Many hands make Lush work: A look inside the factory

Posted on 28 Nov 2022 by The Manufacturer

In September, The Manufacturer’s Lanna Deamer and Tom St John got the opportunity to visit one of Lush’s seven manufacturing sites. They left with a bath bomb, sweet smelling clothes and an education in sustainable practices and manufacturing processes.

It would be safe to assume that yes, the Lush manufacturing site in Poole is up there with one of our favourite visits. It was just as cool and colourful as you would imagine! The scents were incredible and we left smelling better than when we arrived. Lush has seven different manufacturing sites across the world, in places as far afield as Toronto, Tokyo and Sydney. From these locations, Lush made 118 million products by hand in 2021; 95% of them being vegan-friendly.

Worldwide, Lush employs 12,000 colleagues, hundreds of which are compounders, who are trained to follow recipes that make fresh products every day. We were blown away by how central people are to this process. Lush employs hundreds of compounders around the world to hand-make all its products. Their names and faces are proudly displayed on every product’s batch sticker – you may not have noticed this before but it’s now likely to stick in your mind every time you purchase a Lush product.

The Lush manufacturing process: Image courtesy of Lush
Image courtesy of Lush

A green agenda

We began our day at the Lush Green Hub, where we were met by Elena Gronlund, Learning and Development Manager for Manufacturing who hosted our factory tour. She was joined by Karen Huxley, Global PR for Lush, and Annabel Platt, Manufacturing Communications Officer. At the Green Hub, we were introduced to Ruth Andrade, Strategy Lead, Earthcare. Sustainability is quite clearly very important to Lush, so this seemed like a good place to start. Ruth explained that the very design of the Lush Cosmetics business model is centred around sustainability – it has always been a huge part of who the company is. Lush has created many sustainable innovations over the years, with a particular focus on inventing products that don’t require packaging.

The shampoo bars are a favourite of Ruth’s because they are completely plastic-free and self-preserving. Although sustainability has always been a key focus right from the inception of the business, things are constantly changing, so when new information comes to light, around for example, supply chains, then Lush always aims to act as soon as possible. Ruth explained: “We have over a decade of experience when it comes to ethical purchasing, renewable energy and recycled packaging, but there is a cost to becoming an early adopter. In hindsight, we can look back and see the mistakes we made at the beginning; it was an interesting time as we were constantly trying to innovate.

It was also an expensive period in our history – which is often the case when you are experimenting with new things for the first time – but it was worth it because we learnt so much. “I’m very proud that Lush now has an established, sustainable culture. It is part of what we do and for us, it’s a no-brainer because sustainability is so embedded within our business model. That’s the advantage of becoming an early adopter; we’ve got so much experience in sustainable practices that it has just become part of our culture.”

The Lush Green Hub is the central nervous system of the company's sustainable initiatives
The Lush Green Hub is the central nervous system of the company’s sustainable initiatives

Positive energy

When it comes to using energy, in both the factory and worldwide stores, Lush wants to keep practising what it preaches by continuing to operate in the most sustainable way possible, particularly when it comes to the transportation of its ingredients, products and people. Like many other businesses, particularly those using natural materials, a large chunk of the environmental footprint is in the supply chain and this impacts massively on where the company sources its materials. “Our manufacturing is so important because it’s what we have direct control of, and when we look at our direct operations, energy is a big concern,” Ruth added.

“We have been on renewable energy tariffs since 2008 and have also been actively installing more solar panel capacity on our sites. “Everyone that has a roof should be prioritising installing more renewable energy capacity as locally as possible, not just from a sustainability point of view, but also now in terms of economic resilience, as this will ensure that you are less exposed to all the energy fluctuations that we’re currently seeing.” The company has also employed a dedicated energy manager to identify opportunities for energy saving throughout the business, whether its adding roof insulation, working on the fabric of the building or electrification. Methods to drive both a reduction in energy demand through efficiency and other measures have been looked at, as well as tackling how to increase the supply of renewables.

A place to learn and collaborate

We were shown around the Lush Green Hub and took in the enormous plethora of plastic that could have easily gone to waste. “At Lush, we wanted to create a centre that could showcase what it’s like to think from a circular economy perspective,” said Ruth. “This means making sure that the value of material keeps circulating, and that we’re not incinerating or sending materials to countries that don’t have the infrastructure to process them. We want to make sure we take full responsibility for the materials that we turn into waste in the UK. “We also encourage businesses to do the same, that’s why it’s called a centre. Here, we can run workshops for visitors and more importantly, it’s a place where we can all collaborate together, because there’s no circular economy without collaboration; it cannot be about one person or business.”

This is another opportunity for the manufacturing industry to come together and figure out how we can really operate from an industrial ecology point of view. In the Lush Green Hub, the company is bringing materials that it collects from customers, where they can be washed, grinded and turned back into packaging. Not only this but Lush also reuses furniture from its stores and has a space to repair materials rather than throwing them away; and all of that in a place where people can come to visit and learn. The company’s tagline is ‘leaving the world lusher than they found it’ and Ruth explained that means having a positive impact on the world. Not only do they want to do good, but Lush also wants to go beyond generic sustainability practices and have a regenerative impact to the point where it is planting forests, cleaning water and preventing waste from polluting the environment.

