The British ethical cosmetics company Lush markets itself on its progressive values. However, its opposition to attempts at unionization at its Toronto warehouse has exposed a deep cleavage between the company’s stated ethical commitments and its opposition to workers’ autonomy.
Lush has a history of supporting progressive causes. In the UK, the company has thrown its weight behind anti-austerity campaigns, opposed abuses of power by undercover police officers, raised money for victims of the Australian wildfires, and even handed out free sanitizer during the height of the pandemic. The company’s do-gooder reputation has given many customers the impression that it is, in some way, different from other capitalist firms.
Economic pressures, however, apply just as much to Lush as they do to any other profit-making enterprise. In an interview with the Guardian, Lush’s cofounder Mark Constantine admitted that economic constraints made living up to the company’s ethical ideals difficult. A perfect situation for Constantine would be to create a virtuous circle between workers, the company, and the state. Thus far, his attempts to succeed at this approach are, he conceded, “not really getting on very well.”
Lush’s thousands of workers outside the UK are not happy. The sad lesson to be learned from the firm’s anti-unionization drive is that, under capitalism, whatever good intentions corporations have must first and foremost be reconciled with the need to generate profits. Lush’s employees recognize this fact and have kicked off an international organizing campaign called the Global Lush Union.
A Toxic Culture
In 2020, the Guardian broke a story about poor working conditions and high rates of injury in Lush’s Sydney factory. Three Lush employees working in the Sydney factory later corroborated these reports anonymously. Not only did these workers back up the Guardian’s story, they also exposed a toxic culture in the supposedly ethical firm’s factory. Bullying and sexual harassment was rife and often went unpunished, especially if the culprit was on good terms with management.
In North America, under the leadership of Mark Wolverton, the rift between the company’s values and reality is particularly stark. Last fall, when workers at Lush’s Toronto warehouse announced their intent to unionize, Lush North America launched a fierce union-busting campaign.
Documents obtained by Jacobin reveal that Workers United Canada Council has filed an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) complaint with the Ontario Labour Relations Board. The ULP alleges that management compelled employees of the Toronto warehouse to attend anti-union meetings. It also documents the distribution of anti-union leaflets.
These leaflets insinuate that pro-union workers will “trick” people into signing union cards. This anti-union literature, signed by Lush North America’s Executive VP, Peter Higgins, reproduces typical anti-union propaganda. In one section of the leaflet, the authors even repeat the right-wing cliché that “unions in Canada are businesses.”
Pro-union workers have also alleged that management has retaliated against them. Union supporters claim that they have had their hours reduced and been moved onto solitary tasks to keep them away from other employees during work.
One non-white pro-union worker, who preferred to remain anonymous, alleged that they have received more threats from management than their white counterparts. Management have accused this employee of harassment for handing out pro-union leaflets to their coworkers.
It is no surprise that the employees in Lush’s Toronto warehouse want to unionize. These allegations of discrimination come from a workforce that is largely comprised of immigrant workers. Although many warehouse employees work for years as seasonal or contract workers, only a few become permanent full-time employees.
Lush have not limited their attacks on pro-union activists to the employees of their Toronto warehouse. Maxwell Dolso-Morey, a retail employee in San Francisco, criticized the company’s response to unionization on their own online portal. As a result, he received a letter from management cautioning him about his posts. The letter was careful to state that it was not disciplinary in nature.
In response to this episode, Workers United Canada Council filed a ULP with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In their report, the Workers United Canada Council defended Dolso-Morrey’s right to criticize the company he works for without fear of retaliation.
The Global Lush Union
Lush’s employees have recently launched the Global Lush Union. The group is collecting stories from employees around the world about their working conditions at Lush. In addition to this, the Global Lush Union has also created a public petition, calling on the company to live up to the ethics it espouses. The first step to doing this would be recognizing the right of their employees to organize.
One of the aims of the Global Lush Union will be to facilitate contact and communication between workers trying to organize. Chris Flynn, one of Lush’s Toronto warehouse organizers, explains:
Our goal is to shed light on how Lush’s interference in our ongoing union campaign is unethical and anti-democratic and therefore at odds with Lush’s core values. When the brand respects this, it will empower Lush workers from across the globe to organize without fear.
The starting premise of the Global Lush Union is that organizing across borders increases the power of the working class. With a company as PR-conscious as Lush, bad press could threaten profits and, in turn, lead the company to retreat from its anti-union tactics.
Lush already seems to acknowledge that their anti-unionism is incompatible with their ethical branding. In their video for this year’s Earth Day, Lush referred to the need for “strong labor standards that see opportunity for all,” along with their usual references to sustainability and the environment. Although these PR stunts on their own will not lead to improved conditions for workers, highlighting the hypocrisy behind them may help undermine the company’s anti-union stance.
The increasing concern of large corporations like Lush with their brand creates new opportunities for the Left. The Global Lush Union is demonstrating how workers can leverage the ethical commitments of these companies to increase their bargaining power. By taking their struggles to the wider public, workers can help build support for the right to organize — not only in Lush’s warehouses and facilities, but across the world.