Vuitting social media is hard to do, even when it doesn’t cost you anything. So when Lush’s chief executive, Mark Constantine, shut its thousands of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok accounts on Friday, die biggest shopping day of the year, he knew dropping off millions of customers’ screens would damage his business.
Its Facebook and Instagram accounts alone had 10.6 million followers and the void will result in an estimated £10m hit to sales but Constantine, one of the business’s co-founders, said it had “no choice” after whistleblowers called attention to the negative impact social media sites such as Instagram are having on teenagers’ mental health.
“We’ve tightened up over the Covid period, it won’t destroy us,” says Constantine of the financial fallout from the decision. He was disturbed by leaked Facebook research that suggested its Instagram app made body image issues worse for teenage girls. “I just thought ‘That’s their own research and they’re ignoring it and we are attracting people to their platform.’ We had no choice whatsoever. Lush attracts an awful lot of girls of that age.”
The 69-year-old businessman has been trying to run an ethical beauty empire since starting the Poole-based company in 1995 with five others, including his wife, Mo. Over the years the bath bomb purveyor has taken a stand on all manner of issues, from the scourge of single-use plastic to fox hunting and the targeting of activists by undercover police officers.
Constantine is speaking from his home in the Dorset seaside town where Lush is the biggest private sector employer. It has nine manufacturing sites and several offices including one overlooking the harbour, where the expansive glass windows in his office provide the keen birdwatcher with a superb view of the water.
Like many Britons Lush has tried to quit social media before. It said it would no longer be posting back in 2019 only to creep back as the pandemic closed its stores and the web became the only way to communicate with shoppers. It has not deleted its accounts but signed off with a post that encouraged its followers to “stop scrolling and be somewhere else instead”.
While Constantine’s son Jack, the company’s chief digital officer, has been behind the plan from day one because of his concerns about algorithms that “generate addictive, mindless scrolling”, other managers did not agree, and some still don’t, which perhaps explains why the first attempt failed.
Will the same thing happen this time? “I hope not, I’d be a laughing stock,” says Constantine. “We haven’t done it as a PR stunt, we have done it for genuine reasons.” He offers up the excuse that social media is as addictive to companies as individuals. “This is us making a real effort to get off it.”
This time he is even closing his personal Facebook account though he enjoyed running a “little newspaper of my own” on it.
Above all else, Constantine says Lush, which gives an average of £8m a year to charity, puts “caring for people” first and could not ignore links made between social media use and suicidal thoughts and wants the platforms to have stronger best practice guidelines to protect users.
“We’re talking about suicide here, not spots or whether someone should dye their hair blonde," hy sê. “How could we possibly suggest we’re a caring business if we look at that and don’t care?”
Met 400 company-owned stores around the world and sales of £438m in 2020 (the business is twice that size if other partnerships are included) Lush survived the pandemic albeit with some scars. Lockdowns lopped a fifth off its turnover and it finished the year £45m in the red, although Constantine says sales have rebounded and it is now financially “stronger than it has ever been” after putting the company through what it calls, perhaps fittingly for a company with a large haircare business, the “Covid rinse”.
But the fallout from the pandemic has not just been financial with the businessman alarmed by the number of colleagues now struggling with their mental health. “It has never been a more serious issue for us," hy sê. “I spend at least a third of my time discussing different mental health issues with colleagues … it’s never been worse. People who have never had anxiety have got anxiety.”
Facebook is facing fresh scrutiny after thousands of internal documents were leaked by Frances Haugen, a former product manager at the social media company. Among the most damaging was the allegation that it knew its products were damaging teenagers’ mental health. The company has mounted a vigorous defence, stating: “To suggest we encourage bad content and do nothing is just not true.”
Lush’s desire to run hard-hitting campaigns on the issues it cares about should make it a natural for the social media age and Constantine insists it is not running scared by not pulling back from some sites (it is staying on Twitter and YouTube).
No single issue has come close to creating the turmoil spawned by its 2018 Spycops advertising campaign which addressed the scandal – revealed by the Guardian – of undercover police officers forming relationships with the women they were employed to spy on, hy sê. Staff faced intimidation while police supporters called for a boycott and the then home secretary Sajid Javid accused it of attacking “hardworking police”.
If that is the case shouldn’t Lush stay social and provide a positive voice for young fans who get an ego boost from environmentally friendly shampoos and makeup? “Ja, but I’m not willing to do it at the risk of someone’s life," hy sê.