Murder At Lululemon: Yoga's "Heart Of Darkness"?

Last week's guilty verdict in the trial of 28-year-old Brittany Norwood -- accused of first-degree murder in the grisly slaying of her 30-year old co-worker Jayna Murray -- has brought to a close the latest ugly chapter in the history of Lululemon.
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Last week's guilty verdict in the trial of 28-year-old Brittany Norwood -- accused of first-degree murder in the grisly slaying of her 30-year old co-worker Jayna Murray -- has brought to a close -- for now, at least -- the latest ugly chapter in the history of Lululemon, the posh yoga apparel company whose suburban outlet on the outskirts of Washington, DC was the setting for a killing that seasoned homicide detectives have described as one of the worst they've ever seen.

It would be tempting to dismiss the savage murder -- Norwood stabbed and bludgeoned Murray an estimated 330 times over the course of 20 minutes, severing her spinal cord -- as a bizarre and random event. That's surely what the Canadian-based Lululemon, which seems to have nine lives when it comes to recurring scandal and controversy, is hoping for. But for the American yoga community, which extols the virtues of peace and non-violence, the killing raises deeply disturbing issues. How could two female "yogis" -- the Sanskrit word for devotees of the ancient Hindu practice -- arrive at a place where lethal force became an "option"? And what kind of workplace environment would fuel, or at least fail to ameliorate, such a dispute?

Lululemon is no typical workplace, in fact. It's highly competitive -- indeed, cultish -- corporate culture has raised serious ethical concerns for years, and so have the company's exploitative marketing and advertising policies. But those concerns have largely been ignored, or downplayed, because of Lululemon's position as the yoga industry's leading "pioneer," with net revenues of $239 million projected for 2011, six times the level reached in 2004. The company, with stocks publicly traded on Wall Street since 2007, has been in the forefront of re-branding yoga as a trendy, eco-friendly lifestyle, similar to the way an earlier generation of marketers exploited urban hip-hop to reap billions from suburban whites starved for "authenticity."

In fact, most of America's up-and-coming yoga "gurus" -- men like John Friend, a self-styled corporate mogul -- who are anxious to see their spiritual movement expand -- and their own celebrity enhanced -- have struck a Faustian bargain of sorts with companies like Lulelemon. They've largely stayed quiet, amid a string of controversies like this one, hoping to exploit yoga's commercial success, even if Lululemon's commitment to yoga as an authentic "wellness" practice -- in fact, even much of the pricey apparel it sells has no actual relation to yoga -- remains dubious at best.

The seeds of the company's problems were planted early, with its initial founding in Vancouver in 1998. Former CEO Chip Wilson, an avid snowboarder, said he came up with "Lululemon" because he delighted in the idea that trying to pronounce the name -- with its three syllables beginning with "l'" -- would pose a special challenge for the Japanese, whom he enjoyed making fun of. From that less-than-enlightened starting point Wilson went on to create a huge controversy in 2005 when he announced that the firm would rely on child labor and "sweat shops" in China, after three competitors in his native Vancouver went belly up due to rising labor costs.

Wilson, with characteristic elan, argued that Lululemon would be giving poor Chinese youth jobs, and should be applauded, not lambasted, for wanting to assist in Third World "development." Critics didn't see it that way, of course, noting that Chinese youth would be better off getting an education, and that sweatshop workers, usually young women, couldn't support themselves with the wages they'd be paid. But Wilson, still smarting from criticism from Canadian trade unions that his past use of local non-union Vancouver labor hadn't really demonstrated a socially responsible commitment to the welfare of his workforce, would hear none of it.

