‘Seaweed’ Clothing Has None, Tests Show
New York Times
November 14, 2007
Written by Louise Story
Lululemon Athletica has been a standout performer on Wall Street since it went public in July, thanks to the popularity of its costly yoga and other workout clothes, which are made with unusual materials, including bamboo, silver, charcoal, coconut and soybeans.
One of its lines is called VitaSea, and the company says it is made with seaweed. The fabric, according to product tags, "releases marine amino acids, minerals and vitamins into the skin upon contact with moisture."
Lululemon, which has received positive media coverage for its fabrics, also says the VitaSea clothing, made from seaweed fiber supplied by a company called SeaCell, reduces stress and provides anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, hydrating and detoxifying benefits.
There is one problem with its VitaSea claims, however. Some of them may not be true.
The New York Times commissioned a laboratory test of a Lululemon shirt made of VitaSea, and reviewed a similar test performed at another lab, and both came to the same conclusion: there was no significant difference in mineral levels between the VitaSea fabric and cotton T-shirts.
In other words, the labs found no evidence of seaweed in the Lululemon clothing.
"Seaweeds have known vitamins and minerals, and we searched specifically for those vitamins, and we didn't see them," said Carolyn J. Otten, director for specialized services at Chemir Analytical Services, a lab in Maryland Heights, Mo. that tested a sample of VitaSea.
When told about the findings, Lululemon's founder said he could not dispute them.
"If you actually put it on and wear it, it is different from cotton," said Dennis Wilson, Lululemon's founder, chief product designer and board chairman. "That's my only test of it," said Mr. Wilson, known as Chip.
The shirt tested by The Times was labeled as being made of 70 percent cotton, 6 percent spandex and 24 percent of the seaweed fiber.
The Times commissioned its test after an investor who is shorting Lululemon's stock — betting that its price will fall — provided Chemir's test results to The Times.
The Times used a second lab, the McCrone Group, to test a blue racer-back tank top made with Lululemon's VitaSea against a gray J. Crew T-shirt. McCrone, which is based in Westmont, Ill., likewise could not detect any seaweed-specific components. Though the labs could not absolutely rule out a trace of seaweed, they could not, using sensitive testing methods, substantiate Lululemon's claims.
The tests raise obvious questions about Lululemon's marketing. Consumers generally pay more for high-tech sportswear, and companies like Lululemon are trying to capitalize on interest in organic materials.
"Consumers expect and trust companies to be honest with them," said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League, a nonprofit organization and advocate for consumers.
Lululemon executives said that they had not independently tested the VitaSea material to see whether it lived up to the claims on Lululemon's tags. Instead, it trusted the claims of its suppliers, executives said.
Mr. Wilson added that the company probably did not have enough money to test the material back when it started using it 18 months ago. When asked about Lululemon's product tags and the claims about vitamins and minerals, he said, "That's coming from the manufacturer. If you feel the fabric, it feels a lot different."
Analysts said it is the responsibility of the companies to test all of their products.
"It's frankly up to the companies to do sporadic product quality tests to make sure everything is being manufactured to the parameters they set," said Sharon Zackfia, an analyst who covers Lululemon at William Blair & Co., an investment firm based in Chicago. "At the end of the day, it's Lululemon's name on the line."
Ms. Zackfia spoke in general terms about Lululemon's responsibility to check products, and was not told about the two lab tests of VitaSea.
She rates Lululemon shares as outperforming the market and said she expects the number of stores in the United States to climb to 100 by the end of 2009.
Lululemon went public in July, and by October the stock climbed to $60 from $25. Since then, the stock has fallen to $42.
Analysts said the company seems to have found a lucrative niche selling athletic clothes wrapped in feel-good messages about friendship, love and life. The company generated $148.9 million in sales last year.
Lululemon, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, has more than 40 stores and showrooms in the United States. The company calls its store clerks "educators," its customers "guests," and prints the company's "manifesto" on its red shopping bags.
The manifesto includes messages like, "Stress is related to 99% of all illness," "Friends are more important than money," and "Coke, Pepsi and all other pops will be known as the cigarettes of the future. Colas are not a substitute for water. They are just another cheap drug made to look great by advertising."
Lululemon has done little advertising of its own and, instead, its products have become popular by word of mouth and recommendations from local yoga instructors who serve as the company's "ambassadors" in new locations.
Customers have been asking about VitaSea fabric, said Deanne Schweitzer, Lululemon's director for products and design. She said the company would test the fabric in the future.
"We will be diving in deeper, so that our educators on the floor can answer those tough questions," Ms. Schweitzer said. "Right now, we are relying on the mill and SeaCell's information."
SeaCell is owned by a German company called Smartfiber. Smartfiber provides scientific documents on its Web site about the effects of the SeaCell fibers, but it also says on its site that SeaCell assumes no liability for that information's accuracy.
SeaCell uses seaweed from the coast of Ireland to create its fibers, said Gerhard Neudorfer, sales and marketing director for SeaCell. He said the company stands behind its scientific studies. A spokeswoman for Lululemon would not name the companies that it has hired to use SeaCell in making its VitaSea fabric.
Sports apparel sales are growing more quickly than the overall apparel category, totaling nearly $15.3 billion in the year that ended in September, according to the NPD Group. More sports companies are innovating with fabrics, said Mark Sullivan, the group editor for the trade publication Textile Intelligence.
"As a buzz starts to develop around this stuff, you're going to have companies throwing around buzz words here," Mr. Sullivan said.
One customer outside a Lululemon store in Chicago said he would not stop buying VitaSea clothing, even if tests disproved Lululemon's claims.
"I couldn't care less, because it is so comfortable," said David Wilkinson, 49.