Lush's Trans Rights Campaign: Real Progress or Skin-Deep?

The cosmetics company recently launched the most public corporate campaign to increase awareness of trans issues.

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Mar 26 2018, 9:27pm

Photos courtesy of Lush Cosmetics

Lush Cosmetics, the company known for nice-smelling soaps, bath bombs, and extremely enthusiastic staff, recently launched a campaign to increase awareness of trans issues and acceptance. The campaign involves company-wide personnel training, selling a bath-melt—which differs from a bath bomb—with proceeds going to trans-specific advocacy groups, as well as an extensive in-store marketing effort including trans-supportive signage and a pamphlet on how to be a trans ally.

Over the last three years, there have been more than 150 proposed anti-trans policies, including the infamous "bathroom bills" that would require people to use the bathroom that corresponds with the gender they were assigned at birth. Additionally, the Trump administration has rolled back rights for trans students, access to trans health care and equal employment, and has attempted to ban trans people from serving in the US military.

"Transgender people in the United States right now are just under attack," Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, Lush’s US-based trans campaign partner, told Broadly. "We’re under attack at the state level, we’re under attack at the federal level certainly." But for Keisling, the key in pushing back against such overt bigotry has been the support of corporate America.

Lush’s comprehensive campaign is perhaps the most overt public corporate effort to support the trans community thus far, and according to Lush’s Ethical Campaign Specialist Carleen Pickard, it’s been driven in part by the employees themselves. "For the last number of years when we’ve gone out and consulted with staff in the retail and manufacturing side, and asked what are issues they think that Lush should be taking a stand on or speaking out on, trans rights has been nearly top of the list—if not top of the list—for the last couple years."

To put the campaign together, Pickard reached out to several trans rights organizations, including the NCTE, for help creating and implementing comprehensive training for both retail and manufacturing staff. Keisling notes that teaching five to seven thousand people how to create a trans-inclusive workplace is a rare but welcome opportunity.

"We’ve come to talk about how important it is to talk about trans rights when we talk about human rights, it’s just really come to touch everyone throughout the business in a different and new way," says Pickard. "It’s heartening for us to be able to elevate something as important as encouraging people to do what it takes to make sure that all people are respected within society. From the work environment that we’re in but also the communities that we live in to the societies that we are a part of." Lush has also produced a series of short videos that seek to educate people on the realities of trans lives.

Because the trans community continuously struggles with chronic unemployment, employer support can be absolutely vital, and there are incentives for employers in supporting their trans employees and the trans community more generally. "[Employers] have trans employees and they understand that to have the best people, they have to be in a place where the best people are willing to work," says Keisling, who believes the best employees value diversity and protections for their LGBTQ family, friends, and peers.

Keisling notes that the relentless work of activists has been buttressed by backing from powerful employers. "There have been something like 170 [bathroom bills] in the last three years, [and] most of them didn’t go down in flames—they just petered out. Some of them petered out because some corporate leaders made some discreet phone calls to important people. It has just been indispensable, and it’s been indispensable at teaching these legislators and these governors that there’s only downside to attacking trans people."

When North Carolina first passed HB2, the state’s version of an anti-trans bathroom bill, the resulting public outcry set off a series of corporate and local government boycotts. The NCAA declared that they would stop holding championship events in the state. The NBA followed suit and moved their All-Star game out of Charlotte. PayPal also canceled plans to build new offices there, costing the state 400 new jobs. The AP estimated that the bill would cost the state $3.76 billion in lost revenue because of the boycotts. As a result, the Republican governor who signed the bill into law, Pat McCrory, lost his bid for reelection in a race that centered trans rights more than any other race in the country. HB2 was later partially repealed by the state legislature, revoking the harshest portions of the law. The threat of similarly large boycotts have been key in heading off anti-trans bills in many other states, including Indiana and South Dakota.

Corporate lobbying was especially important this past year in Texas, where a heated debate over a controversial bathroom bill dominated a special session of the state legislature. Winning over corporate support was a coup for LGBTQ rights organizations as they’ve succeeded in driving a wedge between the state’s religious conservatives and the Chamber of Commerce, two giants of Texas political lobbying.

As 2018 has begun, we’ve seen less anti-trans legislative action than the past two years—a result that Keisling attributes to a combination of activism and corporate lobbying efforts. "It’s been a relatively quiet year and a lot of that is corporations and corporate leaders saying, ‘Why are you doing this? You’re just making the state a less positive place to do business. There’s no upside here.’"

For all the effort that some companies go through to show their support for marginalized people, corporate efforts are often criticized as a skin-deep marketing tactic. These kinds of campaigns may be uplifting or even helpful, but how much positive social change can be carried out from within the system is unclear.

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I decided to see Lush’s campaign for myself at my local retailer in Maine. The employee, a young cis woman, seemed very excited to tell me about the importance of trans rights, but it was one detail that stood out to me: As we talked about the trans bath melt, she noted that the product’s pink and blue colors might be problematic to some, since it implies that gender is a pink and blue binary. It was a nuanced observation that I’d only expect from someone who’s actually spent some time trying to understand trans discourse.

In the end, I wasn’t sure if Lush’s campaign was implementing significant social progress for trans people—but I was hopeful and heartened that the initiative empowered at least one person to earnestly engage in conversation with me about the gender binary.