Behind Lush’s decision to quit social media

Lush Cosmetics dropped a major (bath) bomb this week, when it announced that it was deactivating some of its social media accounts in the 48 countries in which it operates.

The company said it would stop publishing to its Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat channels today, and that they will remain inactive until the platforms take action to ensure a safe environment for users. It accused the platforms of ignoring the serious effects of social media on users’ mental health.

“We wouldn’t ask our customers to meet us down a dark and dangerous alleyway—but some social media platforms are beginning to feel like places no one should be encouraged to go,” said Lush in a post announcing its departure headlined “We’re logging off until social media is safe for all.”

On Friday, Lush’s UK and North American Instagram pages both featured a series of posts that together formed a single message to its followers: “Be Somewhere Else.”

Clicking on an individual post revealed the message “Be Somewhere Else. Whether that’s in a bath with a good book; taking some me-time with a facemask and a cuppa; or simply getting outside for some fresh air, we’re encouraging our customers to stop scrolling and be somewhere else instead. We want to engage with you in places that look after you and your mental wellbeing.”

It’s not the first time Lush has attempted to step away from social media, with its U.K. arm taking similar steps in 2019, only to return during the pandemic. “[O]ur FOMO is vast,” the company admitted in this week’s announcement. “And our compulsion to use the various platforms means we find ourselves back on there, despite our best intentions.”

Social media’s role in fostering a “fear of missing out” among its users has been well documented over the years, with experts saying that checking social media provides users both instant gratification and dopamine production. “The desire for a ‘hit’ of dopamine, coupled with a failure to gain instant gratification, may prompt users to perpetually refresh their social media feeds,” said the UK’s Centre for Mental Health.

Lush’s action comes at a time when the leading social platforms—and Facebook in particular—have become a lightning rod for criticism over their role in disseminating misinformation and toxic content.

In email interview with The Message this week, Lush’s North American brand director Wendy Kubota said that abandoning its primary social media channels is something the company has been contemplating for some time. What platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have become, she said, stands in stark contrast to Lush’s stated brand values of well-being and self care.

“[I]f we know an ingredient is harmful, we would never want to expose our customers to it and would never use it in our products,” said Kubota. “However, social media platforms are an ingredient in our communication toolkit, and if any of them are harming customers, we treat them the same as any other harmful ingredient.

“We can’t be on social channels and sharing content that mainly focuses on how you should take care of yourself and others, when we know the algorithms will not do that for you.”

Kubota likened the repeated warnings about the harmful effects of social media to the mounting evidence around climate change, which went ignored for so long. The Wall Street Journal‘s recent high-profile editorial series “The Facebook Files,” which stated that Facebook knows in acute detail that its “platforms are riddled with flaws that cause harm,” provided Lush with a renewed sense of purpose to push ahead with the change, she said.

“There is mounting evidence that social channels, like Facebook and Instagram, have some serious harms associated with them and that if we don’t act on these concerns soon, we will have lost the chance,” said Kubota.

Lush Cosmetics North America has more than 4.8 million followers on Instagram and another 1.2 million followers on Facebook. When it first announced its UK social boycott in 2019, some people openly questioned its decision to abandon a key communications channel.

But Kubota said that a reliance on Facebook and Instagram might have blinded Lush to the opportunities presented by others. She said the company is looking at strengthening its presence on Pinterest, as well as optimizing on YouTube (which has also been criticized for well-documented problems around safety) and engaging with an “active and thriving” Reddit community.

“It’s easy to get distracted by the big platforms like Facebook and Instagram, [because] you must feed them constantly,” said Kubota. “And as such you tend not to look at other opportunities so thoroughly. Lush is still on social, just selectively.”

And with the pandemic hopefully nearing an end, Lush will also look to connect with consumers through events and its significant store network. “[T]his includes through our over 900 shops worldwide and over 260 in North America that provide safe and welcoming community spaces,” she said.

Kubota said that Lush doesn’t run paid advertising on any of the platforms that it’s stepping away from, so there’s no decision to be made around budget allocation. She said that it’s simply a case of curtailing content, which is what the platforms rely on to keep people visiting.

“By stepping away and not posting on these channels, we are no longer part of this machine where our content keeps people visiting and remaining on the channels where the algorithms increase the likelihood of unwanted, negative content coming their way,” she said.

“We hope that Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok will put people over profit and put safety measures in place to look after their communities. Until then, we will engage and build our communities elsewhere.”

Lush isn’t the first brand to step away from social media citing concerns over its impact on society. The Italian luxury brand Bottega Veneta closed down its Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts earlier this year, while Patagonia stopped all paid advertising on Facebook in 2020.

In a series of tweets following a 60 Minutes interview with Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen in October, Patagonia said it stands by its decision 16 months later. “We encourage other businesses to join us in pushing Facebook to prioritize people and the planet over profit,” said CEO Ryan Gellert.

While some have questioned the brands’ decision to move away from platforms offering such vast (and engaged) audiences, Sarah Yim, strategy director for We Are Social in Toronto, said the fact they’ve already amassed such strong followings can make decisions like this week’s easier. “I think large corporations like this or Patagonia are able to take a stand because they’ve already built up that brand presence,” said Yim.

Lush has also made extensive use of influencer marketing, a tactic that will enable it to have a continued presence on social media channels through its influencer network, said Yim. “Lush does give away a lot of influencer kits and gifts… so it doesn’t feel authentic if they continue on that path,” she said. “It will be interesting to see if they actually take a stand by thinking of all the ways their brand is coming to life on social.”

And Taylor Guthrie, director of social media with Media Experts, said the agency would never advocate for a blanket boycott of the channel or any one platform. Social media remains a “key channel” for one-to-one communications between brands and their customers and a major component of media consumption for Canadians, he said. “[R]emoving yourself from the conversation risks alienating many of your consumers.”

Chris Powell