Sports·Opinion

Canada's Olympic-wear provider given 'coal' medal for environmentally unfriendly manufacturing process

Canada's athletes and para-athletes work hard to make it to the top of the podium. The company outfitting them should try to be at the top of their industry in protecting the environment, writes Shireen Ahmed.

Lululemon accused of heavy use of coal as energy source in its supply chain

Mannequins dressed with the Team Canada uniforms for the Beijing Winter Olympics. Lululemon has come under fire for harmful coal emissions used in manufacturing clothes for Team Canada in Vietnam and in China. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

The athlete parade is always my favourite part of the Olympics and Paralympics. Not for the excessive nationalism but for seeing athletes from all over the world and learning about burgeoning sports in different places.

East Timor, Madagascar, India and Eritrea all have skiers competing in Beijing. I enjoy all the athletes beautifully dressed in their cultural dresses and winter fashion inspired by their home countries, their traditions and their histories.

Kimberly Newell (Zhou Jiaing) is a Canadian-born hockey player who is the starting goalie for China. Newell collaborated with Chris Joswiak of Brian's Source For Sports in Windsor, Ont. They brought her vision of Chinese Dragon-themed goalie pads to life. It is stunning.

In October, the Team Canada uniform kit for the Beijing Olympics was revealed. I was relieved that Hudson's Bay Company was not part of the kits because of its brutal history against Indigenous people in Canada.

Lululemon Athletica, a Canadian apparel company, unveiled a series of outfit combinations in various textures with deep and vibrant reds and maroons contrasted with a warm cream colour. There were vests that looked like comforters and patterns that resembled the topical geography of a crisp cold Canada amidst a winter wonderland. I loved all of it even down to the velvety-looking cross-body bag embossed with a maple leaf.

The uniforms were designed in a partnership with Lululemon, the Canadian Olympic Committee and the Canadian Paralympic Committee.  The Vancouver-based athleisure giant is set to provide wardrobes for the COC and CPC until the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. I love a long vest and a puffy parka. I also happen to look great in these colours and as a Muslim woman who covers, I appreciate winter wear.

The launch video was so compelling that I immediately set out to purchase $28 socks (please don't tell my kids) and an oversized sweatshirt from the website. I reassured myself I would be supporting the athletes. I joined in the banter online and appreciated the way in which winter fashion was exuding such style despite the very high prices. But not everyone was enamoured.

The day before the Parade of Nations was to happen at the opening ceremony an article came across my Twitter timeline. A Massachusetts-based climate journalist named Phil McKenna reported on protests outside of the flagship Lululemon store in Vancouver. As part of the demonstrations, Stand.Earth, an environmental protection advocacy group, was presenting Lululemon with a "coal medal," symbolic of the harmful coal emissions used in manufacturing clothes for Team Canada in Vietnam and in China.

According to McKenna "the fast-growing apparel brand relies heavily on coal power to source, weave and dye its fabric and manufacture its clothing."

This made me stop in my yoga pants and take a deeper dive into this issue. This was not a new issue. In May, The National Observer reported that Stand.Earth was demanding that Lululemon eliminate coal as an energy source from its production and supply chain, and move toward renewable sources that are less polluting.

But not only in factories in North America but all over the world. It is nonsensical to decide to care about air pollution in Canada and the USA but deem it unnecessary in East Asia. There have been compelling reports from activists including Erdene Batzorig, a woman from Mongolia now living in Vancouver. She wrote about the "green image" that Vancouver boasts and how that contradicts the reality of the practice of the favourite athleisure brand, Lululemon.

On their website, Lululemon declared a series of commitments that they have not yet attained. Batzorig insists they are not good enough.

Dr. Jules Boykoff, a political scientist and former professional soccer player, is an expert in the ecological effects of mega-events in sports. He told me in a voice note that the Olympic Games have long had a greenwashing problem, and Lululemon is no exception.

"Lululemon argues that it takes an environmental and health-conscious approach to its business practices," he said. "And it's not too much to ask of them to live up to those high-minded ideals to cut coal out of its production practices entirely."

Dr. Boykoff emphasizes the point that Lululemon could stand up and be an industry leader in this regard. It is important for a company that is outfitting Canadian athletes to sync up their practices and their ideals.

As the athletes grinned through their face masks at the Parade of Nations, I thought about where their uniforms came from.

Right now, athletes and para-athletes have to worry about COVID-19 protocols, travelling safely, and also doing their best in elite sports competitions. Should they worry about this, too?

But if they represent us as a country, we should be front and centre demanding what is best for them, and less taxing and harmful for the planet. It affects us all.

Japan's national athletes pose with sustainable uniforms made from recycled clothing for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, manufactured by Japanese sportswear brand ASICS. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images)

Taking an interest in climate change and how it is affected by the Olympics and companies sponsoring Canadian athletes and teams is important. We can't truly love a story if we only read certain chapters and ignore the rest.

Our athletes are creating sports history. Shouldn't we demand better in order to be on the right side of history? For those who argue that critique of fashion has no place at the Olympics, Team Japan had sustainable uniforms made from recycled clothing, created by ASICS, for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. No one is perfect but there are blueprints for design ideas that are merged with sustainability. Lululemon can perhaps venture to find creative solutions instead of polluting.

Our athletes and para-athletes work hard to make it to the top of the podium. The company outfitting them should try to be at the top of their industry in protecting the environment and that's what I would love to see in future parades at the Olympics.

In the meantime, I will refrain from buying any sports-related merch that says "Canada" and be more committed to protecting the world — my overpriced socks notwithstanding.

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