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Lululemon relying on fossil fuel-linked PR firm as it faces greenwashing allegations

Edelman has a ‘pattern of behaviour’ showing ‘disregard for global environmental crises,’ climate communications expert says

Clothing retailer Lululemon is relying on an international public relations firm with strong fossil fuel industry ties for advice as it faces a potential federal investigation for alleged greenwashing.

Lululemon has worked with Edelman — often described as the world’s biggest public relations firm with more than 60 international offices and global revenue topping US$1 billion — since at least 2020, when the company partnered with the PR firm to survey people about their wellbeing. The two firms have continued to work together; Edelman ran another survey for Lululemon, for example, last year.

For years, Edelman has battled criticism for working with some of the most powerful and influential entities in the fossil fuel industry, including ExxonMobil, Shell and the Charles Koch Foundation. It ran into controversy in Canada a decade ago after leaked documents detailed its advice to another company, TC Energy, to target the opposition to a proposed cross-country oil pipeline, Energy East, in a negative public relations campaign. Since then, hundreds of scientists have called on Edelman and other public relations firms to drop fossil fuel clients.

Recently, Edelman has been working with Lululemon to craft its response to ongoing media coverage of greenwashing allegations against the company. The Narwhal reached out to Lululemon earlier this month about the allegations and received a response from an Edelman employee.

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The Narwhal’s reporters are telling environment stories you won’t read about anywhere else. Stay in the loop by signing up for a weekly dose of independent journalism.

Edelman has a list of “climate commitments” that includes engaging its clients on net-zero emissions, and told The Narwhal it understands a “rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions” is needed to mitigate the climate crisis. Lululemon, meanwhile, has said it’s focused on fostering a sustainable garment industry that addresses climate change impacts and is committed to decarbonization.

Melissa Aronczyk, a professor of media studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey and research associate at Carleton University’s Re:Climate centre on climate communications, described the situation as a “pattern of behaviour that shows Edelman’s disregard for global environmental crises.” Aronczyk believes the company has not put its money where its mouth is when it comes to climate action.

“This is a huge enterprise. They could easily afford to be true to their climate commitments. It seems clear to me that the only green that really matters for Edelman is money,” Aronczyk said in an email.

Oil and gas facilities and smoke against the dusk sky.
A complaint to the Competition Bureau alleges many of Lululemon’s products are made with polyester and nylon, which are made from fossil fuels. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

Competition Bureau complaint alleges Lululemon’s sustainability claims are greenwashing

Earlier this month, Stand.earth, a non-profit environmental organization, filed a complaint with Canada’s federal Competition Bureau alleging Lululemon, known for its yoga attire, misled consumers through its “Be Planet” campaign which claimed its “products and actions avoid environmental harm and contribute to restoring a healthy planet.”

Lululemon’s supply chain emissions have increased since promoting the “Be Planet” campaign, according to the company’s 2022 “Impact Report,” going from 748,273 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2020 to 1,233,964 tonnes in 2022.

The complaint to the Competition Bureau, which investigates allegations of deceptive marketing, including instances of false or misleading environmental claims, also alleges many of Lululemon’s products are made with polyester and nylon, which are made from fossil fuels. The 2022 Impact Report shows 67 per cent of the materials used in its products were either polyester or nylon.

Stand.earth also accused Lululemon of overstating the importance of the clothing company’s shift to renewables for its own operations.

Lululemon touted this shift in its statement to The Narwhal, when responding to Stand.earth’s greenwashing complaint. “We are proud to have reached our goals of 100 per cent renewable electricity and a 60 per cent absolute reduction of greenhouse emissions in our owned and operated facilities,” it read.

But Lululemon’s Impact Report shows more than 99 per cent of the company’s emissions are generated in its supply chain, including shipping, manufacturing and sourcing raw materials — not in its operations, such as energy use in its stores.

“A fully transparent representation would advise consumers that Lululemon’s owned and operated facilities have only ever made up an extremely small percentage of the company’s greenhouse gas emissions,” Stand.earth’s complaint read.

Store with clothes inside and a tree painted on the front.
After The Narwhal sent questions to Lululemon, a representative from Edelman Smithfield responded on behalf of the clothing company. Photo: Mike Mozart / Wikimedia Commons

The Narwhal asked Lululemon questions about greenwashing. Edelman responded

The latest Edelman connection with Lululemon was revealed as The Narwhal was writing a previous story that included Stand.earth’s complaint against the clothing company.

