Lululemon vs. Athleta – Sustainable athleisure

Athleta and Lululemon are both high-end women’s athletic wear brands available in the United States. There’s a lot that’s similar about these two brands, but there are also some pretty big distinctions. Yes, both are high-end women’s activewear lines, but Athleta is more focused on inclusivity and female empowerment, while Lululemon focuses on high-performing athletes. 

Both brands offer the standard athletic gear a woman needs such as pants, shorts, and leggings, tanks, tees, and hoodies. You’ll also find apparel for young girls in both brands that include bottoms like shorts and leggings with tops like tees and sweatshirts.

Deciding which athleisure wear brand to support next time you’re shopping can be a tough decision, so we’ve tried to break down both brands and what your purchase will support.

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Why you should trust us

At Ethically, we compile scores from over 700 verified sources to create a granular profile of more than 10,000 companies and brands, evaluating their impact on the environment, society at large, and good business. You can learn more about Ethically’s process in our Methodology and you can see the scores yourself by downloading the Ethically browser extension.

The companies

Lululemon

is an athletic apparel retailer domiciled in Delaware and headquartered in Vancouver. Founded in 1998 as a retailer of yoga pants and other yoga wear, Lululemon has since expanded to sell its products internationally in 491 stores as well as online. The company has expanded to sell a variety of athletic wear, including performance shirts, shorts, and pants, as well as lifestyle apparel and yoga accessories.

Athleta (Gap)

Gap was founded in 1969 by Donald Fisher and Doris F. Fisher and is headquartered in San Francisco, California. The company operates six primary divisions: Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy, Intermix, Hill City, and Athleta. Gap Inc. is the largest specialty retailer in the United States, and is 3rd in total international locations, behind Inditex Group and H&M. As of September 2008, the company has approximately 135,000 employees and operates 3,727 stores worldwide, of which 2,406 are located in the U.S.

Scores Overview

These two companies, while often compared side by side, have a distinct gap when it comes to their ESG measurements. There are some major differences that put one above the other.

Overall, Lululemon scored a 54/100 and Gap scored a 62/100. This difference is highlighted in all three score categories but is especially seen in their Environment and Social Responsibility scoring.

Let’s dive in (Reminder, check out our Methodology for definitions on each of these subtopic scores)

Impact on the environment

Impact on the environment relates to how a company or brand impacts the natural world around us. This could be related to the products they create, their manufacturing policies, or even their corporate response to climate change. Lululemon and Gap both impact the environment in a number of ways, from their manufacturing policies to the products they produce. Below are more details comparing these two companies. 

Lululemon

Score: 62

Gap 

Score: 70

Comparison

Gap significantly beats Lululemon in this category, with the scores being 70 to 62. This category has to do with the companies’ compliance with environmental regulations, energy efficient operations and development of renewable energy and alternative environmental technologies. 

Double clicking on that score difference, Gap scored a 76/100 in Energy & Climate Change, a 65/100 in Environment Policy & Reporting and a 68/100 in Resource Management. On the other hand, Lululemon scored a 71/100 in Energy & Climate Change, a 55/100 in Environment Policy & Reporting and a 59/100 in Resource Management.

  • While Lululemon is a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and claims sustainability as one of its core principles, its environmental impact is simply ‘not good enough’. Lululemon only uses a low proportion of eco-friendly materials. While it has set an absolute target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions generated from its owned operations by 100% by 2021, it is unclear whether it has set a supply chain target. There is no evidence it has taken meaningful action to reduce or eliminate hazardous chemicals, nor does it have adequate policies or initiatives on water reduction. On the sustainability section of its website, Lululemon talks about ways to improve environmental impact. Although this is positive, in reality, it doesn’t reflect any meaningful action. For a global brand such as Lululemon, there really is no excuse not to do its part for the environment. Source
  • In December 2020, the retail group joined the US Cotton Trust Protocol, which helps companies to source sustainable cotton by tracking it throughout the supply chain. It has also signed up to Textile Exchange’s 2025 Sustainable Cotton Challenge, which calls for more than 50% of the world’s cotton to be converted to more sustainable growing methods. The pledge has been made across all of Gap Inc’s fascias, including Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic and Athleta. Just over half (57%) of cotton used by Gap Inc has been sourced sustainably since 2016. The business’s director of product sustainability, Alice Hartley, tells Drapers how the group is aiming to source 100% of its cotton from more sustainable sources by 2025. Gap has defined “more sustainable sources”  to include organic, recycled, and cotton from the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) and US Cotton Trust Protocol. Gap is making good progress toward our goal: 57% of their  cotton volume comes through these programmes. Source

Impact on social responsibility

Social responsibility includes all the things that make a company “good”. Whether that’s giving back to the community, standing up for equal rights, treating workers fairly. Lululemon and Gap both have a number of policies around LGBTQ+ rights, community outreach, and equal pay and rights for all.

