The new documentary film “LuLa Rich” is about the rise and fall of the multi-level marketing company LuLaRoe, best known for its “buttery soft” women’s leggings in bright, loud prints, popular around 2016.
I am a big fan of butter as a cooking ingredient and condiment, but I have not figured out how it relates to the texture of leggings.
Still, I was simultaneously surprised and not surprised to hear the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mentioned multiple times in this documentary about a business accused of scamming its “fashion consultants.”
On the one hand, LDS Church leaders preach the values of honesty and integrity, as well as frugal living and avoiding unnecessary debt.
So, in a perfect world where all the people who know better actually do better (thank you, Maya Angelou), we could count on LDS Church members to behave accordingly.
Unfortunately, people of faith are still people and there’s a wide range of abilities to make sound decisions and treat others fairly. That’s how we end up with people like your favorite Mormon neighbor, who would do anything for anyone and sincerely thank them for the opportunity to serve, and also people like LuLaRoe founders Mark and DeAnne Brady Stidham, members of the Church who live lavishly while pressuring women into thousands of dollars in credit card debt to purchase wholesale clothing as part of a business non-opportunity. LuLaRoe is currently facing dozens of lawsuits regarding accusations it is an illegal pyramid scheme, unpaid bills, poor quality products and deliberately miscalculated sales tax.
But while the Stidhams are plenty shady, they cannot personally be blamed for everyone’s mistakes. At the height of LuLaRoe’s popularity, there were approximately 80,000 independent distributers selling the company’s clothing, many of them Mormon. At least 90 multi-level marketing companies are headquartered in Utah, so the concept is a familiar one here.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what about direct sales businesses appeals to religious folks. Is it the friendly connections we already have with people in our area? The perceived flexibility of a side job? Familiarity and comfort with following steps outlined by leaders? Sheer desperation to bring in some additional income while caring for young children?
When I was a young mom staying home with my toddlers, our family budget was tight. Many of my friends became reps for multi-level marketing companies, and I was invited to lots of so-called parties. I liked seeing my friends, and, often, I liked the products they were selling, too. Even so, these get-togethers got too awkward and too expensive too quickly, and I started turning down invites. My accountant husband cynically observed that I could keep attending sales parties or, perhaps more efficiently, the women in the neighborhood could simply stand in a circle and pass the same $50 bill around while chatting. He wasn’t wrong, and I doubt any of my friends were really getting ahead financially doing direct sales.
Just like at a casino, the house always wins at the expense of the players, and with multi-level marketing companies, there’s only so much room at the top before the market is saturated.
“There has been a succession of frauds worked by predominately Mormon entrepreneurs upon predominately Mormon victims,” says LDS General Authority Dallin H. Oaks in his book, “Pure in Heart.”
“Whether inherently too trusting or just naively overeager for a shortcut to the material prosperity some see as a badge of righteousness, some Latter-day Saints are apparently too vulnerable to the lure of sudden wealth,” Oaks said.
I couldn’t look away from “LuLaRich” because the slow motion train wreck was both fascinating and appalling. But I cannot be flippant about the desperation that comes from the complicated reality of cost of living plus motherhood, often combined with consumerism and toxic positivity.
I bristled when the founders of LuLaRoe talked about how their company gives women an opportunity to use their talents and “contribute to their families and society.” Raising children is a significant contribution to society. While women are certainly capable of also doing every other thing — often at the same time! — when people talk about young mothers as an “under-utilized resource,” they disrespect the thousands of ways women keep civilization from coming to a screeching halt every single day before 9 a.m. Moms are spread thin and over-utilized, I assure you. Ask any mother who’s driving the after-school carpool between employment, grocery shopping and the PTA meeting she’s in charge of; she has plenty to do. Come Sunday morning, she’ll have her church lesson ready, too.
For all the founders’ cheap talk of empowering women, the documentary does not discuss the female factory workers in Guatemala, Mexico, Korea and Vietnam who sew for hours to meet the demands of a company pretending to provide an earning opportunity for American women. They are just the blurry brown hands in the background of the movie’s manufacturing shots, but they, too, are trying to help their families at a job that doesn’t pay enough. If hard work were truly all that is required to gain financial stability, these women would also be rich.
As the poor quality of LuLaRoe leggings has shown us, not everything that can be monetized has value, and not everything that has value can be monetized. All people of faith, especially those who are members of the LDS Church, need to be wary of opportunities that cost far more than they are worth.
Contact Sally at firstname.lastname@example.org.