After The Narwhal sent questions to Lululemon, Jordan Fisher, a representative from Edelman Smithfield — a communications agency launched in 2022 that is part of Edelman — responded on behalf of Lululemon.

Fisher, who is listed as a senior vice president on LinkedIn, then asked The Narwhal to attribute the Edelman-crafted statement to a Lululemon spokesperson in the story, rather than to the public relations firm. Fisher subsequently confirmed Edelman was working on behalf of Lululemon. Fisher did not respond to an emailed request for comment for this story.

A spokesperson for Edelman declined to answer The Narwhal’s questions about its current or historical relationship with Lululemon. “We do not comment on our client engagements,” the spokesperson said.

The Narwhal also asked Edelman if it could respond to allegations that it engages in greenwashing itself by working with the fossil fuel industry over many years.

“Edelman has made the commitment to be the agency of choice for organizations committed to climate action, and a summary of our climate principles can be found on our website here. Edelman is a communications firm,” the spokesperson said in response.

The website shows a list of Edelman’s “climate commitments,” which include engaging its clients in “heavy-emitting sectors” on net-zero emissions goals. The firm “recognize(s) that this journey will look different across sectors and organizations,” according to its website, which adds “urgent action is needed to mitigate the most dangerous impacts of climate change.” That requires a “rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and a global transition to a net-zero-carbon economy,” it added.

Lululemon did not respond to a request for comment for this story. In an earlier statement sent to The Narwhal responding to greenwashing allegations, Lululemon said it was focused on helping create a “more sustainable” garment industry that “addresses the serious impacts of climate change,” and is committed to its decarbonization plan and “making tangible investments to meet our 2030 climate goals on the path to being a net-zero company by 2050.” That statement can be read in full here.

Lululemon’s Impact Report also says the company is committed to reducing its carbon pollution in manufacturing by working with suppliers to increase the use of renewable energy and energy efficiency measures.

Rachel Kitchin, a senior corporate climate campaigner at Stand.earth, told The Narwhal it was “no surprise” to learn Edelman was involved in Lululemon’s public response to greenwashing allegations, given the PR firm’s history.

“The fashion industry is part of, and built on, the fossil fuel industry. Their products are made from fossil fuels, in factories powered by them. They are heavily invested in transitioning into transporting their goods by aviation, which uses significantly more fuel and creates even more emissions,” Kitchin said.

“It’s well known that when the fossil fuel industry is threatened, it fights back.”

‘It is ironic — but not surprising — that Edelman is the creator of the Trust Barometer’

Edelman is well known for its “Trust Barometer,” an annual “credibility survey” produced from online interviews and respondents that reports on how much trust the public has for institutions including business, government and media.

This year’s report found the business sector has the “best opportunity” to reverse a trend of “fear of innovation,” for example, because it is “the most trusted institution” for “introducing new innovations into society.”

Aronczyk, the professor of media studies, is an expert in how public relations affect communications on climate change. She said greenwashing “has moved from the sidelines into the mainstream conversation” over the last five years, as consumers become more concerned about their own climate impacts and seek out sustainability-focused brands. Edelman seemed to be taking advantage of these good intentions, Aronczyk said.

Aronczyk views the Trust Barometer with skepticism. “It is ironic — but not surprising — that Edelman is the creator of the Trust Barometer. The Trust Barometer is a confidence machine. It does not measure trust. It creates trust by putting clients at the top of its rankings,” Aronczyk said in emailed comments.

Edelman is skilled at “trying to cover up its own breaches of trust and failed promises around its climate commitments,” she added.

Asked for comment, the Edelman spokesperson said the Trust Barometer “does not measure the trust level of specific brands.”

“We do not offer potential or current government clients the opportunity to be included in the survey as a benefit of hiring the firm. We report the data as we receive it and as respondents answer questions,” the spokesperson said.

“We have been conducting the Trust Barometer for 25 years, and it has become one of the largest and most widely cited global studies on trust. The Trust Barometer seeks to help businesses, organizations and institutions understand how personal attitudes interconnect to shape broader societal forces.”

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The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

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