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Amazon, REI, Lululemon Targeted Over Safety, Cancer Chemicals and Climate

Three of America’s best-known retailers were beset by protestors this week and last as they faced calls to shake up the status quo.

In Seattle, a thousand Teamsters Union and local community supporters rallied outside Amazon’s corporate headquarters on Tuesday to demand that the Everything Store halt what they describe as its “union-busting tactics and dangerous labor practices.” The rally coincided with the Teamsters Women’s Conference, which is also being held in the Emerald City this week.

Demonstrators marched around the HQ brandishing signs that read “Organize Amazon,” “Amazon Hurts Workers” and “Amazon Prime or White Collar Crime.” They were joined by Teamsters general president Sean M. O’Brien and general secretary-treasurer Fred Zuckerman, along with international vice presidents Peter Finn, Avral Thompson, Juan Campos, Rick Hicks, Mark Davison, Joan Corey, Lindsay Dougherty and Stan Hennessy.

The protest arrived just weeks after the Teamsters debuted its Amazon Division, a new arm dedicated to “uniting Amazon employees, securing more workplace protections in the warehouse and logistics industry and defending workers” from what it calls the “unchecked exploitation of one of the world’s most dangerous employers.”

The union, which represents 1.2 million workers nationwide, already represents 340,000 UPS drivers, some of whom provide delivery services for Amazon.

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Now, it said, Amazon employees around the country are rising up to demand better workplace standards. According to a study by the Strategic Organizing Center, a coalition of unions that includes the Teamsters, warehouse workers for the retail Goliath suffered serious injuries at twice the rate of rival companies in 2021. A spate of worker deaths at its facilities in New Jersey has brought the issue further into focus.

“Amazon should be afraid—the Teamsters are here standing shoulder-to-shoulder with so many communities demanding change,” O’Brien said. “The Teamsters aren’t going away. Wherever Amazon abuses workers, we’ll be there. Amazon will not bust unions and get away with it. Amazon will not churn and burn American workers and get away with it. This corrupt corporate giant must answer to the Teamsters now, and we’re ready for the fight.”

Amazon is also grappling with organizing efforts by the Amazon Labor Union, whose historic victory in New York was upheld earlier this month by the National Labor Relations Board. The Jeff Bezos-founded company had sought to overturn the results of the election, alleging that labor organizers had intimidated workers to vote in their favor.

At Vox Media’s Code Conference in California earlier this month, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy insisted there were “very disturbing irregularities” in the vote of workers at the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island. He suggested that Amazon will continue to dispute the matter even though it will “take a long time to play out.”

Brad Glasser, a spokesperson for Amazon, said, however, that the Whole Foods owner respects the rights of individuals to peacefully protest.

“As we’ve always said, it’s our employees’ choice of whether or not to join a union—it always has been,” Glasser told Sourcing Journal. “As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our workforce and our focus remains on working directly with our team to continue making Amazon a great place to work.”

Protestors call out PFAS

Meanwhile, REI Co-op customers are urging the outdoor gear retailer to establish a clear timeline to eliminate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known by their acronym PFAS, as part of a year-long campaign by Toxic-Free Future, Safer States and other environmental advocacy groups to call time on the harmful “forever chemicals.”

Protests will span 12 cities in 11 states. REI customers will also deliver a petition with more than 130,000 signatures to the company’s flagship stores in Seattle and Manhattan to demand action.

“It’s time for REI to make a strong commitment to phase PFAS out of all of the products it sells nationally on an aggressive timeline,” said Mike Schade, director of Mind the Store, a program of Toxic-Free Future.

While REI issued a statement earlier this month voicing its support of a California bill that would ban PFAS in textiles, including outdoor apparel, by 2025, the consumers’ co-operative has not publicly drawn out a roadmap. This lapse, campaigners say, stands in contrast with Patagonia’s commitment to phase out the toxic substances by 2024.

PFAS, which have been linked to a slew of human-health effects, including hormone disruption, reduced immune response, changes to liver function, thyroid disease, higher rates of infertility and certain cancers, are ubiqutious.

Earlier this year, Toxic-Free Future released a study that found PFAS in 72 percent of the stain- and water-resistant-labeled products it tested. This included six of the eight products the organization purchased at REI. Plus, all three of the REI-branded jackets it analyzed contained older PFAS chemicals that have been banned in the European Union and phased out by major U.S. manufacturers.

REI said that a durable water repellent, a.k.a. DWR, finish is sometimes necessary to meet its customers’ durability and performance expectations but that it always strives to deploy any chemical treatments in a way that “minimizes the impact” to people and the planet.

 “For many years, the use of PFAS-based chemistry for DWR finishes has been standard practice for performance textiles and other applications, due to its durability and performance benefits,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “REI has been working to address the risks associated with the use of PFAS via the rigorous chemicals management program we have in place for the products we sell under the REI Co-op brand.”

