clothing · fashion

Just walk slowly away from that rack of $100 yoga pants

I’ve been teaching a course on egalitarianism in moral and political philosophy this term and issues of access to physical fitness have been big on my mind, as I work on my own “fittest by fifty” project and do the readings and prepare for the class.

Egalitarianism is, roughly, the view that equality matters in our evaluation of various states of affairs. It doesn’t just matter how much wealth or happiness there is in our society. If you’re an egalitarian it also matters how it’s distributed.

There are some huge differences in time and money available to individuals that create gaps in our access to fitness. There many places this crops up but one of them that interests me is the cost of workout wear for our various fitness pursuits.

It seems important because unlike some of the other issues (number of hours worked, financial access to fitness facilities, gendered differences in free time available for leisure once child care and elder care are taken into account), this one is a myth we can help to dispel.

It’s clear that it’s not necessary to pay big bucks to pursue the goal of getting in shape. Most recently I started thinking about this in the context of the pricing of yoga pants, as part of an online discussion prompted by a story that came across my Facebook newsfeed.

Why is everyone so keen to pay $100 for yoga pants? So asks this story on ABC news.

“Lululemon is the leader in designer workout gear. The brand started as just one store in Vancouver, B.C.. Today it boasts 175 stores in the U.S. and many more worldwide. The company ranked fourth among the most profitable stores in the U.S., according to research company RetailSails. Who beat lululemon? You may have heard of them: Coach, Tiffany and Apple. Sales for lululemon were $1,800 per square foot.”

But should you pay $100 or more for yoga pants? Here are some of the questions worth thinking about as you make that decision.

  • First, do you need $100 yoga pants to do yoga?

Clearly not. You can wear regular comfortable clothes or even nothing at all. When I was in Canberra, Australia for my sabbatical at the Australian National University I noticed that the city offers Nude Yoga for Men. (Come and enjoy the sensual delights of practicing yoga naked under soft lighting in our new, toasty warm venue, read the poster.) You can read more about nude yoga here. No nude yoga for women though. At home, I find jammies work pretty well. Confession: To actual yoga classes, I wear inexpensive shorts from Costco. And $100 is more than I’ve ever paid for actual pants. Further confession: I do own bib cycling shorts that cost more, 1 pair.

  • Second, should you spend your disposable income on yet more clothes or should you give the money away to a respected charity, such as  Oxfam?

That’s a tougher question. Start by reading Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save.

If we could easily save the life of a child, we would. For example, if we saw a child in danger of drowning in a shallow pond, and all we had to do to save the child was wade into the pond, and pull him out, we would do so. The fact that we would get wet, or ruin a good pair of shoes, doesn’t really count when it comes to saving a child’s life.

UNICEF, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, estimates that about 24,000 children die every day from preventable, poverty-related causes. Yet at the same time almost a billion people live very comfortable lives, with money to spare for many things that are not at all necessary. (You are not sure if you are in that category? When did you last spend money on something to drink, when drinkable water was available for nothing? If the answer is “within the past week” then you are spending money on luxuries while children die from malnutrition or diseases that we know how to prevent or cure.)

The Life You Can Save seeks to change this. If everyone who can afford to contribute to reducing extreme poverty were to give a modest proportion of their income to effective organizations fighting extreme poverty, the problem could be solved. It wouldn’t take a huge sacrifice.

  • Third, should you buy anything, including yoga pants, from Lululemon?

That depends on your values and whether you think we should share the values of the companies to which we give our business.  My worry  is that the workplace philosophy of Lululemon is just a bit cult like and that it’s fueled by the ideas of Ayn Rand. But beyond reading the articles linked below I haven’t done much research but that’s because I’m already motivated by questions 1 and 2 to stay away.

The image above is a spoof of the Lululemon shopping bag manifesto. On the left is the original and on the right the student spoof. (Source: LuluLemon Ad Spoof: 400 Years of Yoga, And We Finally Figured Out How To Cash In)

Yet more confessions: I do think their clothes are gorgeous and stylish. I often admire them on other people. And there is some Lulu brand stuff in our house, hand me downs from a friend who is a fitness instructor. I think she got it free because they like to see their brand on the backs of teachers.

Worth reading:

Lululemon Athletica Combines Ayn Rand and Yoga

Murder At Lululemon: Yoga’s “Heart Of Darkness”?

Lululemon Run by Ayn Rand-Obsessed Ideologue

Are your favorite yoga pants evil?

16 thoughts on “Just walk slowly away from that rack of $100 yoga pants

  1. I got a lulu lemon gift card for Christmas and was happy because I will rarely spend that kind of money on myself. I would never pay $100 for yoga pants and tend to find my fitness wear either on sale or at Winners. I had no idea about the Ayn Rand thing. But stylish and good quality. Yes.

