This article originally appeared on Holly’s blog Leotie Lovely. Holly is a Canadian writer living in Paris, and her blog serves as an ever evolving guide to conscious living and treating the world around us with more respect. Having never had much involvement with Lush, Holly was invited on a press trip on the recommendation of a friend. She decided to go in order to learn more, and investigate the true ethics behind the brand, rather than the variety of opinions often shared online. None of this work was sponsored in any way, but is merely the result of her own investigations.

When I first started educating myself on sustainability and the stories (or lack thereof) behind the products produced and habits created in our society, I was angry. Angry at myself for my ignorance, angry at brands who chose profit over people and planet, and angry at humanity as a whole for accepting and embracing lazy, thoughtless, wasteful, unkind habits that had become so embedded in us I feared we could never make things right again.

For the first year, I created hard lines to adhere to, refusing to see anything beyond perfection in the commercial world of ethics and sustainability as acceptable, and I held myself to the same standards. I wrote angry rants about H&M’s GreenwashingDrinkers of CoffeeFeminismTrump, and so on … and while I meant and still mean every word, I soon realized that the vivacious vigour I once held wasn’t sustainable.

Anger, for me, and for many others like me, is a coping mechanism. The world of sustainability and ethics is so overwhelming, and the onion of issues created so horrific, a survival instinct kicks in,  forcing you to retreat into Gollum-esque fits in your internet cave, as each layer of reality revealed.

It’s an exhausting but admittedly effective process, and though your ego might dance for a time in its righteous reign, if you’re lucky, logic will begin to melt the black and white walls of idealism you’ve built around you into vast seas of charcoal grey. And it’s in that grey soup that you’ll find the truth of reality: that nothing is as simple as it seems.

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LUSH AND I

At the beginning of this journey, I had admittedly never heard of Lush. In hindsight, I must have passed their storefronts hundreds of times in my years living in London, U.K. But I never went in. My mum had drummed it into me as a kid that one ought to avoid man-made colours in food and on the skin, and the colourful bath bombs which coax most in from the street side would have subconsciously driven me away.

Neon is not a colour my mum would say.

Sometime during my first year of blogging about sustainability, Lush’s name entered my peripheral through the work of writers I respect. Some accused them of greenwashing, while others heroed them for their animal rights activism and zero waste efforts. I personally chose to ignore them completely, letting my opinion be nought – until one-day last fall, an email from an animal rights journalist I’ve known since I was a teen came my way. She had been invited on a Lush press trip in London, to learn about some scientific advancements in anti-animal testing, but because of her young child, couldn’t go. She suggested to their PR team I take her place, and to my surprise, they agreed on the trade.

I had to admit I was curious, the Lush Prize, which celebrated these advancements in science seemed like a legitimately meaningful philanthropic project – and I figured if I was to form an opinion about the brand, there was no better place to do it but in the belly of the beast. As I read through their surprisingly transparent website, I had to admit to my hardened self that this company might not be as guilty of ‘greenwashing’ as my peers slated them to be. It didn’t seem to me that Lush was disseminating disinformation, they were aware of their imperfections and mistakes and outlined them with honesty. Furthermore, the issues held by most didn’t appear to be caused by laziness or lack of empathy on Lush‘s part, their choices seemed to be based on logic and science rather than the latest PR movements and public outcry. And on this shifty sea of nuances our world currently dwells in, that’s an important and interesting statement to make.

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THE LUSH TRIP

In early November, I went up to London. I was the only blogger amongst the handful of female journalists invited. The group of gals was made up of Ashlee PiperKatherine MartinkoAnna Starostinetskaya, and for a day only, Jessica Matlin. All women whose work I wholeheartedly respect, and I admittedly felt a bit out of place and nervous. This wasn’t a silly blogger trip built around surface experiences, it was an educational trip with no apparent agenda beyond learning about the company and some recent scientific advancements.

I should admit while I’m at it, that I like the Lush team. The Lush PR people were lovely and hilarious, each one of them so genuinely kind and encompassed by such unique quarks of character that by the end of the three-day trip, I was equally enamoured by all of them. We also had the opportunity to interview Hilary Jones, Lush’s Ethics Director, who sat cross-legged on a giant armchair with her wild orange hair creating a halo around her as she answered our questions calmly and candidly, radiating a sense of fortitude I rarely see.

By chance, I also happened to cross paths with co-founder Mark Constantine and his wife Mo in the Lush Lobby. I initially didn’t know who they were, and they had no knowledge of who I was for sure, but in our natural interactions I couldn’t help but like them wholeheartedly. They were warm and kind, modest and down to earth, normal people doing normal people stuff; in this case, repacking their bags, their belongings splayed out on the floor, quietly discussing who should have the toothbrushes in whose bag. Neither of them the picture of evil profit-hungry corporate rags that many articles of this kind make them out to be. I tell you this because the story behind each brand is important to me, and a part of that story is the founders and their team.

JUST JUDGEMENT

I had decided before I agreed to go on the trip, that the fairest way to judge the brand was to hold them to the same 10 Point Ethics & Sustainability standards that I have created and used for every beauty brand I’ve worked with (for example Para Botanica / Nature & Nurture). As a rule, I don’t work with or write about brands that don’t meet at least 7 out of 10 of my points, and based on that point system, Lush met that mark, earning themselves an 8 out of 10.

