Lush co-founder Rowena Bird wants a social media revolution

One year into the brand's anti-social media policy, she says not enough has changed.

Lais Borges/Mic; Zelda de Hollander
Social media who?

Content warning: This piece contains discussion of suicide and body image.

We’re only 15 seconds into our video call, and Rowena Bird has me doing a breathing exercise.

It’s the morning before Thanksgiving, and I have a lot of work left to finish before the end of the day, so I apologize for being visibly flustered. “Right, Leo, let’s stop then,” Bird says. “Ready? Look me in the eye. Now breathe in, and breathe out.”

It’s the exact sort of exchange you’d expect from a co-founder of Lush, the organic cosmetics retailer best known for its colorful bath bombs and dedication to all things rest and relaxation. Lush, which Bird helped launch in 1995 with six other founders, was all about green, “clean” beauty and personal care before the phrase “wellness” became mainstream; before “self-care” was the trending buzzword.

Lush made waves a year ago when the company publicly quit Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. (Technically it was the brand’s second time quitting social — Lush previously tried to quit in 2019, but later returned.) “The serious effects of social media on mental health are being ignored by these platforms,” the brand said in a 2021 statement. “We hope that platforms will introduce strong best practice guidelines, and we hope that international regulation will be passed into law. But we can’t wait.”

Even if Lush’s anti-social media policy makes sense as an extension of the company’s advocacy for its self-care-shaped definition of well-being, it’s nonetheless an unorthodox move in today’s bigger-is-better, hypercapitalist business environment. But between a whistleblower leaking internal documents about Instagram worsening body image issues for teen girls, and the death by suicide of 14-year-old Molly Russell — for which a coroner found Meta and Pinterest culpable — Lush felt it had “no choice” but to quit.

Indeed, study after study has shown the negative mental health effects of social media. Harassment campaigns and misinformation run rampant on these platforms, and algorithms amplify posts designed to drive anger and hate for engagement. MIT researchers recently found “a significant link between the presence of Facebook and a deterioration in mental health among college students.”

Still, in conversation, Bird doesn’t come off as a Silicon Valley hater. She says Lush is all about reflection, self-improvement, and second chances. She wants the company’s absence from social media to inspire their evolution, not their destruction — and understands the power of a public protest. Quixotically, she's bullish on Elon Musk (and Lush remains on Twitter).

Bird spoke with Mic about what Lush has done in the past year since logging off, if the brand will ever start posting again, and whether or not the company will quit Elon Musk’s Twitter.

How and why did Lush decide to go anti-social media (again) last year?

We won't work with a company that doesn't have proper human rights policies. We won't work with a company that's doing animal testing. We have a lot of restrictions of where we won’t work, who we won’t buy our raw materials from. And it's like, well, actually we shouldn't be on a platform that's doing this much harm and doesn't care.

It's not the platforms that we have a problem with; it's the non-censoring of the information that's on the platforms that we have the issue with. So we just decided, you know what, we're gonna come off. And that's what we did.

We take very special care and pride in the products we create to make a positive difference. So why would we want to be somewhere that actually was not creating that positive difference? We wouldn't want anyone to say, “You know what, I think I'll go onto Instagram. I think I'll go onto Facebook and look for Lush.” That's why we say we are not there. We don't want people to come on social media and look for us, and then suddenly get stuck in this whole horrible area.

“You would hope that eventually they'll see the light and just think, one death is too many.” - Rowena Bird

Lush hasn’t quit Twitter. Is that going to change in light of Elon Musk?

We are just waiting to see what happens. You know, in general, we're big fans of Elon Musk. Who knows what will happen with Twitter. We are just biding our time to see what settles, and then we'll make a decision.

Do you think social media has gotten better or worse over the past year?

Probably just hasn't changed, has it? [Laughs]

Pinterest, for example, took the algorithm thing really seriously [and implemented changes following Russell’s death]. I would hope that more platforms would follow suit, because you could lose all of that negativity and people will still be on the apps. They're not gonna lose any business, which is what it's all about, isn't it? You would hope that eventually they'll see the light and just think, you know, one death is too many.

Speaking of business, how has the decision to leave social media impacted Lush's bottom line? Have you lost money?

To be honest, it's really hard to tell because we are coming out of the pandemic, and who knows what the new normal is? We don't. We estimated that we could lose around $10 million [when we made the decision]. We don't know if we have or not, really. We had a great Christmas last year; it didn't seem to affect us then, but you don't know what it could have been. You never know those things. You can never tell for sure.

People are still coming in, still finding us, still looking for us. We've made ourselves more available in lots of other areas. We're not on Meta, but we can still create a big fuss around World Bath Bomb Day. We gave away bath bombs to anybody that walked past. We made the bath bombs in-store, so customers could come in and make their own. It's all about creating fun and getting people to enjoy their experience when they're with us. The important thing about our shops is that they're this little haven. We're going to say yes to things that we used to say no to.

We launched Book-a-Bath in our spa shops and the Lush Bathe app, which is all about music, meditation, and colors. We take bathing really seriously here, and there are so many more benefits than getting clean. It's very good for the mind. If you have a good night's sleep, you're better able to cope with whatever you are going to get the next day. [These initiatives are] all about just trying to make that difference in how you feel.

“It's not about having courage, it's about doing what's right.” - Rowena Bird

What has been the general reaction to Lush’s departure from social media?

If you talk to anybody about coming off social media, they think, “Wow, that's an amazing step to take.” And I think other businesses wish they had the courage to do it. It's not about having courage, it's about doing what's right.

Then again, we are a campaigning company, so we are used to doing things that maybe other people go, “Oh, I just did well clear of that one. I don't think I'd have stuck my head above the parapet with that subject. It's way too tricky.” We are never phased by any of that. But just writing to Meta and saying, “I really think you should change your practices” would not make any difference whatsoever.

By saying, “Right, we're coming off the platform” and making a big fuss about it, then maybe it makes other people think and it shines a light on [Meta’s] unpleasant side — and you would hope that would lead to them making some changes. It's not going to change if it's only us. It needs to be collective for that change to happen.

I think people have thought it was brave. I think they've admired us for it. They've thought, “It's typical Lush to take the courage to do something like that, whereas the rest of us will just sit here on it and pretend we don't know anything about it.” So I think it highlights other people's ethics as well.

What's the plan moving forward? Will Lush stay off of these platforms for the foreseeable future?

I'd love it if we could go back on. They're great platforms for sharing our voice and getting in touch with people, but they're not great platforms when they've still got all the crap on them that is not helpful to people and is not giving them a better quality of life.

I hope we can go back on really soon, and that would mean the social media companies have changed their practices, that they've taken off the negative, harmful elements of the platforms that really do not do people any favors; that they've cleaned up their act and they're no longer sending harmful algorithms out to influence people in a negative way.

We are all about forgive and forget and change. The minute they make that change, we’ll be there supporting them.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Meta, TikTok, and Snapchat have not responded to Mic’s requests for comment.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, which provides free 24/7 support. You can also reach out to the Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860, the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386, or to your local suicide crisis center.