production, or immediately moves its production elsewhere, this has the potential to negatively impact the workers in that factory, taking away an essential source of income for them.  And, importantly, it fails to redress the exploitation that has occurred.

We don’t want to see that factory closed altogether…we want to see appropriate remediation for these workers, conditions improved, fairer wages paid, and their voices being heard.

We don’t want to see the end of the global fashion industry; we want to see it do better.[2]

Why Advocacy works:

That is why, at Baptist World Aid, we are passionate about using our voices to amplify the concerns of workers. We are passionate about mobilising consumers to speak up and speak out on the issues of worker exploitation and call on brands to do better. We’re passionate about seeing fashion companies collaborate and work together to change the way the industry works. This is how we believe systematic change has happened in the past and will continue to happen.

Companies listen when their customers speak. We’ve seen brands respond to our postcard and letter-writing campaigns, choosing to be more transparent about what they are doing to protect workers; we’re seeing more and more brands release supplier lists, more companies trace their supply chains, and more companies investing in deeper relationships with their suppliers – all critical pillars of a strong labour rights management system.[3]

And when we ask brands what motivates them to make these improvements, time and time again they tell us it’s because of consumer advocacy and the public pressure they feel.

What now?

We recognise the impact that reports like this may have on your purchasing decisions. We urge you, however, to make sure that part of your response to Lululemon involves advocacy.

Lululemon has announced that it has launched an investigation into this factory and will “ensure workers are protected from any form of abuse and are treated fairly.”[4] We commend Lululemon for their swift response and willingness to take responsibility for any wrongdoing.

Now, it’s our responsibility to hold them accountable.

So, we encourage you to write to Lululemon. Urge them to use this as an opportunity to review their supply chain practices and put structures in place to ensure that worker rights are upheld, that all workers are paid a living wage, and that the voices of all workers are heard.

We’ve put together this sample post which you could use on social media:

Dear Lululemon, I am deeply concerned by reports of exploitation in Bangladeshi factories supplying your clothing. Thank you swiftly launching an investigation into these reports. I urge you to do all you can to remediate this situation and ensure that adequate structures are put in place to ensure that worker rights are upheld, that all workers are paid a living wage and that workers have a platform to raise their voices.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/oct/14/workers-making-lululemon-leggings-claim-they-are-beaten

[2] There are, of course, exceptions. For example, we call on companies to boycott the use of cotton from Uzbekistan. This is a case of state-sponsored forced labour, and in this instance a boycott is unlikely to do further harm to those affected.

[3] It should be noted that in the 2019 Ethical Fashion Report, Lululemon received an A- grade. This grade was awarded to Lululemon on the basis of the efforts they had undertaken to mitigate the risks of forced labour, child labour and worker exploitation, when compared to their peers. These latest reports are a reminder that even brands with stronger systems in place cannot be complacent when it comes to ensuring workers are protected; that there is still work to be done across the industry; that the voices of workers aren’t being listened to; and that we have a critical role to play as consumers and advocates.

[4] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-bangladesh-rights-workforce/lululemon-investigates-bangladesh-factory-over-workers-treatment-idUSKBN1WU2EN