  2. If I got a gift card, I’d use it. I won’t lie.

    But I do worry about the way they treat their workers both here and overseas. Here they fire employees who don’t fit in with the creepy cult like corporate culture. Overseas they have very sketchy labour practices, including an involvement in child labour. That said, at least Chip Wilson has stepped down:
    “In January, founder Chip Wilson stepped aside and his duties were taken over by CEO Christine Day, after he generated a string of unfortunate headlines about his weird beliefs. Those beliefs include favoring child labor, his disdain for the ability of the Japanese to speak English, a love of Ayn Rand, and his opinion that The Pill created a generation of divorce-shattered women now seeking empowerment through yoga.”
    It’s certainly worth reading this Business Insider piece: 12 Utterly Bizarre Facts About The Rise Of Lululemon, The Cult-Like Yoga Brand

  3. Sadly, I cannot do yoga wearing nothing at all. That is, I _could_, but it would not be safe for me to do so. I personally don’t have issues with nude bodies, but other people do, and I’ve already had my life screwed over once by such a person. Since I don’t care to go down that road ever again, I consider clothing to be “necessary” for yoga.

    I cannot do yoga in pyjamas either. The pants would rip in the crotch and the top would fall over my head every time I performed downward facing dog or any other inverted pose. I know plenty of people who do yoga successfully in loose fitting clothing (and I know of yoga instructors who sanctimoniously insist it is “wrong” to do yoga in body-hugging clothing) but loose doesn’t work for me.

    So, once we’ve established that I’m going to wear spandex clothing, do I sometimes purchase it from Lululemon? Yep. Their clothing fits me, it is comfortable and it performs well under the conditions which I subject it too. And yes, I look good wearing it and I like that I look good wearing it. I don’t apologize for that.

    I’ve never paid $100 for yoga pants, however. Mind you, I only own one pair of full length lulu pants, and I purchased them nine years ago. I don’t lose sleep over the question of whether I “should” spend my disposable income on “yet more clothes” or give it to charity because, frankly, I’ve never had all that much disposable income by Canadian standards and I don’t purchase clothing to follow fashion trends but because I need to wear clothing in order to participate in Canadian society.

    Once I do purchase clothing, I wear it until the seams give out. Then I mend the seams and keep wearing the clothing until the fabric itself wears through. So far, I have not had to do any repairs on the nine-year-old lulu pants. They are still in great shape and they still fit me, they are still comfortable, they still perform well, and I still look good in them. In spite of the fact that I’ve gained twenty pounds since I purchased those pants and I wear them for a lot more than yoga. I wear them hiking. I wear them running. I wear them around town. I wore them to my office when I worked in an office. I wear them roller skating and have taken hard falls in them on asphalt and they came through unscathed. I wear those pants all day and have worn them, on average, I estimate a full day every week for nine years now. And I’m still wearing them. (Hmm. This has me thinking that the next time one of my cheaper pairs of pants–which don’t tend to last for nine years–wears through, I might just replace them with a second pair of lulu pants. Even if the lulu pants do cost $100 now.)

    I would love to purchase clothing only from companies which share my values, but sadly, this is not possible. The entire retail industry fails horribly on measures of egalitarianism, and even a “made in Canada” label is no guarantee a garment was not manufactured under sweatshop conditions. Living in Canada requires me to participate in a system which is broken on many levels, and boycotting one particular company within an industry which is problematic in its entirety (and which is only one industry within a problematic economic system) would not be an effective tactic in my efforts to make our world a better place.

  4. I worked out for, oh, twenty years in the cheapest gear I could find. The first ten years of that time I did so at a YMCA where I got a membership in exchange for volunteering, and later, being a staff person – I was way too poor to afford it otherwise. The entire culture of the average fitness club makes me feel barfy, and a lot of yoga culture does too, in different ways – the former for the “skinny at all costs” mentality and highly gendered practices, the latter for its treacly new-agey feel-goodness and rank cultural appropriation. But I’m committed above all to doing stuff that makes my body feel good and helps me stay healthy, and in the last 7-8 years yoga has been it, and well worth it even in times when it was still a financial stretch for me.

    In that time, I discovered that Lululemon clothes fucking rock (helped, no doubt, by a friend’s substantial employee discount). They hold up better than any other gear I’ve ever worn, they wick sweat wonderfully well so I don’t feel soggy during or after, they’re comfy as hell, they reliably stay put and out of my way while I practice, their design is stylish while remaining simple and super-functional, and they make me feel sexy without making me feel like I’m dressed up like either a tarty aerobics instructor or a shapeless jock. This in turn – and I will frankly admit at least some vanity factor here – helped motivate me to keep doing the yoga despite years of worsening chronic pain, and I think the fitter-than-it-should-have-been state of my body contributed a lot to my current relatively swift recovery from major spinal surgery.

    So, do I need $100 yoga pants? No. But then, if life choices were just a question of pure need, I’d be doing a whole lot differently, and probably not doing much yoga at all. I don’t know that base-level need is the primary question here. I don’t need the bike I bought this fall, either, but I sure am glad I bought it, and I’m clocking how much it saves me in bus fare every week. I don’t need expensive yoga pants, but I’m much happier with them than I am wearing cheaper stuff that bags, sogs up, fades, wears through and needs to be replaced every year or two; and I think it’s ultimately a savings both in money and in terms of putting less garbage out into the world.

