The Smell of Bullshit

The above is a link to a post on a site called Chief Customer Officer, and it’s an article extolling how well Lush interact with their customers on their online forum. That’s Lush, the “ethical” toiletries and cosmetics company. The post says

Founder Mark Constantine of LUSH Cosmetics keeps it real with thousands of self-proclaimed “Lushies” on its online forums who chat with Constantine and his staff. Here you see back-and-forth debate and straight talk usually reserved for friends.

Customers often plead the case for products scheduled for extinction. LUSH lets people know ahead of time so they can stock up on their favorites headed for the chopping block. These exchanges set the tone for the honest, passionate, and straightforward relationship the rest of the company is encouraged to build with customers.

Likened in the media to Willy Wonka, Constantine orchestrates a cacophony of wild discovery techniques to find the scents (and textures) that will explode in the bath or soothe the skin, transporting LUSH customers to their quiet reverie. Some would say LUSH has drawn women back into the bath. LUSH has elevated the art of taking baths with the invention of the “bath bomb,” calling it “a giant Alka-Seltzer for your tub.” For the $7–$9 price of a bath bomb, they provide a bit of therapy for the soul. Laugh if you want — LUSH is laughing all the way to the bank. This unique, all-natural company, which hires people to crack open coconuts and peel mangoes to make its products, has created a legion of followers. LUSH Cosmetics has blossomed from one store in 1995 to more than 600 shops worldwide.

Companies become beloved because of how they connect with customers and how they connect in their customers lives.

  • They relate personally with customers.
  • Their personalities come through during interaction with them.

I was a customer of Lush for many years and a regular user of their forum for probably about ten years. When I say regular user, I mean daily. Daily for about ten years. I left the forum about a year ago, and I now only buy a couple of things at Lush – a particular soap and a particular body moisturiser which my prone-to-allergies very eczematous skin can’t do without. The reasons I have stopped using the forum and stopped buying the vast majority of their products are multiple but can be boiled down into two sentences. I don’t believe they give a shit about their customers. I don’t believe they give a shit about their staff.

As for how it treats customers, particularly on the forum, well, it really does vary. Mark Constantine, the founder of Lush, who goes by the name of BIG on the forum, has been incredibly generous to many customers and forum users. He sent me and others products worth a lot of money for doing user testing on a previous incarnation of the forum. He regularly invites forum users to the factory for tours, puts them up in a hotel and pays for dinner. They even made me a raspberry & lime body lotion I had been suggesting for years. These are nice things to do. I enjoyed my factory trip very much and I still appreciate it. And I still use some of the products he sent me, and I will be sad when I use the last of the lotion. But that does not mean that he or Lush is perfect. I have seen Mark Constantine be incredibly rude to a customer/forum user, apologise and send her an entire truckle of soap as an apology, then berate her for ingratitude several years later when she criticised a poor quality product. Other staff using the forum – Jill of the Chester shop, whose username was tittywalls, was outrageously rude on more than one occasion. I’m not talking about the to and fro of banter, discussion and cheek you see on internet fora where people are relaxed and know each other well enough to be informal and tease each other. I’m talking about someone in the role of customer on the forum interacting with someone in the role of Lush employee on the forum, and that employee/employer being very very rude.

The Lush forum used to be a nice internet space to hang out. It was fun to interact with Lush headquarters staff, to give them feedback, to take part in competitions, and all the other fun stuff. The forum was a nice place to hang out generally. I have laughed till I cried at some of the things that went on on there and I have made friends who I hope will be my friends for life. One very memorable event was “the truck of love.” A teenage single mother was offered a tenancy on a flat which she couldn’t afford to furnish. Without her knowing the forum as a whole donated furniture, hired a van and sent the van up the country collecting donations and delivered her a van full of furniture. This was an internet forum – most of these people had never met and never will but they still cared enough to help. Every year the forum would get drunk and watch Eurovision together, online. The hilarity was immense.

But now it’s miserable. Staff don’t go near the place, Mark’s answers to criticisms are rolling eyes smilies or to tell people they’re ungrateful. There is currently good reason to believe that a Lush North America employee has stolen from a customer (via submitting a paypal claim for items she bought from the customer then said she hadn’t received, even though she was selling the same items on ebay) and Lush say it’s nothing to do with them. Lush have always said that the forum is unmoderated and that accounts are not deleted, but the account of the employee who stole from a customer was somehow deleted. Strange, no? Customers/forum users feel unheard and neglected. Valid complaints like those raised on are dismissed as whinging. Mark gets huffy if he isn’t worshipped.

