A spectrum of bright colours adorns the factory, with powders piled high on work benches. Busy hands scoop up blue, sprinkle yellow and pink, and expertly press and twist what finally becomes an Intergalactic bath bomb. In another room, a caramel-scented liquid is poured into a mould, ready to set into Honey I Washed The Kids soap.
When it comes to Lush manufacturing, people are the main event, and the word handmade has weight behind it. For a company powered by people, restrictions on the freedom of movement also threaten to restrict the business, as borders are put up around vital expertise.
The UK is home to 133,250 manufacturing companies, and Lush is one of the biggest employers – in the top 220 according to EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation.
The people who make the products, compounders, whip up everything from bubble bars and shower gels to fresh exclusives in the Kitchen, as well as supporting global teams. Around 1,000 staff of 40 nationalities make up the UK Lush manufacturing team. When the secret recipes for Snow Fairy and Golden Wonder are dusted off at Christmas, more hands are needed to keep up the pace. A huge recruitment drive is put in place, and around 2,500 staff can be found in the UK factories alone.
Freshness, on a global scale
The world is at the fingertips of Lush compounders, and their skills take them wherever they’re needed. That could mean training, setting up a new factory, or attending events.
With that in mind, some manufacturing is finding a new home in Düsseldorf and Zagreb, to help with supplying fresh, local products to the European market, and in turn reducing the carbon footprint.
As new staff are trained and new units set up, expertise is highly sought after. Jason Muller, the Lush global manufacturing director, says: “It’s easy to find a building, it’s easy to set it up. What’s not easy to do is find the teams to do it, the well-trained staff and the management. Hence, all our business is around the staff – that’s our biggest asset.”
This focus on people means doors are opened to global opportunities, and staff can get a better understanding of the world. Jason says: “This allows trained compounders the opportunity to travel and train other teams around the world. They can relocate to other countries if they wish.”
With freedom of movement under threat, this could all change. Around 56% of Lush’s UK manufacturing staff are non-British. All of them, including British staff, could be impacted by whatever lies ahead as Brexit negotiations get underway.
Jason explains how a handmade manufacturing process makes a difference to job satisfaction: “If you were cooking a meal at home, I think there’s something much better about preparing a meal, serving it and tasting it – it’s the same thing with production. If it was automated, if you didn’t have anything that you were actually involved with other than pressing a couple of buttons, I don’t think you’d get the same feeling.”
The kitchen metaphor runs deep in the roots of Lush. Back when products were first being invented, everything was done on a small scale. The only tools available were those found in the kitchen cupboards. This principle has been magnified, and the small-scale machinery used is still mostly catering equipment.
Minimal machinery is used, leaving opportunities for humans to develop new skills, and carve out careers. What’s more, employing a diverse range of people brings fresh eyes, new ideas, and a whole range of opinions – that’s something you don’t get from machines.
With humans taking centre stage and machines only given a supporting role, staff have a connection with the product, and quality checks are carried out by human eyes. The face sticker stamped onto a finished product carries more than just a batch code – it’s a seal of approval, a signifier of pride in a compounder’s work.
Borders don’t matter to machines. Finding the right people and bringing them together, now that’s a different story.