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Here’s how the 10 point system breaks down

1. ARE THE PRODUCTS MADE WITH NATURAL & ORGANIC INGREDIENTS?
– their score: 0.25 –

For Lush, the answer is sort of. Lush’s products are not 100% organic, but they do use natural ingredients … and also some possibly harmful synthetics like SLS, parabens and ‘fragrances’.

Lush is quite transparent about their ingredients and the use of them. If it’s coloured green on their website it is naturally derived and often organic, if it’s coloured black it is an ingredient that they call a ‘safe synthetic’.

When I interviewed Hilary Jones, Lush’s Ethics Director, I asked her about the hypocrisy hidden in their products. How could Lush use ingredients which are considered harmful to the planet and its inhabitants, especially as a brand known for its animal rights activism? Why also were only the ‘cute’ animals being considered and not the fauna that are most negatively affected when the synthetics and known carcinogens used are washed down the drain into our waterways?

Hilary explained to me that they use these ingredients for a number of reasons. First, customers want their soaps and shampoos to bubble (hence the SLS), second, with the new public movement away from parabens and other toxins, inappropriate similarly synthetic substituteslike Methylis­othiazolinone (MIT), formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, Organic acids, Sodium benzoate are being used in their stead. These substances are not safer, in fact, they have as much as or more of a possibility to cause public safety issues as well.

Basically, there isn’t a preservative that’s a good alternative to parabens, and the reason these synthetics are used in the first place is to give skincare products a longer shelf life. Products which are made with water allow bacteria to grow and multiply, so if you want to avoid synthetics completely, you need to avoid products which are made of liquid or be ready to have your products get mouldy (which can cause you health arms as well). At the moment, more than 65% of Lush’s range is entirely self-preserving and zero waste as they have removed the water from the product thus making it a solid instead of a liquid and removing the need for staying agents like parabens from many products, but not all.

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2. ARE THE INGREDIENTS ETHICALLY & SUSTAINABLY SOURCED?
their score: 1

Lush supports Fair Trade and Community Trade initiatives, working to buy as much as they can directly from the source and considering worker’s rights, environmental safety, animal protection, and transport with the purchase of each ingredient.

3. ARE THE PRODUCTS CONFLICT PALM-OIL FREE?
their score: 0.25

In 2009 Lush claimed to be palm-free, and though they are continuing to making serious efforts to remove palm and its derivatives from their product, according to Hilary Jones, Lush’s Ethics Director, who I challenged again with this issue when I interviewed her, Lush will “never make that claim again”. Lush doesn’t use RSPO certified palm oil because they believe it is a Greenwash, so rather than using ‘sustainable’ palm, they’re trying to cut the substance out completely.

To date, Lush has removed approximately 250 tonnes of Palm oil from their products in an effort to save the Orangutan and its threatened habitat in Indonesia’s rainforests. Yet Lush products which contain ‘safe synthetics’ like: Lauryl Betaine, Sodium Cocoamphoacetate, Cetearyl Alcohol, SLS, SodLauroylSarcosinateNP, Lauroyl Sarcosine, Glycol Cetearate, GMS SE40 – Glycerol monostearate, SSD – Disodium laureth sulfosuccinate, Glyceryl Stearat-PEG100, Ammonium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Stearate, Stearic Acid, Laureth 4, PEG–6 Caprylic / Capric Glycerides & PEG-60 Almond, Glycerides, continue to hold traces of palm oil, thus it’s important that if you’re going to purchase from the brand, that you read the list of ingredients (which they make readily available).

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4. ARE THE PRODUCTS TESTED ON ANIMALS?
– their score: 1 –

HECK NO. In fact, this is probably the most exciting part of the Lush brand, it has opposed animal testing from its inception. Though it’s not outwardly promoted, much of the management team and even the brand owners were amongst the original animal rights activists in the UK, and they have genuinely made a difference putting pressures on Parliament to adjust policy in England and the U.K.

This year during their Lush Prize Awards they honoured animal rights campaignerAndrew Tyler in a tear-jerking posthumous presentation led by his wife, Andrew was a Lush Prize Judge, as well as an animal rights journalist for 20 years who also acted as the director of Animal Aid, the UK’s second largest animal rights organization.

Hilary Jones, Lush’s Ethics Director, was a full-time animal rights activist for the majority of her life, helping to pressure Members of Parliament to do something about animal testing back in the day. She was amongst the activist who helped create the progressive Cosmetics Directive Bill, which stated there could be no animal testing in the EU and no products which had been tested on animals outside the EU sold within. The bill wasn’t passed until 2013 because the chemical industry pushed back claiming there weren’t safe alternatives to animal testing. And then in 2006, a new piece of legislation was passed that in effect nixed the whole movement. It was called the REACH regulation, and it called for all chemicals currently being used in products in the EU be retested, and much of that retesting was required to be on animals. It was devastating for the animal rights activists and the cruelty-free industry, and they realized they had to do more than fight legislation, they had to come up with a solution that would render animal testing useless. And that’s where the Lush Prize (discussed below), came in.

5. ARE THE PRODUCTS CRUELTY-FREE?

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Photos by Monique Pantel