We have written in the past about the serious issues with vegan labelling that threaten the achievement of our vision. As we explained in more detail in our ISO-23662 ban article, it is incorrect to think that the most popular certification schemes are the most stringent—in fact it is quite the opposite. We have a vegan standard that is the most efficient in bringing about our vision, but a vast majority of corporations that approach us for certification fail to meet it and have no interest in changing. They abandon our certification process and get certified by other organizations, or they self-certify their product since there are little to no global regulations against it.
For-profit corporations are aware of this and are shopping around for vegan certifications that maximize their profit by having the lowest requirement, which in turn requires them to do the least amount of changes. We also suspect some vegan certification organizations were set up by for-profit corporations in a bid to take advantage of “label fatigue”. In addition, all of this achieves the secondary goal of funding organizations that have the least financial incentive to fix the situation.
We are currently investigating how to best address this issue, but once again there is no simple solution. Our certification has never been about generating revenue. We exist only to fulfill our vision to end animal exploitation and our certification’s purpose is to achieve this.
While it seems we might not be able to affect the current vegan standard shopping behaviour, we can shed light on and ban products or services which are labelled vegan and are in conflict with our vision. It achieves the same purpose of informing consumers what is concordant with achieving our vision in a timely manner, but instead of doing it through certification alone, we can supplement with bans.
For-profit corporations are clever; by funding organizations with standards unable to bring about our vision in a timely manner, they ensure that those who would not certify their products vegan have the least resources to work on fixing these problems. Thankfully, we have always been powered by volunteers; while we will not be able to have a look at all products and services that are currently labelled vegan, we will be able to highlight the most egregious violations or those cases that highlight unique issues and obstacles to the achievement of our vision.
The first series of products that are labelled and certified vegan that we are banning are products from the Lush corporation.
We are using this as an example because Lush has a large chasm between virtue signalling and reality, all under the auspices of veganism. In this case, virtue signalling is advocating for conditions that are sometimes even above the requirement of our vegan certification.
Many corporations that portray themselves as ethical do not offer a work environment that is an order of magnitude better than others. In the case of Lush, we are not talking about extras that are nice to have, like extended health care, we are talking about corporations following the law and various basic animal rights that we have all agreed upon, like those from Universal Declarations of Human Rights of 1948, which is in large part included in our vegan standard on the conditions of human animals.
One might rightly point out the hypocrisy of corporations that profit from their ethical branding to exploit human animals in the same way as other corporations, but it is ineffable for this to be certified vegan. Violation of those basic rights defined in the 30 articles of the UN declaration, including but not limited to the right to life, the right to be free from slavery, the right to be free from discrimination, the right to be free from torture, the right to a fair trial, and the right to trade unionism are not acceptable for anyone in our society.
The vegan philosophy falls apart if, while trying to end the exploitation of all animals, we violate the too few rights that some animals already have. Veganism falls apart if we advocate for the end of exploitation for some animals to the detriment of other animals. It must be clear that our vision will be unreachable if we allow the exploitation of any animals. There is simply no ethical foundation that can sustain such an argument.
We must realize that it is one thing to enact global protections for animal rights, but it is a completely different thing to get those regulations respected and enforced. We should reflect on this until we are convinced that if we cannot respect the few animal rights that are already protected under various regulations, it will be nearly impossible to get any additional animal rights regulation to be respected as well.
This is a case where we cannot pick and choose which current regulation protecting animal rights we want to follow and which we want to violate. If we are not able to protect the rights of our own species, it is highly doubtful that we will protect the rights of other species. Anyone that shares our vision to end animal exploitation must refrain from any animal exploitation whatsoever, especially the exploitation that is already covered by existing regulations or treaties, including but not limited to slavery, slavery-like conditions, child labour, and various forms of discrimination.
The virtue signalling at Lush is near endless, whether it’s their ethical buying policy, their diversity and inclusion policy, their no animal testing policy, or that they believe in “happy people making happy soap”. The reality is too often in stark contrast to all of this.
For example, an investigation by the Guardian in 2020 found various labour issues like frequent injuries, discrimination and sexual harassment. Additionally, like most corporations, Lush’s supply chain management is much more reactive than preventative as its values would suggest. For example, in 2014 another Guardian article discussed the issues with forced labour and mica in the Lush supply chain.
Current and former employees of Lush have talked to us about the violation of basic human animal rights with regards to their right to trade unionism as guaranteed by the Universal Declarations of Human Rights of 1948 and by Lush’s own ethical values stated on their site. In order to protect employees from further exploitation, we use fictitious names and pronouns throughout this article. We have confirmed that they hired various anti-union law firms to represent Lush against their employees, some that publicly boast of their anti-union services to potential clients.