The Lush forum used to be a vibrant place with benefits for customers and staff far beyond the discussion of the products. Now, it’s a sad shadow of what it could be – much like the company’s attitude to employment law.

Mark Constantine has said numerous times on the forum that he can’t see why Lush should have to abide by employment laws because they’re a small family-based company. (They’re a multi-national organisation). When it was pointed out to him that all employers are obliged to abide by employment law, he disagreed. He genuinely seems to believe that he and his company are above the law. Can you believe that a company the size of Lush doesn’t have an HR department?

Even companies which respect their obligations and requirements under the law get it wrong sometimes and make mistakes which are harmful to staff. One can only imagine how a company which believes the law doesn’t apply to it treats its staff. One can only imagine how a company which treats its paying customers so badly treats its staff. One  can only shudder to imagine how a company which says it doesn’t believe employment law applies to it in public treats its staff in private.

It’s Lush policy, apparently, that their shop doors should remain open during opening hours. Fine if you’re in a shop in a shopping mall. Maybe even fine if you’re in a shop on the warmer southwest coast of England – such as Poole, for example. But can you spot any obvious problems with an open door policy for high street shops say in Aberdeen or Edinburgh? That’s right. It gets cold in winter! Quite apart from Lush’s “ethical” stance on the environment and the problems of shop heating rushing straight out of the front door into the January cold, what about the staff in the shop? I have been in Lush shops in Scotland in mid-winter and when the doors are open they get very very cold. And the staff get very very cold. And that is problematic. UK law does not state a minimum working temperature, but the temperature in workrooms should be at least 16C. The Regulations say

The temperature in workrooms should provide reasonable comfort without the need for special clothing. Where such a temperature is impractical because of hot or cold processes, all reasonable steps should be taken to achieve a temperature which is as close as possible to comfortable. ‘Workroom’ means a room where people normally work for more than short periods. The temperature in workrooms should normally be at least 16 degrees Celsius unless much of the work involves severe physical effort in which case the temperature should be at least 13 degrees Celsius. These temperatures may not, however, ensure reasonable comfort, depending on other factors such as air movement and relative humidity

Forum users realised that Lush shop staff were freezing their fragrantly-moisturised tits off, and complained on the forum. The aforementioned queen of customer relations tittywalls retorted that staff would only get cold if they were standing around doing nothing and that if they got on with work they’d warm up. No understanding of the dangers of inhaling cold air and lowering core temperature. No acknowledgement that staff should not be so cold they have to wear hats, scarfs, coats and gloves in a shop. Eventually, after a lot of fuss, Lush told the forum that shops had been instructed they could close their doors if necessary. Forumites checked with local shops. Many local shops said they’d had no such instruction. Forum users continued to complain. Some shops did start shutting their doors in the coldest weathers. Lush continue to insist shops are allowed to shut their doors if the weather requires it. Customers continue to see very cold staff in very cold shops with open doors. I will no longer shop in Lush, for many reasons, but be assured, if I knew a shop was keeping its doors open in an Edinburgh winter and staff were suffering, I would go for a browse with a thermometer in my bag, and if I felt it was necessary, I would notify the Health & Safety Executive. Anybody else could do the same, if they wanted to. Staff could even do it anonymously.

If any Lush staff or their families are friends are reading this and are concerned about how Lush behaves towards employees, you do not have to worry alone. You have the legal right to join a union. USDAW might be the most appropriate, but there are others. General advice on employment law and employment rights is available from the TUC and STUC. The TUC produce a number of leaflets related to workers’ rights and the law is very clear that you have the right to join a union if you want to, and you cannot be dismissed or disadvantaged at your work for doing so. They also have a useful page about your basic rights at work. The TUC and STUC can help you work out which union is the most appropriate for you to join, and you do not have to tell your employer that you have joined if you don’t want to. Of course, it would be to everyone’s benefit if everyone joined, and sometimes you can only do that by going public, but that’s a big step to take if you’re scared of your employer.

Of course, all of this advice applies to anyone who is concerned about how they are treated at work. You have rights, there is support available, and you do not have to put up with it. Join a union today. Don’t be scared to get help. And if you want to leave a comment here with examples of you or someone you know being treated badly by Lush, please do. It helps people to know they’re not alone.