06/12/2016 2:43 PM AEDT | Updated 06/12/2016 6:32 PM AEDT

What Happened When Lush Cosmetics Teamed With GetUp! To Stand Up For Refugees

From a bar of soap came a powerful message.

Hannibal Hanschke / Reuters

At first glance, these may just seem like really, really pungent soaps. But that only touches the surface of the company behind them.

"I heard Lush described the other day as the 'vegemite company'. People either love or hate the smell," Peta Granger, director of Lush Cosmetics in Australia and New Zealand, told a crowd at the 'Purpose Conference' in Sydney on Monday.

"We have and have always been a campaigning company. Not everybody knows that."

It galvanises people and companies together to combine and create a more powerful truth.

You may have heard of (or smelt) them once or twice. Lush Cosmetics is part of a swathe of companies who are championing a wave of corporate activism -- something that Granger argues is becoming increasingly relevant.

"In a post-Brexit, Trump world, it galvanises people and companies together to combine and create a more powerful truth," Granger said.

Lush Cosmetics was founded in the UK over twenty years ago by a team of animal and environmental activists.

"The business was built on three pillars: ensuring that none of our products were tested on animals, striving for transparent and regenerative supply chains and campaigning," Grandler said.

"Still to this day, we invent all of our own products, we source all of our materials and we manufacture them in one of nine kitchens around the world."

With 30 stores across Australia (950 worldwide) and an annual national turnover of over $70 million, Lush has used its business as a tool to become active campaigners, partners and change agents.

Hannibal Hanschke / Reuters
Lush prides itself on committed frontline staff with aligning values.

And from campaigns against packaging to internet shut downs, animal rights and Australia's treatment of asylum seekers, they haven't been afraid to make a political statement -- or a scene.

On the power of partnerships

For Peta Granger and her team of "gentle activists", something was always missing.

"We have a passionate workforce, whose values align with ours. Over the years, we've seen them enthusiastically act as spokespeople by engaging in respectful conversations with our customers," Granger said.

"We would often wrap up a campaign thinking that we could have done more, but didn't know how."

We realised we had so much to learn.

In 2016, Lush Australia teamed up with political campaign organisation Get Up! on one of their most high-profile campaigns to date.

Taking aim at Australia's offshore detention regime, the 'Bring Them Here' campaign focused on returning 267 men, women and children in mandatory detention to Australian shores.

"We wanted to see if we could shift the numbers and reach a tipping point in public opinion towards refugees and asylum seekers," GetUp! CEO Henny Smith told the Purpose audience.

With public attitudes at its core, GetUp! turned to a company that could widen their reach.

"Our research showed us that 20 percent of Australians were already likely to agree with the sentiments of the campaign. It was the next 31 percent that we needed to win over to reach majority," Smith said.

"Those 'persuadables' included many of Lush's customers who were from much younger and diverse socio-economic backgrounds and locations then ours."

"We had always partnered with NGOs on single issues. Here was an organisation that had aligning values as well as experts and professional campaigners," Lush's Granger said.

"We realised we had so much to learn."

The partnership saw a series of individual stories from asylum seekers on Manus Island featuring in Lush store windows across the country.

Staff introduced the stories to customers, selling products where 100 percent of sales were directed to GetUp! and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne.

And so the hashtag #BringThemHere popularised by GetUp! spread.

On being profitable

For Lush, the campaign brought record levels of reach, engagement and shop floor conversation -- with like-for-like sales peaking at 49 percent.

"The main purpose was to change the tone of the conversation and appeal for a more humanitarian approach," Granger said.

"But this also proved that it is possible to be profitable and campaign on hard-hitting issues."

And the outcomes extend further.

By pooling together passionate individuals and pairing up with an organisation that aligns with our values, we can create an opportunity to use our business as a tool to affect positive change.

"The more we campaign on issues like this, the higher our engagement levels are. Having staff who really care about the environment and human rights tend to care about people and that translates into great customer service," Grandler said.

"The more staff feel that their efforts have meaning, the more effort they put in. And that leads to growth. None of this would have been possible without their commitment."

For GetUp!, a swathe of Lush collateral paired with a growing audience contributed to one of their most successful campaigns to date.

"Thousands of Australians were being exposed to this," Smith said. "It became the single biggest change in public attitudes towards asylum seekers in the last fifty years. And we had a win."

On being a campaigning company

Whilst Granger admits Lush has lost a few customers along the way, the process has been a huge learning curve.

"We've learnt that by pooling together passionate individuals and pairing up with an organisation that aligns with our values, we can create an opportunity to use our business as a tool to affect positive change," she said.

"Ultimately, it is the customer that gets to choose what kind of world that they want to live in every time they open up their wallet."

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