It took only a year for Lululemon to step into an even larger controversy. In 2006, the firm rolled out a line of "Vita-Sea" apparel bags that it claimed were made with seaweed fiber, and had health and medicinal effects for consumers, including stress reduction, through the release of amino acids and vitamins into the skin's natural moisture. But skeptics, including the New York Times, decided to sponsor lab tests, which revealed that Lululemon wasn't just misleading consumers: it was lying. There was no seaweed of any kind in the bags the newspaper tested. There was no difference, in fact, between the Lululemon bags and other bags made of cotton - except that Lululemon's, of course, were a lot more expensive.

Company executives, with characteristic arrogance, refused to issue an apology and privately chalked it up as a "growth" experience. But apparel industry watchdogs weren't amused: a major investigation of the eco-claims of a large number of mainstream companies ensued.

And then there's Lululemon and sex. Sex-based advertising has become increasingly popular in the yoga world, even appearing in the pages of the industry trade magazine Yoga Journal. But Lululemon, as always, has been a trend setter. It's creepiest manifestation, perhaps, was revealed in early 2008 when a mother and her daughter unwittingly discovered secret messages woven into the fabric of Lululemon products that appeared to extol the virtues of getting high and having multiple orgasms. Lululemon had also included more traditional inspirational messages but the more risque adages had been placed underneath those, apparently to be digested subliminally.

How has Lululemon managed to fend off one scandal after another? Recording record profits year after year for your shareholders surely helps, but so does the firm's clever co-optation strategy. Most of its stores offer free weekly yoga classes taught by "neighborhood" yogis who often turn out to be specially recruited fitness pros new to yoga but who have already drunk the Lululemon kool-aid. The company calls these local yogis "brand ambassadors" -- currently, there are roughly 1,000 nationwide -- and often features them in Lululemon publications. It's a win-win deal: the yogis get free marketing, and a ready-made pool of prospective yoga clients. Lulu reaps extraordinary "word-of-mouth" and gets more shoppers into its stores, where they typically receive 15% discounts just for attending the free yoga class.

Lululemon is quite blunt in its assessment of the "typical" yoga personality. Wilson early on experimented with yogis who extolled the virtues of stillness and introspection -- genuine yoga, that is -- but found that as workers, hard-core spiritual yogis didn't move his merchandise fast enough. Wilson is also devotee of the Landmark Forum, a successor organization to EST "human potential" movement started by Werner Erhard in the 1970s. Wilson and his successors talk a lot about transitioning people from "mediocrity to greatness," and freely admits that he likes to recruit highly competitive "Type-A" personalities to staff and run his stores. That's great for business, perhaps, but the concentration of estrogen and ego, heightened by a faux Tantric mysticism that celebrates every woman as a reincarnation of Shakti -- or worse, Kali, the goddess of destruction -- has the potential to turn your company into a furnace of creativity -- or simply an emotional powder keg.

Which is why for Lululemon, the less said about the workplace murder, the better, perhaps. Last Thursday, in a bizarre public statement, the company's CEO Christine Day, who's anxious to do for the company what she previously did for Starbucks -- expand its empire overseas - personally thanked the judge, the prosecutor, the police, and the jury for their speedy resolution of the case. Her statement contains none of the language one might expect from a company genuinely concerned about the welfare of its employees, other than stating that Norwood's behavior was "contrary to our values." There was no mention of the incident as a "terrible tragedy" or the need for "healing" in the two families, let alone any call for "reflection" or a promise to review internal policies. Just the usual exculpatory language one might expect from a company that's boldly taking yoga where it's never gone before and that clearly doesn't want a nasty, still-unexplained murder conducted on its premises standing in its way.

Occupy Wall Street? That's the new rallying cry of yoga progressives. And why not -- that's where you'll find Lululemon's investors, extolling the firm's phenomenal growth and record profits amid the nation's rampant joblessness and recession.

But that's why protesting yogis might want to take their critique of greed and capitalism one step further, and end their semi-official silence on a company that's more predator than partner, more pariah than pioneer. The demand for corporate responsibility, like most things in life, begins at home. Physician, heal thyself.

Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Werner Erhard was an "ex-Scientologist".

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