Though REI is “proud” of its ongoing chemical management efforts, it agrees that the time has come for the industry to accelerate the transition away from PFAS.

“While the transition will not be easy, we are in the process of eliminating PFAS from our own products, where applicable, and will continue to engage with our vendor partners as they work to align with the framework established by California,” the spokesperson said.

But Schade wants the retailer to get specific.

“We urge REI to take the next step by announcing a clear time-bound commitment to ban all PFAS and ensure substitutes are safe,” he said. “Until they do, this week we are bringing the voices of REI members to the doorsteps of REI stores coast to coast to demand that REI lead the outdoor industry away from toxic chemicals.”

Toxic-Free Future said that REI is using an approach to evaluate its chemical consumption that “does not address” all PFAS or potential substitutes. GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals, it added, is a methodology that is widely used by major corporations and government agencies to avoid the most hazardous chemicals and use the safest ones.

“REI’s home state of Washington has been aggressively working to ban PFAS in products because they are building up in breast milk, people, and wildlife—even orcas,” said Laurie Valeriano, executive director of Toxic-Free Future, referring to a bill Governor Jay Inslee signed into law in March that aims to phase out PFAS in select consumer products by 2025.

“REI must lead the outdoor industry by using safer chemicals and materials for water-proofing clothing, shoes, and other products,” she added. “We expect REI to eliminate PFAS, evaluate the hazards of the alternatives and use the safest options.”

California and New York, too, have passed legislation banning PFAS in clothing. Now they await one final step before they become law.

“State policies across the country are moving towards banning these very dangerous chemicals,” said Sarah Doll, national director of Safer States. “Right now, California and New York both have bills awaiting the Governor’s signature that would ban PFAS in textiles like clothing, and I anticipate more states to follow. REI should take action before state laws force their hand.”

REI has also been swept up in the groundswell of organizing. Last month, the retailer’s Berkeley, California store became its second to unionize. The move followed a similar victory in March by workers at REI’s New York City SoHo branch, who accused the company of using dissuasion and intimidation tactics to keep them from unionizing. A leaked email from CEO Eric Artz also appeared to show an anti-union stance.

“Each of us has chosen to become a part of our co-op community, united by a shared mission and purpose,” he wrote to employees. “A union will not help us achieve that mission and purpose.”

After the Berkeley vote, REI adopted a different tack—publicly, at least.

“We fully supported the vote process in Berkeley and will continue to support our employees going forward,” REI told Sourcing Journal at the time. “As we have said throughout this process, REI believes in the right of every employee to vote for or against union representation.”

Lulu ‘running wildly off-track’

Up north, Lululemon is also facing scrutiny.

Environmental activists have accused the Vancouver-headquartered brand of “running wildly off-track on climate change” despite the glossy veneer that its recent sustainability report may present.

“As the world experienced climate disasters on a terrifying new scale, Lululemon managed to increase the climate pollution from making its products by a shocking 60 percent,” Stand.earth said last week. “All in a day’s work of Lululemon pumping out yoga pants, and carbon emissions, am I right?”

The reason the yogawear purveyor’s emissions have ballooned “so drastically,” the watchdog group said, is because its factories are almost entirely reliant on coal and other fossil fuels. According to Stand.earth’s research, roughly 48 percent of the electricity used by Lululemon suppliers in Cambodia, China and Vietnam in 2020 originated from burning coal, while just 5 percent stemmed from renewables. Despite backing a $250 million fashion climate fund, CEO Calvin McDonald, it said, has “still not made any commitments to switch the supply chain to clean renewables.”

“Every year the company grows without cleaning up its supply chain, it just continues to lock in more fossil fuels in the places where its factories are, like Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangladesh: countries which are bearing the brunt of climate impacts,” Stand.earth said. “And it’s not just climate change that threatens these communities—a 2021 study found that one in five deaths globally can be linked to air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels.”

Lululemon said that it is focused on “helping to create a garment industry that is sustainable and addresses the serious implications of climate change through goals and strategies that include a rapid transition to renewable energy and energy efficiency.”

“Tackling the climate crisis in a meaningful way requires partnership and collaboration across our industry and with our vendors, civil society, and government stakeholders,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal, noting the company’s participation in the United Nations’ Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action and the aforementioned Fashion Climate Fund. “We are members of working groups engaging with select suppliers to phase out any direct use of coal, among other initiatives that drive [the] transition to renewable energy.”

But the retailer’s carbon intensity trajectory at its business-as-usual pace, Stand.earth said, is “not going great.” To hit its own target of a 60 percent emissions reduction across its global supply chain by 2030, Lululemon would need to cut its emissions intensity by an annual 6.8 percent over the next nine years.

“There’s only one way that’s going to happen—Lululemon has to commit to cutting out coal, and move its supply chain to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030,” the organization added. “If H&M can do it, so can Lululemon.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Sept. 22, 2022, with a statement from Lululemon.