Interview • Carleen Pickard
How would you advise another company that was thinking of campaigning for abolition?
It took LUSH time to decide to definitely take a clear abolitionist stand. First off, I think it is really important to understand the issue inside and out. There are amazing organizations and experts who in our case were enthusiastic and helpful in helping us get to a place where we felt comfortable about taking a strong abolitionist stand. So definitely do internal research.
We spent a lot of time talking about what people’s experience might be in the United States, from a customer’s point of view – for example what would it be like for customers coming into our stores who had been touched by any aspect of the death penalty. Look, for us at Lush our critical concern has been to be of service to the movement, so we wanted to be sure we made a contribution.
On messaging, I think the worst thing is to get involved and get it wrong. That doesn’t have to happen because so many great people and organizations have the messaging figured out, because they have been working on it for decades. So don’t think that you have to invent anything new!
For us, I believe we are a stronger company having done our campaign. I believe we are more engaged in issues that actually matter to people. We had so many customers come in and talk to us about their experiences, and had a lot of staff do so as well. [And] the tougher questions we had to wrestle with just made us stronger.
So if I was talking to a company I would say that you will benefit if people care about each other and the company’s place in the world. The question is always: ‘Isn’t it risky?’ or ‘Isn’t it controversial?’ The messaging we came to at Lush was really pragmatic and quite sensible. Again, abolitionists have known for a long time that the death penalty does not create safer communities, does not address the root causes of crimes, is not applied fairly across the United States. We felt courageous enough to do it but also obligated to understand the facts and make the transformation from saying ‘Oh that’s something over there that doesn’t actually impact me’. My personal experience is that you become complicit if you do nothing, so really it was an honour to make sure we got the messaging right and to have touched and I believe changed people’s hearts and minds.
The conversation might be ‘Isn’t that strange for a soap company to take a stand on the death penalty?’ I hope that people take stock and think ‘Well, if a soap company thinks it should care about the death penalty, maybe that’s a good reason for us to do it as well’.
What are the merits and what are the risks of running an open-ended campaign?
We said as a business that we were campaigning for abolition. We didn’t design a campaign that said: ‘Here is some stuff to think about, people. Make up your own minds.’ We have done that in other campaigns. We campaigned on trophy hunting grizzly bears, for example, and, because we’re a company that is against animal testing, even if we presented it as ‘Here’s why you should shoot bears’ and ‘here’s why you shouldn’t’, it would be clear what side we were on. Whereas with abolition of the death penalty, it seemed to me that we needed to be very clear about what our stance was. We did a ten-day thing in 2017 but have continued to show up in spaces and through the organizations we fund on a long term basis.
As a brand, we never wanted to look back on this issue and say ‘Well that is something we did in the past’. […] It’s exciting to be part of something that is compassionate and loving and vibrant and that really matters.
What advice would you give an activist organization that wants to persuade a company to support abolition?
First, where are you? We work in Canada and the United States and we did not run a campaign in Canada because we thought ‘What would we be telling Canadians?’ and the most obvious thing would be to encourage Canadians to say something to Americans and it was 2017 and the political environment was pretty hostile and it didn’t feel that would be useful. […]
I think the conversation in Europe is interesting. Talking to companies about the standards coming out of the UN is much more common in Europe. The ability to use those tools and say to companies ‘Here are some things that you should think about’ – it’s a different strategy that I think can be done really well. In the US, a new organization called the Responsible Business Initiative on the Death Penalty specifically exists to help individuals and companies to think about how to be part of the abolitionist movement. It has a toolkit on the website with a bunch of ideas but also everything can be tailored to the way that you operate. I think advocates could check out the tools available there.
Be really strategic. Recognize that an ocean separates us. Activist groups in Europe saying we want to target X company in the United States – think twice. The Responsible Business Initiative suggests a more strategic act would be to have the company go after the Governor, as opposed to going after the company. There is some fun thinking to do about the way the system works…
There are many kinds of activist and many kinds of company, but not all activists are familiar with the way companies work. What would be your elevator advice to activists? What language should they use? What do they have to know about the company?
I don’t know that there’s one answer to that question. A lot of corporations are motivated by profit but I don’t know that that is the top thing to think about. People certainly ask me ‘How was your risk?’ but I don’t think that was a key consideration for us. You don’t say ‘We don’t care if we turn everybody off and nobody ever shops in our store again’ and you certainly say ‘We have this amazing opportunity to be able to really educate people in ways that they would not be otherwise’. So spending a lot of time thinking about the so-called ‘risk factor’ is worth doing, but I don’t think it’s necessarily going to be the pitch. The people on the inside are always going to know that better. You can really make a difference by having the right conversation with somebody. We came around to the arguments after really doing some full investigation and conversations with exonerees, so certainly going with the hard stuff first is important. I appreciate that the activist will want to get stuff done and move on but really a lot of this is going to be new to people and they have not thought about it. For example, I knew about the death penalty but I had not thought how I could be implicated or how knowing about it could be the first step.
In practice there are important differences between companies that have a link to capital punishment and those that do not. Are you saying that banging ever harder on the door may not work in companies that have no link unless they are already curious and ready to engage?
From a campaigning perspective, it is the difference between stopping harm from happening, looking at companies that are complicit, and the education and outreach part. […] In the US there is still quite a lot that can be done through civil society and political process. We wanted to build up people’s understanding of where each US State was on abolition and encourage people to think that their vote matters. ‘Is your Governor an abolitionist or not?’ It’s important to get the right people in office – people who may not be exactly aligned with you politically but who have had conversations, have had visits from exonerees, have seen the justice system so broken, and have alternative visions of a justice system that might do other things than execute people.