In the age of polarized politics, activism can pay off
The easiest way to find a Lush event is to follow your nose. As I wandered down to Old Billingsgate market in the heart of the City of London, I was hit by its familiar scent – a melee of hundreds of essential oils wafting from “naked” handmade cosmetics – from solid shampoos and massage oils to fresh face masks and hand-cut soap – mostly unhindered by packaging.
This “Creative Showcase” was their pièce de résistance, a chance to show off just how far they’ve come since opening their first shop in Poole back in 1995. Their main factory – still based in Dorset – now employs about 1500 people out of a global workforce of around 14,000 - and has nearly 1000 shops in 50 countries.
It’s safe to say you can no longer dismiss Lush as some sort of whimsical hippy project, yet there’s no sign that they’re pulling back on their trademark wackiness. Within five minutes of entering the showcase, I spotted a group of dancing ladies wearing nothing but a few transparent plastic bubbles (promoting the idea of “naked” products) walked on a platform full of giant wobbling shower jellies (shower jellies are indeed a real thing) and watched Queen guitarist Brian May going down a slide on his way to inspect machines that were laser-etching soap bars and 3-D printing solid bath melts.
Willy Wonka would eat his heart out, but in spite of appearances, this was all serious business.The reason why Lush is consistently ranked as one of the best places to work in the UK and in 2016 generated pre-tax profits of £43.2m (up 76% from the previous year) is because it sells a lot more than lathers and ointments; It sells an ideology around which both staff and customers can rally.
They have a range of guiding policies around animal welfare, environmental responsibility, profit-sharing and charitable giving that are strictly adhered to, and are involved in broad-ranging activism in causes such as opposition to policies such as fox hunting and badger culling. Which is of course why it makes sense that Dr. May – a keen campaigner against the cull – would be a kindred spirit to Lush’s Founder Mark Constantine, who posts pictures of badgers on his Facebook, saying he “felt like a kid at Christmas” when they visited his garden.
Constantine has also taken a clear stance against Brexit, speaking up for the essential contribution that European workers make not only to Lush, but to the broader UK economy and adding a belief “that all people should enjoy freedom of movement across the world” to its core mission statement. Like many businesses, Lush simply would not have been able to grow as it did without the graft and dedication of European workers. And I should know, because I was one of them.
Back in 2003, when Lush was a much younger company but already experiencing very rapid growth, I got an entry-level job at its flagship shop in Carnaby Street. It was flexible enough to allow me to work around my University studies, and in only a few months I got promoted to key holder, then assistant manager. I would stayed and gone further, but I was awarded an Erasmus grant, a scheme that allowed me to do my second year in another EU country without paying hefty tuition fees, but that involved leaving my job and moving to Italy.
The saddest thing about Brexit is that I wouldn’t have done any of that without the European Union. I wouldn’t have got a job a Lush and been able to work there without any restrictions as an EU citizen, nor would I have received the grant that enabled me to graduate.
In fact, I would never have chosen to move to England in the first place; a huge part of the attraction was that the UK was not only a country with its own rich culture, but that it was only an hour or so away, through frictionless travel, from so many other rich cultures I could experience. It is sad to think the next generation of Brits will not have that option.
In such polarized political times it is hard to remain neutral, but companies like Lush seem quite happy to embrace this activism and incorporate it into their core business, even creating a “soapbox” space on its own website where “passionate people with strong opinions” can exercise their freedom of speech.
Lush’s Founder might well describe himself as a “wishy-washy liberal,” but the liberal left is getting increasingly angry as they watch progress in areas such as diversity, worker’s rights and environmental protection being eroded by current policy, and companies like his are becoming a beacon through which people feel they can channel some of that anger, even if it’s by purchasing a nice bath bomb.
Any doubt that Lush are not shy of getting political was dispelled when Jeremy Corbyn was ushered in next. Before joining Constantine on stage for a fireside chat - where he toyed with the the possibility of going vegan and said he’d not hesitate to call Donal Trump and tell him that pulling out of the Paris Accord was a mistake - the Labour leader took off his jacket, put on some gloves, and made his own bath bomb. Needless to say, it proved a big hit with the audience who chanted “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” and laughed indulgently when he said he only had a shower in his house, so wouldn’t be able to use the ballistic he had just made.
“I hear Number 10 has a bath,” quipped Constantine.
“Well, that’s probably a good reason to move,” conceded Corbyn.
Like most things at Lush, it’s all good fun, but it doesn’t mean they’re not being serious.
Because the company has definitely grown up and will continue to evolve and grow as it embraces digital technology and branches out into verticals like luxury spa treatments. But unlike many businesses, Lush realizes that this doesn’t mean abandoning who you are. Most importantly for its loyal community, it also shows how – if you stick to your principles – you don’t actually have to choose between doing well and doing good.