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Lush Cosmetics attacks oilsands with controversial campaign

Noel Hulsman

Lush Cosmetics wants Canadian oilsands operators to clean up their act. The British-based soap and shampoo company announced this week plans to turn their 44 Canadian stores into polling stations to encourage customers to vote against Enbridge's oil shipping proposal.

Enbridge's plans calls for bitumen extracted from the oilsands to be piped across Northern B.C. before being loaded on to supertankers for refining in California and Asia. The $5.5-billion project is set to begin operations in 2017, unless the federal government withholds approval.

Recognizing that the Harper government supports oilsands development, Lush is now prompting customers to join Aboriginal and environmental groups in trying to stop the project.

Controversy not new for Lush

For Lush, courting controversy on behalf of ethical issues is nothing new.Two years ago, it led a North America-wide initiative against the oilsands, using all of its Canadian and U.S. stores to raise awareness of the environmental risks involved. And last year, it turned one of its London, England stores into a stage to demonstrate the cruelties of animal testing in cosmetic research. A 24-year-old performance artist subjected herself to injections, shaving and force-feeding, as a part of 10-hour store window demonstration.

Last year, the company upped the ante wading into even more polemic waters by backing OneWorld's Freedom for Palestine efforts, resulting in a boycott of its products in Israel.

In adopting such public stands on loaded topics, the privately-owned chain is following in the well-established footsteps of The Body Shop, the British firm that turned its support for animal rights and environmental issues into huge marketing gains. The similarities here are no accident. Lush's founders got their start in the 1970s by making for cosmetics for The Body Shop.

As with The Body Shop, Lush's controversial stances invariably lead to headlines, and all of the free (and hugely valuable) publicity that comes with them.  And whether the positions pursued reflect the owners' true political beliefs, or a cold calculation of their target market's values, there is no questioning the company's play for integrity and authenticity.

Compare Lush's messaging with the Buick's latest campaign discussed here yesterday where we're meant to believe that the Rolls Royce and Lamborghini-owning Shaquille O'Neal actually favours a mid-range domestic hybrid. That's farcical and everyone knows it.

Enbridge fights back

For Lush, the marketing math around the oilsands surely plays to its advantage. While Enbridge maintains that the pipeline will lead to thousands of new jobs in local communities from Fort McMurray to Kitimat, that's not where Lush's customers live. Nine of the company's 10 B.C. stores are in the southern parts of the province, where opposition to the pipeline is by far the strongest. Only two of its outlets are in Calgary, the city seen as the most generally in support of the oil industry.

Perhaps taking a page from Lush, Enbridge is now fighting back. On Tuesday it launched an radio, print and digital advertising campaign, extolling the economic benefits and the environmental safety of its efforts.