    Could I save a life by donating to Oxfam instead of buying yoga pants? Maybe, though my distrust of Big Charity runs pretty high so I’m skeptical about that one. More importantly, though, I don’t think every consumer purchase should be weighed pound for pound against the idea of saving a kid’s life. While it’s of course a good idea to be ethical about shopping choices, and to hold companies to high standards of labour practice, I’m suspicious of the discourse that aims to exclusively focus our attention on consumer choices as a form of activism and that uses guilt as a motivator. It’s not that this discourse is factually wrong per se, if you go at it mathematically. It just sets up a very limiting framework within which the important questions of state market regulation, labour rights, global economics, capitalism and so forth are minimized in favour of a focus on individual shopping choices, which I find weirdly supportive of the capitalist framework it purports to criticize. And even in that limited context, I have always been frustrated that despite all the activist outrage about bad corporate practice, it’s extremely hard to get real, concrete information about the ethical situation behind *any* product before we buy it. Wouldn’t that be a great activist project? A broad, clear, well-categorized website with all available information about every brand and every product in our stores, where we could go to find out where we’re putting our money? Give me a solid, well-researched chart that lays out the corporate practices of every fitness clothing producer so that I can make informed choices, and I really would consider buying differently. But in the meantime I’m not convinced that the $20 Winners pants aren’t also made by children’s hands in Vietnam, or the Nike ones, or the no-name brand. So I have no motivation to buy lower-quality stuff that’s just as ethically questionable.

    The cultish corporate thing is weird (and I’ve heard plenty about it from my Lulu-employed friend), but frankly I’ve seen far worse, and they give their employees a lot of pretty great perks, all things considered. Beyond that, though, I have yet to encounter a single corporate culture that I would actually stand behind. I mean some are outright evil, but no matter how they’re dressed up, even the “good” ones are still operating in a poisoned system – and I’ve worked for some of the “best.”

    Anyway, I very much agree that Lulu, like all other fitness-related and fashion corporations, is part of a bigger problem. I just wish the general conversation on this stuff would move out of the vote-with-your-dollar rut and get more… radical, creative, concrete and practical, all at once. In the meantime I’m going to keep hitting the (straight, new-agey, culturally-appropriative) mat in my (evil $100 ass-flattering sweat-wicking) yoga pants in order to regain/maintain my (privileged white Western) health as best I can, while drinking tap water in a reusable all-metal no-coating bottle, and trying to save the world somehow anyway. 😉

  5. Terrific response. Between you and Laura RD, I find myself wishing I got the gift card for Christmas.

    Actually, not really. Because I only do hot yoga no amount of wicking would help. Everything is dripping wet within a few minutes. Clothes of any sort seem beside the point. I think if I did regular yoga I might feel differently about this discussion!

    In short, glad yoga played such a pivotal role in your health and recovery and if good yoga clothes help, more power to them. I agree that the debate about how to spend money and charitable giving is narrow and individualistic. It doesn’t leave much room for ‘let’s change the whole system’ sorts of responses. I actually feel better about Lululemon knowing Chip Wilson is off the scene. It’s the Ayn Rand stuff that first caught my eye and attention, followed by his creepy comments about the pill, feminism, and yoga. Glad to hear it’s not that bad for the people who work there.

  6. Late commenting via the Spry post, wondering how I missed this post in the first place.

    And just adding one additional perspective… This is assuming that Lululemon (or other upscale retailer) pants are a size-related option in the first place. For me, even if I had the money or felt that the pants were better constructed than other brands, the fact remains that Lululemon doesn’t make clothing in anything close to my size. On the flip side of that, the main reason that I purchase my yoga pants at Walmart is not because I don’t want to pay for quality or because I do approve of their business practices — but simply because they’re the one place in my city where I know there will be athletic attire sold to fit me.

    1. That’s true. Lulu ‘s bras would fit me I think but their tights? Not a hope. Not at my smallest.

      1. Pretty much, though I have to admit to some wistfulness when people comment on their quality of clothing. (Though I also have to admit — I have not been dissatisfied with the durability of my Walmart wear.)

        I guess what I’m trying to think about — which, it often takes me a few comments to articulate — is that, because of other circumstances about me, if I ever spend $50-$80 on a single pair of yoga pants (actual prices I’ve scouted but cannot afford), it will end up being via a company that:
        caters to an underserved market
        has better labor practices
        is significantly closer to — and may even be — a small, independent businessI guess what I’m thinking about is that, particularly for some demographics, the price tag of the yoga pants is not exclusively — or even largely — due to the brand name attached.

  7. Lululemon is for squares. Get Lucy yoga pants. Yes, they cost $90 but sometimes they are on sale. Yoga and running are cheap sports with a low carbon footprint. These pants wear like iron and they don’t’ fall down.

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