Lululemon

Score: 50

Gap 

Score: 61

Comparison

Another major distinction can be noted within the Social Responsibility category, where Lululemon scores a 50/100 and Gap scores a 61/100.This category includes all programs, policies and performance in diversity, labor relations and labor rights. It also focuses on compensation and benefits as well as employee safety. 

The major differences were the respective companies’ Diversity and Labor rights rankings Lululemon: 49 vs. Gap: 60, Training, Health & Safety rankings Lululemon: 50 vs. Gap: 65 and Compensation with Lululemon: 51 vs. Gap: 59 score.

  • When it comes to workers, Lululemon falls short again, with a ‘not good enough’ rating. It has a Code of Conduct that covers all of the ILO Four Fundamental Freedoms principles and traces some of its supply chain, but the good news ends there. There is no evidence the brand has any worker empowerment initiatives such as collective bargaining or rights to make a complaint, and it has made little to no progress toward payment of a living wage. To top it all off, it sources its final stage of production from countries with extreme risk of labour abuse! Source 
  • The first social responsibility report issued by Gap Inc. found gaps in the occupational health and safety and human rights policies at some of the factories used by the retailing giant. As a result, the San Francisco-based company stopped doing business with 136 factories due to issues such as the use of child labor, inadequate safety and industrial hygiene measures, insufficient access to drinkable water, and verbal and physical abuse. The report found that “few factories, if any, are in full compliance all of the time. If they were, we wouldn’t need a code or the extensive resources we devote to monitoring. When we find problems, we work with management to try to resolve them as quickly as possible. We will stay with a manufacturer as long as we believe it is committed to making ongoing improvements.” Source

Quality of corporate governance

Corporate governance is much like social responsibility, but for how the company operates internally. Do they have a diverse board? Is there transparency in accounting? Are they doing what they need to do to survive and operate in an ethical and correct manner? Lululemon and Gap both are large public companies with shareholders and boards they answer to.

Lululemon

Score: 51

Gap 

Score: 57

Comparison

Gap has the last point advantage over Lululemon, with the Governance score being 51 to 57. The Governance score refers to leadership structure and the values that determine corporate direction, ethics and performance.

Upon further analysis, Gap pulls away from Lululemon in the rankings of Board (57 vs 52), in Transparency & Reporting (56 vs 50) and in Leadership Ethics (58 vs 52).

  • The uproar around yoga wear retailer Lululemon Athletica two years ago was about a little too much transparency. Now some shareholders are complaining about a lack of it. Lululemon shares tumbled and executives departed following a high-profile 2013 recall of its signature yoga pants that were deemed too see-through. Its founder Chip Wilson later clashed with the board over how things were being run. While the stock largely recovered from the pants debacle, some investors say the Vancouver-based company – which holds its annual meeting June 3 – must do more to improve its corporate governance. “There needs to be serious reform on this board,” said Roger Hardy, chair of Hardy Capital Partners, a longtime shareholder. “They’ve got to look themselves in the mirror.” A veteran fund manager, who asked not to be named, said he built a position of over 300,000 shares in Lululemon, but has begun to sell it down solely because of governance concerns. “There’s something wrong in the governance of this company,” he said, citing Lululemon’s staggered board structure and plurality voting system and its failure to effectively engage with all shareholders. Source
  • In 1992 the company developed global factory compliance guidelines and a vendor code of conduct.  This practice has now become the mainstay and more or less standard within the apparel manufacturing industry. This includes such regulations as the use of independent monitoring, child labor restrictions, safe working conditions, transparent record keeping, and right of association. Gap has taken a key step with using independent factory auditing as well as their own internal factory monitors. They have partnered with the International Labor Organization, and The Ethical Trading Initiative. In addition, in order to support the daily living needs of laborers in the most rural and underdeveloped communities they have collaborated with the International Finance Corporation which is a sub branch of the World Bank.  According to their annual report highlights, the Gap has 99% of all it’s factories monitored. Source

Summary

Ethically partners with CSRHub as a primary data source, which in turn, aggregates over 700 data sources, compiling them into simple, easy to digest grades. 

Lululemon and Gap are major players in the athleisure wear industry. Understanding the practices and policies of each company gives consumers the power to determine what they will and will not support.

Gap’s scores are much higher than Lululemon’s. As observed throughout the comparisons, Lululemon lacks behind in all three areas but especially in the Governance and Social Responsibility categories. If you’re a Lululemon advocate and want to see more evidence that they’re committed to these areas, email our CEO at jada@ethically.life and let us know. We’d love to hear from you.

If you want to stay up to date on how these companies are progressing with their scores, make sure you download Ethically. We pull data regularly to make sure our scores reflect how companies are doing today, not years ago.

As always, please check out our Methodology page for more details on how we get our ratings data.

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