In addition, Lush has outstanding labour violations pending in courts both in the USA and Canada. The most advanced case is one where a California court indicted Lush for unfair labour practices and worker intimidation with regards to their workers exercising their right to trade unionism; the issue will be decided in court later this year. Lush workers have banded together and formed the Global Lush Union.
There is no need to justify why the right to a safe and healthy work environment, free from sexual harassment, should be non-negotiable; it is already part of national regulations and various international treaties. Workers we heard from have alleged various forms of intimidation techniques, like one-on-one meetings as described here. We have independently verified many of those facts with former or current employees.
In one incident, one employee described the ways in which they felt racism was systemic at Lush. First, they were not interviewed nor hired until they changed their first name on their application, for example, from Jamal to James. Once these individuals were trying to organize, they felt increased attention over other employees who were trying to organize, such as being subjected to almost daily one-on-one meetings with their supervisor who questioned their motives.
In addition, when an employee raised their concern about racism at Lush, Lush gave them little to no options: Either get your own representation or Lush will investigate and write a report, but you will not be allowed to know what the report says, see it, or ask questions about it. Given such poor choices, they chose to go with the invisible report. Not surprisingly, the secret report apparently concluded that in all instances, racism was not a motivating factor.
In another incident reported by a worker during the wildfires on the west coast of North America, not only were staff working amidst a pandemic but they were also asked to sell products while standing outside amid falling ash. The temperature was high and the air quality was poor.
Employees, at least in some of Lush’s retail stores but we suspect this is a non-written corporate policy, are not permitted to sit down during their shift in violation of various labour laws, for example in British Columbia or California. The reasoning is that this does not look good. However, various courts have been quite clear on this subject, for example, the California Supreme Court. Businesses had argued that the “nature of their work” included the impression that the employee gives off, and that customer perception wasn’t as good for cashiers and tellers who sit. The courts decided that this was illogical and ruled:
There is no principled reason for denying an employee a seat when he spends a substantial part of his workday at a single location performing tasks that could reasonably be done while seated.
While we did not interview all workers at Lush, the evidence we gathered in some cases goes above the legal threshold, let alone above the level necessary to take actions under the precautionary principle. Subsequent to various events we have described, instead of having an epiphany and realizing they had strayed far away from their own vision, they doubled down and produced this video performed by non-employees:
We need to protect and invest in healthier communities, better-paying jobs that protect people with workers' rights, and strong labor standards that see opportunity for all.
The broad ethical scandal at Lush is a great example of how the fallacy that plants are better can go wrong. We do not support the exploitation of cows in the making of bath bombs any more than we support the exploitation of human animals. We are not interested in moving exploitation around; our vision is to end it. The emergence of corporations like Lush that rely heavily on virtue signalling for their revenue under the umbrella of veganism, while exploiting animals and violating various regulations and treaties that protect animals, is a threat to our vision and not suitable for vegans.
We use the vegan label to communicate with people and let them know that the products and services sold under that label are concordant with achieving our vision in a timely manner. As we have discussed, the emergence of molecular veganism and other forms of veganism that accept or encourage actions as we have described in this article are a serious threat to the achievement of our vision. Most regrettably, a world filled with corporations like Lush may end up in the liberation of cows from exploitation but indubitably will not lead to the achievement of our vision.
Veganism is built upon the ability of human animals to change, without which our vision becomes impossible. We have given ample opportunity over the last months for Lush to rectify the situation prior to the publication of this article. We have been in contact with various people and departments, including both the CEO of Lush UK and Lush North America, without success. Various courts will decide whether Lush has violated the few laws we have to protect animal rights, but in veganism we use the precautionary principle which requires a much lower evidentiary threshold before we act.
We have seen more than sufficient evidence that Lush is exploiting animals contrary to our standard, our vision and Lush’s own ethical standard. In addition, we have also seen more than enough evidence to decide under the precautionary principle that these events are not isolated incidents but systemic.
Lush is by no means the worst corporate citizen, nor is it the worst abuser of the vegan label. Lush is also not the first company to claim to uphold ethical principles while simultaneously violating them, but we don’t know of a business selling so many vegan certified products and making many ethical claims above and beyond our vegan standard while violating basic animal rights guaranteed by our society. All of this, coupled with the unwillingness of Lush senior management to acknowledge the issue exists, leaves us with little choice in the face of this emerging threat to our vision.
We believe it is important for consumers to have the most information with regards to products, services and businesses they decide to support. We are therefore banning products made by Lush from our certification and deem them as not suitable for vegans.
We must be clear with any corporation that would try and follow in Lush’s footsteps that this is not acceptable. Businesses can label products as “animal-free” or “100% plant ingredients” as appropriate, and we will be the first to applaud their efforts and encourage them to do more. But if businesses are going to be exploiting or violating laws and regulations meant to protect animals, do not do so under the umbrella of veganism.
This article was contributed by our member Vegan Society of Canada. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of Vegan World Alliance.