Lush Brings Together Cosmetics and Activism

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photo composite of illustrations over black and white photo of protest in england

Courtesy of Lush UK

Not your typical beauty showcase, the goal of this year's Lush Summit was to motivate, engage, and incite environmental action.

‘Beauty is only skin deep,’ they say, but sometimes, when you look closer, you discover unexpectedly that real beauty shines all the way through. This piece is my impression of Lush, the major cosmetics and skincare products company that you will find in many major cities around the world. Before arriving at the Lush Summit in London, England, last week, I knew very little about Lush. I came away from the two-day event convinced that Lush is a true leader in its field.

For years I’ve known Lush as ‘that store’ on Queen Street in Toronto, with tantalizing pyramids of brilliant colored bath bombs and gargantuan wheels of soap in the window. I had noticed and appreciated the absence of packaging in many products. Unmistakeable, too, is the strong wave of fragrance that gushes out the door with every entry and exit. I must admit that that was a big part of why I hadn’t gotten to know the company any better; I’m not a big fragrance person.

The Lush Summit, however, offered a good opportunity to learn more about this company, whose stance on zero-waste packaging and no animal testing ties in well with TreeHugger’s ethos. I will be writing more about Lush and its products, philosophies, and founders in the coming weeks, but today I want to share a bit about the experience of attending the summit.

Lush is a highly political company.

Lush charity pots

Still privately owned and managed by its founders, Lush throws its weight behind campaigns that fall into three categories – animal welfare, human rights, and environmental conservation – and does not shy away from taking strong stances on these issues. It sells a body lotion called the Charity Pot, whose tenth anniversary set the theme for this year’s summit. Ingredients are all fair-trade, and 100 percent of proceeds are divided among small grassroots organizations that Lush chooses to support each year.

A wide range of charities and non-governmental organizations set up displays at the summit , hosting interactive sessions, workshops, and speakers. Many of these groups have received financial assistance from Lush over the years. aThe topics included environmental conservation, human rights, digital rights (and how little privacy we really have), an overview of extreme energy and the lengths to which fossil fuel companies are now going, food sovereignty in times of growing insecurity, war, and poverty, including the current refugee crisis, and animals in servitude, from industrial agriculture to the fur trade to prize animals at funfairs.

All of these rooms were powerful and moving in their own way, but I was particularly affected by the space for animal rights, a central theme for the company. Lush replicated a distressing window display that it once had in the Toronto store, where an actor dressed as a bloody animal spent 24 hours with its leg in a trap – the usual length of time it takes for a trapper to come around his or her trap line.

Lush has also just launched its first-ever Spring Prize – a £200,000 fund that is divided into 11 awards across four prize categories, to individuals and groups, at all stages of development, working toward environmental and social regeneration. (Nominations are open until February 28, 2017.)

Packaging matters.

Little details about the summit impressed my zero-waste, anti-plastic sensibilities. There were no disposable water bottles available; people were told in advance to bring refillable ones. Coffee cups are made of brown recycled paper, without lids, and composting bins were available for disposal. The vegetarian food was served on disposable wooden plates with wooden cutlery. These decisions are subtle yet powerful acts of protest in themselves – so rarely encountered at significant events, which tend to default to the easiest, cheapest, plastic options, and for that very reason, highly impressive.

Room for improvement?

Lush isn’t perfect, and there are still meaningful conversations to be had about their ingredient lists that contain small amounts of chemicals, such as paraben preservatives, artificial fragrances, and foaming agents. Lush calls them “safe synthetics,” with which many people would disagree. At least they’re fully transparent about their use and willing to discuss, both in person and in detailed pamphlets available in-store.

Lush Preservatives Handbook

Katherine Martinko / Treehugger

Admittedly, ingredient lists are one of the first things I examine and criticize when reviewing products, and Lush isn’t as clean as the brands I use daily. I do not think, however, that the controversy over “safe synthetics”, even if I don’t agree with their use, should obscure the incredibly progressive and important work that Lush is doing in other areas – projects that many purely natural cosmetics company aren’t even close to touching. The company deserves recognition for its activism and its fantastic lack of packaging (more to come on that favorite topic!).

TreeHugger was a guest of Lush at the Lush Summit in London in February of 2017. There was no obligation to write about the summit.