Behind The Label: LUSH Fresh Handmade Cosmetics

A company driven by values, but are they divisive?

Think of LUSH Cosmetics and images of all-natural soaps, gooey organic facial masks, and fizzy bath bombs come to mind… and, depending on your activism awareness, so might controversial protests related to causes like animal cruelty, Canadian oilsand development, and shark finning.

The Britain-based company is one of the few to successfully bring natural beauty products to the mainstream. It’s also one of the most controversial retail presences on the High Street, thanks to its alignment with various ethical campaigns and its somewhat radical approach to protest. But how does the LUSH’s activism align with its products and larger mission?

The history of LUSH is told in detail on the company’s corporate website. In 1977, Liz Weir and Mark Constantine met while working together at a hair and beauty salon in Poole, a town on the south coast of England. Within a few years, they had left the salon and broken out on their own, launching an “Herbal Hair and Beauty Clinic” that sold natural beauty products and cosmetics. One of their first customers was The Body Shop, for which they formulated popular products like Body Butters, Honey Beeswax Cleanser, and Peppermint Foot Lotion. Through the 1980s and 1990s, Weir and Constantine led the company through many incarnations. After their partnership with The Body Shop dissolved, they created a mail order business called Cosmetics to Go and a retail boutique called Cosmetic House, which was later rebranded LUSH.

The Good

From the beginning, LUSH has been a pioneering force in the natural beauty space, with its offering of items that now includes soaps, shampoos, bath products, facial cleansers, fragrances, and a recently launched line of cosmetics called Emotional Brilliance. LUSH’s products are 100 percent vegetarian and 81 percent vegan, and about 70 percent of them are formulated without preservatives. The remaining 30 percent are liquid products that need some kind of preservative (in LUSH’s case, methylparaben and propylparaben) in order to keep bacteria from growing.

LUSH’s Green Policy is holistic, encompassing a general approach to business, as well as a number of different but interrelated initiatives. The company makes limited use of packaging, offering about 40 percent of its products, like bath bombs, massage bars, and solid shampoo bars, as “naked,” with absolutely no packaging. When packaging is necessary, it’s primarily made from recycled, recyclable, and biodegradable materials. On the energy front, LUSH employs energy optimization methods and energy retrofits throughout its supply chain, with similar approaches taken toward water, transport, and operations. Its raw materials are sourced sustainably, with controversial ingredients like palm oil relegated to a “little black book” of ingredients not to use.

LUSH has also made progress on the ethical front, with a notable long-running campaign against animal cruelty. Not only does the company refuse to test its products on animals, but it also refuses to buy ingredients from suppliers that test on animals.

To LUSH, there’s absolutely no reason for guinea pigs choking to death after being force-fed shampoo and rabbits going blind from having mascara dripped into their eyes … Products that you use on your body should be safe to use but they do not have to be tested on animals to assure public safety.

The Bad

While LUSH has always had an ethical approach to business, it didn’t fully enter the activism space until 2006, the same year that businesswoman and activist Anita Roddick sold The Body Shop to L’Oreal. According to LUSH, the timing was no accident.

In response to the sale of The Body Shop and the reaction of staff and customers it became clear that another campaigning voice was needed on the high street… Right from the very beginning, Lush’s campaigns were somewhat different from those that had been seen in shops before.

Indeed, LUSH has become known for its radical and somewhat offbeat protest methods. In 2006, for instance, LUSH dumped two tons of manure in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, to protest the use of animals in chemical testing.

Then there was the time in 2008 when performance artist Alice Newstead was hung from a shark hook in the window of LUSH’s Regent St shop to protest the practice of shark finning.

And most recently, LUSH raised eyebrows when it enlisted performance artist Jacqueline Traide to graphically simulate an animal being tested in a laboratory. (Warning: The video is not for the faint of heart.)

While these stunts were certainly controversial, they were for causes that most of the general public can get behind. Other LUSH campaigns have been a bit more divisive. For instance, LUSH has long supported the “Freedom for Palestine” initiative and refuses to open stores in Israel because it wants “everyone in the country where we are trading to be on an equal footing as far as basic human rights go” – yet it is fine with opening stores in countries with blatant histories of human rights abuses, like Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka.

LUSH has also drawn criticism for a recent campaign that attacks oilsands development in Canada. Supporters of the plan say that increased oil development in Canada will help to reduce America’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil, which would hopefully have a positive effect on the nation’s foreign policy. Critics, on the other hand, decry the environmental damage that would result from the project. For its part, LUSH has called the oilsands development “the most destructive project on Earth” and earlier this year turned its 44 Canadian locations into polling stations. The move spurred critics to question the company’s motives, and in an editorial for Canada’s National Post, Adam Daifalleh wrote:

You’re probably asking yourself — as I did — how a soap company has the authority to get involved in a Canadian energy project, particularly when it has no specific expertise in the field and no hard facts to support its public relations crusade… If you haven’t heard about Lush and its holier-than-thou moral crusades, you should — because a close examination of its record lays bare a stunning lack of consistency, and hypocrisy of the highest degree. Lush has no authority to give ethical lectures to anyone.

The Questionable

On its website, Lush is saucily defined as “fresh, green, verdant, and drunken women,” a definition that is “more than a little fitting for who we are and what we do.”

That statement perfectly encapsulates my view on LUSH – as a company that is socially responsible, sustainable, and progressive, but also unpredictable, contradictory, and somewhat of a wild card. And in a way, LUSH owns up to the fact that its views may not be for everyone.

We know not everyone wants “politics in their bath water.” But we feel privileged to be in a position where we have the resources to help those who work tirelessly and selflessly for equality, peace and justice for all. We hope that you will continue to support us as we support them.

But when the causes that LUSH backs are divisive, it can be difficult for the company to garner the support of all customers. Plus, LUSH’s activism puts its customers in the difficult position of prioritizing what matters most to them — choosing a product that is natural and socially responsible, or supporting a company that stands for values it can get behind. That disconnect appeared in the recent Chick-Fil-A scandal, where company president Dan Cathy made public remarks against gay marriage that led to a nationwide boycott of the fried chicken chain. And it also appears when LUSH aligns itself with controversial – but seemingly disparate — issues like the Israel-Palestine conflict, Canadian oil development, and shark finning. With LUSH, it seems that you have to take the good with the… well, questionable.


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Read more Behind the Label here.

Images: Memphis CVB

Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.