The future aim of the Poole site is to fully decarbonise energy and transport as well as ensuring all the buildings are completely zero waste. Ruth concluded: “We want to make sure that we have our own internal loop of collecting, washing and returning on our own just-in-time system from reusable and returnable transit packaging. For me, manufacturing is like a forest; we should be making use of the sun, wind and water to ensure that all our cycles are integrated and that there is nothing linear where we’re creating.”

Image courtesy of Lush
Image courtesy of Lush

To see the various units on Lush’s campus-like facility, we drove in convoy. Lanna and I followed Elena – Karen and Anabelle followed closely behind. “Everyone has a better car than me,” I grumbled to Lanna, who’s vague laugh told me she didn’t care; as a self-professed “Lushy” she just wanted to get into the ballistics department to see where all the magic happens. The fresh, handmade philosophy at Lush is noticeable to every sense. You’re greeted with the smell; a sweet, powdery kind of scent, your eyes are treated to the bright array of what looks like coloured sherbet being swirled around and shaped by gloved hands, and by the back wall, an assortment of glistening bath bombs sat dreamily in silver basins. You can even taste it on your tongue, I thought to myself. But as good as they look, you can’t eat these products, so don’t try.

Jason Muller, Global Manufacturing Director at Lush, joined us for a chat: “From 1995, we had a small unit of around 7,000 square feet. Over the years, we’ve expanded and we’ve now got about 19 units within Poole and there’s around 300,000 square feet of manufacturing space. We’ve got about 650 year-round staff, and now we’re in the middle of taking on seasonal staff – probably another 475.”

As I mentioned on a recent episode of The Manufacturer Podcast, the manufacturing process at Lush looks like cake making. Vivid pinks, blues, oranges, greens and yellows were being pressed and shaped by hand in front of our very eyes. It’s no surprise, that Lush Co-founder and Product Inventor, Mo Constantine, had a chocolate factory in the family while growing up – it’s what stoked her interest in manufacturing from a young age. As I say, you can’t eat them, but much like your favourite foods, careful conditions are required when it comes to Lush products. Jason continued: “I suppose it’s a very similar process to catering. We use similar kitchen equipment, but on a larger scale. We take fresh ingredients and put them together, similar to a chef. Those fresh ingredients are put into mixers, blended together and then handmade. It’s all fresh – we actually have a policy where we won’t let anything leave our warehouse if it’s older than 28 days.”

Many hands make Lush work

A key reason for Lush’s hands-on approach is to be more accessible. It’s the norm for large manufacturing companies to deploy cobots and automated processes to assembly lines to efficiently churn out high volume products. This is the case in the cosmetics industry, as well as many others. However, Lush makes smaller, fresher batches than typical cosmetic manufacturers and its products have a shorter shelf life. “We didn’t want to go down the automation route,” explained Jason, “Making products freshly by hand puts a lot back into the community and creates jobs. The formulas are very innovative, so having that handmade element in the introduction, R&D and so on, caters all the way through the product.” He continued, “We’re not ever going to go fully automated – that’s not what we’re about. People might question that at some point, because of the challenges facing manufacturers at the moment, but we’re sticking to what we know best, which is fresh, handmade products.

Colourful products on display at Lush
Colourful products on display at Lush

Flexibility and inclusivity

I wanted to question Jason further on these challenges, which for so many manufacturers have taken similar forms. I assumed Lush can’t have escaped unscathed from the turbulence of the last few years. “We’ve had to adapt the production to a degree”, he explained. “Especially during COVID. If you go back even further to Brexit, we’re now seeing the impact on supply chains, so there’s been challenges of adjusting our forecasts, and in some cases that has meant moving back to local manufacturing in the UK. “We’ve adapted, but everything we set up in the beginning has allowed us to be flexible and fluid with everything we do. We’re able to take production up and down as required, and that’s ultimately down to the fact we rely on people and not automation.”

As we made our way over to the bubbles department, I commented at the diversity of the workforce that we’d seen at the ballistics factory. “We’ve always welcomed everyone,” replied Jason, “We’re very diverse; we’ve got 34 nationalities working for us. The split is probably around 60/40 female to male at the moment. But that’s how we built the business. It’s nothing new for us, we’ve done that from day one. Poole is a small place, so we’re always looking to encourage more staff to join us. “For us, it’s about creating opportunity for anyone,” he continued. “We’re seeing a trend at the moment of people retiring earlier so we’ve made an effort to get into schools and universities to tell young people what is available at Lush – we have over 63 careers here.

Being able to talk to careers advisors within schools and let potential staff know about the career opportunities here adds a huge amount of value to the business.” Artisan manufacturing can still be innovative Our tour finished next to some immaculate displays of pudding-like bath bombs and fragrant smelling soaps, accompanied by various other products. We have toured some amazing factories this year, and we often marvel at the advanced tech, automation and robotics that exist in the modern-day smart factory. When we’re presented with something slightly against this grain, it’s genuinely fascinating. Certain approaches work for certain businesses, and fresh cosmetic manufacturing comes best in small batches. This is no less precise, or innovative, despite the fact that machines are removed from the equation. As a chef you may follow the same recipe, but no batch is ever identical. Crafting products such as these is akin to making a beautiful, finely balanced, intricate cake. But you can’t eat it.

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