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Inside the surreal LUSH factories in Canada, where the Willy Wonka of soap is reinventing cosmetics

Lush factoryLUSH

Set behind a leafy row of trees in Vancouver, Canada, there’s an unassuming factory that produces strange products with names like bubble bars and bath bombs.

For the past 20 years, this is where the cosmetics company LUSH has lived, producing millions of sweet-smelling soaps, jellies, rubs, bars, and bombs that have gotten people rethinking personal hygiene.

LUSH fans — “LUSHies,” as they’re known — clamor for these products. They Instagram their tie-dye bathwater and share tips about which products are best for certain types of skin and hair. It’s a cultish fan base that has led to enormous growth for LUSH, which is on pace to produce 41.5 million products by the end of 2016 — 10 million more than the year before.

Business Insider recently spoke with Dan Dresser, one of LUSH’s head manufacturers, to learn how the Willy Wonka of soap is reinventing bath time.

LUSH started in 1995 in the UK, and set up its headquarters in Vancouver the next year. Today, there are 888 manufacturing employees split between two factories -- the main plant and a smaller factory down the road -- as well as a small Toronto location.

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Just like Wonka's factory, LUSH is divided into several rooms, including the Bubble Department, the Massage Room, the Soap Room, the Fresh Room, the Bottle Room, and Ballistics, which is the separate factory down the road that only makes bath bombs -- chalky balls that tint your bath and emit calming aromas.

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'There is absolutely a personality to every room you walk in,' Dresser says, explaining that the Massage Room might be blaring classic rock, while in the Bubble Room you'll hear top 40 dance hits.

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Each room comes with its own signature smells as well, from the warm vanilla scent that perfumes the Massage Room to the squeaky-clean Soap Room and the natural aromas in the Fresh Room, where people slice kiwis and clip wheat grass.

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Dresser says the scents are powerful. When he brews multiple pounds of coffee for the face scrub 'Cup of Coffee,' the scent alone wakes him up. 'I literally don't drink my morning cup of coffee when I'm making Cup of Coffee,' he says.

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In Ballistics, employees scoop colourful powders into plastic molds. With enough pressure, the powders compact into a sturdy ball, and a bath bomb is born. LUSH produced 9.6 million bath bombs in 2015 and is on track to make 20 million this year.

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Some of the products are practically works of art. To make the company's latest best-seller, a soap called Outback Mate, Katie Martin, the company's 'Soap Queen,' travelled to London to learn the process of mixing three batches simultaneously to achieve a marbled effect.

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The design of Queen Bee, a shower product for African-American hair, was inspired by cheese wheels, allowing customers to buy exactly how much they want.

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In the Fresh Room, employees sometimes look more like home cooks or landscapers than factory workers.

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Some employees in the Fresh Room work on one of Dresser's favourite products, the Charity Pot, a small tub of lotion whose sales go 100% toward grassroots charities that support environmental conservation, animal protection, and human rights.

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Since launching in 2007, Charity Pot has led to $17 million in donations to over 1,400 charities. Aloe is a big part of the product, and LUSH buys the plant straight from Kenya to support local communities.

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Dresser says that keeping ingredients fresh can be tricky to manoeuvre. LUSH keeps its inventory extremely small to avoid over-ripening or rotting, and turnaround can be as short as 24 hours from the factory to one of the 250 North American retail stores.

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The factory essentially has a tiny grocery store, which gets stocked with produce on Fridays. It's usually depleted by the following Wednesday, and restocked by Friday.

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LUSH orders its ingredients mainly according to the orders it receives from individuals and stores, which helps keep food waste low.

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The company does have its secrets when it comes to specific ingredients, however, most of which even the people making the products don't know.

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By far the busiest season for LUSH is the holiday season, Dresser says. The company hires 1,800 new manufacturers just to handle the surge in orders.

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As part of its mission to stay transparent, LUSH employees slap a sticker on every product they make. It has a picture of their face and includes the date the product was made and when it's best used by.

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'I like to describe it as the biggest mum and pop company I've ever seen in my life,' Dresser explains.

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