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Opinion / Lush: The Only Way is Ethics

by Chloe Markowicz

Why this smelly soap store is probably the ultimate purposeful brand

Chipotle, Patagonia, Safaricom. These are the companies that we at Contagious bring up time and again when we speak about ‘purposeful brands’. We’ve been tracking this trend of companies working to make a difference in society over the past few years, but it’s only now that Lush has come up in our conversations on this topic. And after interviewing several people at the cosmetics company for an upcoming case study in Contagious magazine, I’ve realised that Lush is probably the ultimate purposeful brand.

I know what you’re thinking, ‘Lush, the smelly store with the bathbombs, soap sold by the slice, and the chalkboard signage?’ Yes, that’s the one. What you might not know is that Lush is entirely defined by its ironclad principles. That almost overpowering fragrance emanates from its stores because Lush doesn’t believe in unnecessarily using packaging. Lush’s chalkboards are much more environmentally friendly than paper signage that needs to be thrown away. All of its products are vegetarian and it is fiercely against animal testing. What I love about Lush is that it doesn’t compromise its values, even if that means shoppers are less inclined to step in-store. ‘We’re not going to suddenly package our products up so you don’t mind the smell so much,’ Jack Constantine, son of founders Mo and Mark, and managing director of Lush’s digital team told me. ‘We sometimes make it harder for ourselves in terms of accessibility to the market because we want to stand for our principles.’

Lush is not just the ultimate purposeful brand because it acts conscientiously, but because it has a crystal clear understanding of its purpose. Its raison d'être is to make fresh, handmade products that don’t harm animals or the environment, and use little to no packaging. This is eloquently summarised in Lush’s We Believe mission statement, which acts as the company’s guiding light.

That phrase “It’s just business” doesn’t exist for Lush,’ says Constantine. ‘If it doesn’t feel morally or socially right, we won’t do it.’ Lush acts conscientiously because it believes that’s the right thing to do, not because that will also make people buy more soap. Lush’s attitude towards ethics is striking when compared to another soap-seller, Unilever. The FMCG giant has done some incredible work in the name of social good. For instance, through its soap brand Lifebuoy’s programme to promote better sanitation, and therefore heath, it has adopted a village in India and vowed to help ever child there make it to five years old. The Help a Child Reach Five campaign is a noble social mission but it is also central to Unilever’s advertising of the Lifebuoy brand.

In contrast, Lush has never had a marketing approach. Think about it, have you ever seen a Lush ad? In fact, Lush is downright uneasy about boasting about its ethical credentials. It refuses to call itself an ‘ethical’ company because it believes that supporting fair trade and being environmentally friendly are practices that should be considered business as usual for any company. ‘It isn’t a marketing stunt,’ said Lush’s ethical director Hilary Jones. ‘We make all those decisions privately and stick to them regardless of the fact that we don’t advertise most of it or get public recognition, we just want to run the company the way we would want it to be run.’

Since Lush is unlikely to brag about the good its doing, I’ll take on that responsibility. Last year Lush raised £5.1m ($7.9m) for charities and good causes. Lush donates funds from its Fun bar product towards building children’s projects for Japanese kids affected by the 2011 tsunami. It supports grass roots organisations by donating 100% of the profits of its Charity Pot lotion. It campaigns around issues from gay rights to fox hunting. Through its Lush Prize, the company donates £250,000 ($386,000) every year to encourage researchers to develop an alternative to animal testing. Lush sources its ingredients direct from farmers and growers wherever possible, ensuring that these are processed in a way that doesn’t harm people, the environment or animals. And the SLush Fund carries on this mission by developing sustainable projects to aid the communities that grow Lush ingredients.

The cosmetics company has a slew of charitable initiatives but it is not a charity. Lush believes that it has the right to make a profit, but that it shouldn’t compromise its ideals to do so. There are lots of lessons for marketers and brands to learn from Lush. Its new digital platform seamlessly merges content and commerce by telling engaging stories that bring its products to life. And Lush has built itself into a multi-million dollar brand by learning from the failings of Cosmetics to Go, Lush’s bankrupt predecessor. But Lush’s approach to its ethics provides the most valuable lesson for other brands. Lush represents the future of ethical companies because it’s not relying on its ethical principles to market its products. A company acting ethically is no longer a USP, it’s something that more and more customers are beginning to demand. As Lush’s Hilary Jones says, acting ethically should be business as usual for brands.

Keep an eye out for the in-depth case study on Lush in Contagious, Issue 42, later this month. You can subscribe to the magazine here.