When Is Outsourcing A Problem?

Photo courtesy of lululemon athletica

The brand Lululemon is becoming incredibly popular worldwide. It has humble roots as a Canadian company making quality workout (and specifically yoga and dance) gear in Vancouver, B.C. Lululemon has now begun to appear on the bodies of all types of celebrities across the world including Oprah, the trainers on The Biggest Loser and world class Olympic athletes. Amongst my friends (female and male both) getting a Lululemon gift card is a pretty awesome gift, because the clothes are a little expensive and incredibly desirable.

Why would I want $120 Lululemon sweat pants over $30 look-a-likes from Costco? Probably for a lot of the same reasons this apparel landed on Oprah’s “Favorite Things” list in 2010: they’re fashionable, come in all different styles and colors, never seem to lose their stretch, and make your butt look half its size! They pretty much flatter all body types. Also, I used to justify buying them for so much money because they were so durable. I would reason that one pair for more than a hundred dollars — that lasted many years — was better than three pairs for less than forty dollars that only lasted a year each. Most importantly — they were Canadian. That national pride in a quality, Canadian product becoming a worldwide trend was pretty meaningful to me. Products were made in our country and Lululemon upheld values through their core company structure that I also admired (e.g. grassroots community efforts , health as a way of life rather than a chore, and self-actualization through commitment to self-improvement and fitness).

Photo courtesy of lululemon athletica

Yeah, so far this is probably sounding like a great ad for Lululemon products and, to be fair, many would still argue that they have the best yoga pants and styles around. However, for me, the fact that they are no longer truly manufactured in Canada creates a problem when I’m deciding where to buy my workout gear. During a discussion with my friends that I was complaining about how my most recent pair of “Lulus” was surprisingly, and to my dismay, wearing out and tearing after less than a year after purchase. A few others echoed my experience when, finally, somebody told me that this might be because these pants were no longer manufactured in Canada. Lululemon had begun to outsource to other countries for production. Upon researching this further online, I realized that this wasn’t recent news and that the expansion to international manufacturers happened about 7 or 8 years ago.

Photo courtesy of Paul Keller

Now please let me clarify: I am NOT criticizing or discounting the quality of products manufactured in countries such as China, India, etc. What I am saying is that for a company like Lululemon, outsourcing not only contradicts its core value of grassroots and larger community contributions by taking valuable jobs and economic stimulation out of its own country, but it also makes the price of their clothes become a lot less justifiable to me. Further, though Lululemon asserts on their website that they take every step to maintain quality, even though the production of their products is more and more distant from their direct supervision, this seems quite difficult. Also, the decrease in quality is becoming evident amongst the general purchasing population. So, quality has (in my opinion) decreased, and now that the price is much less justified and thus exorbitant, the reasons to buy from Lululemon have diminished. There is an interesting article I found from 2005 where the writer exposes a few more contradictions in the behavior and statements made by CEO of Lululemon, Chip Wilson, that raise some questions about their attitudes and beliefs regarding child labor and ethics in the countries where they outsource labor. I believe that outsourcing has diminished the value and consistency of the company’s core beliefs and taken away economic progress from the very country which first gave them their business and success.

Photo courtesy of Alberto G

I’ll briefly mention another outsourcing issue which is near and dear to me: in a recent edition of Canadian Nurse, the President of the Canadian Nurses Association (CNA) wrote a very poignant letter to nurses informing us of the decision for the new Canadian Registered Nurse Exam to be developed by a U.S. company rather than the many competent and qualified Canadian companies. Again, not knocking businesses or workers in my sister country, but I question what benefit outsourcing in this regard holds for us. In the upcoming American elections and campaigns, I have no doubt that the recession and economic slump that the world continues to face will again be at the forefront of the debates and campaign messages, along with an assertion that our countries need to develop more sustainable and self-reliant economies. Where does outsourcing fit into this pressing goal? Should governments be providing better incentives for companies like Lululemon and the CNA to keep their business within our borders so that we do not continually cripple our own skills, potential, and employment rate? How many jobs have been lost by Americans and Canadians alike by their company’s decisions to go for the cheaper options abroad? And ultimately, is this perpetuating the discrepancy in working conditions and wages between our countries and others. In other words, does outsourcing in order to find cheaper labor actually promote the maintenance of child labor problems and below-poverty wages in the countries we are recruiting?