FROM THE ARCHIVE: Stripped bare

While most companies have to be persuaded to become socially and environmentally aware, cosmetics company Lush embraced this philosophy from the outset. Sally White uncovers its secrets.

Mark Constantine is an extraordinary man. Described as an inspiration by his colleagues, he moved from cutting hair to designing herbal shampoos, and then on to founding a thriving, ethical cosmetics company. With over 300 shops in 32 countries, including more than 80 in the UK, and products ranging from bath bombs to deodorant stones – all made by hand using fresh ingredients, Lush is a true success story for the environmentally and socially conscious consumer. Not only does Lush hand-craft its products from vegetarian, natural ingredients, it is vehemently apposed to animal testing, over-packaging and unnecessary transportation, and sources its ingredients with an apparent sense of social respect and integrity.

Having founded another company – Cosmetics To Go – in 1988, Constantine was dealt a hard lesson in commercial realities when it burnt out in 1994. Undeterred, with a team of six, and more commercial know-how, Constantine founded Lush Cosmetics the same year.

According to Constantine, the trick in getting it right the second time around was in the packaging, or lack thereof: “If you look at Cosmetics To Go, it was quite over-packaged. Now if you strip all of that off and make it more environmentally friendly, it’s also more profitable. So, basically, we knew that we couldn’t produce bath bombs with masses of wrapping on, because if we did we’d end up losing our shirts again, so we stripped them all down, and of course that suited the environmental aspect as well.”

The Lush team clearly feels passionately about packaging, although it recently had a run in with the Environment Agency, which fined it for failing to supply packaging recovery notes under producer responsibility legislation. The company, however, claims always to have exceeded its recycling obligation (currently recycling 85 per cent of its waste packaging), but not to have been aware of its legal requirements. When asked about the little plastic bath bomb bags that are available in the stores (but are, incidentally, soon to be replaced by brown paper), Constantine responded: “Everyone focuses on whatever little thing… no one else produces 70 per cent of their items without packaging.”

‘Fresh’ has become the core ethos of the business: “To be green you have to have fresh products, manufactured fresh, delivered fresh, used fresh. That means minimum preservatives, or none – in our case 70 per cent of our products have none,” says Constantine. And it doesn’t stop there. Ruth Andrade, Environmental Officer for Lush, is leaving no stone unturned in her quest to make Lush ‘zero emissions, zero waste’. According to Andrade, there are two big priorities this year: “One is energy. How can we make the shops more energy efficient, and how can we make the company as a whole more energy efficient. The other is packaging.”

Falling under these headers are some impressive ideas. One of the major changes about to be implemented is the conversion of all of Lush’s transport vehicles to waste oil. Working in conjunction with Star Trucks, and with the aid of a waste collector, it is aiming to run this venture “as a kind of community project, getting everyone involved – the council, all hotels and chip shops and nearly everyone in the area,” says Andrade. And while the waste bio-diesel should be implemented within the next couple of months, she is also working tirelessly to green up the stores by fitting timer switches or motion sensors to the lighting in non-sales areas and redesigning the air conditioning and extraction systems for the new shops. “We’re also looking into switching to renewable energy, but that can only happen when our current contract finishes, which is at the end of this year.”

Strongly of the opinion that there is always scope to improve, Lush has also commissioned an engineer to visit stores and work with designers, property managers and refit coordinators to determine how to make them more energy efficient. “We’re looking into insulating the stores a bit better as well, and we’re looking at protection on the windows to shelter from the sun, or blinds to avoid over use of the air con. I have it as part of my list of priorities that I’ve been given to get some sort of energy generation in the shops – either photo voltaic cells or solar water heaters. The problem is that on a lot of high street locations we don’t have access to the roof, so we’re going to see whether we can use blinds with the collection tubes on the blinds in front of the shop,” says Andrade. Furthermore, each store is nominating a green helper to be in direct contact with Andrade, and they will be provided with a pack detailing energy saving tips to watch out for in the stores.

And while the solid shampoo bars have already prevented half a million bottles from going to landfill (each packaging-free alternative is equivalent to two bottles of shampoo), there are reviews underway to reduce, reuse and recycle the remaining 30 per cent of packaging in-store still further. “All of our wrapping paper is going to be made using recycled paper, and a lot of it is handmade recycled paper as well. We’re really trying to take everything into consideration, like where the paper is made, because from an environmental point of view, sometimes virgin paper made in Sweden, where they use clean energy, is more environmentally friendly than recycled paper in the UK where the recycling process uses coal energy or gas or oil.”

Lush tries to monitor and account for the consequences of everything it does, whilst remaining aware of the realities that have to be faced in trying to operate ethically. “We make soap,” Constantine begins. “In the manufacture of soap, palm oil is used. Now obviously when we started using it, that was much better than using animal fats, which was the alternative. However, then you find that throughout the whole of Malaysia and South East Asia, they’ve cut down all of the forests to grow palm trees, destroying the orangutans’ habitats for example. We would like really to move off using palm oil, but the World Wildlife Fund say that if we do that they can’t get their sustainable palm oil plans off the ground, because if companies like us move off buying, it’s a problem.”

Then there’s the projects it funds. Lush has recently launched a new product – Charity Pot hand and body cream. The company will donate every penny taken in sales from the Charity Pot, other than the tax, to a group of hand picked projects, or activist organisations, that are campaigning to help reduce – rather than offset – our negative impact on the environment. And for Constantine, the wackier the idea, the better. ‘Sardine man’ will receive sponsorship to make a fuss on overcrowded trains, and a ‘guerrilla gardener’ will be surreptitiously planting in open spaces by night. And whilst funding others to get out there and make a noise, Lush isn’t afraid to get its own hands dirty. When the Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH) legislation went through, the main Lush campaigner tipped three tonnes of horse dung out of a lorry – branding the sign ’45,000,000 animals are sh**ting themselves over REACH’ on the doorstep of the European Parliament to protest over the decision not to include legislation on animal testing .

“So, he got us arrested,” Constantine recalls, “and we’ll be using some of our money for his court case! That’s what we’re doing, you know, practical activism.”

Lush is keen not to preach its views, and doesn’t feel the need to slap labels on every product claiming it to be fairly traded or organic, in fact Constantine feels this is too often a con. “Obviously you hope you’re being fair with everyone you do business with, but there’s sure to be someone who says you’re not. And probably fair enough, it’s probably true.” But with the Lush team it seems that it is doing all it can to reduce any negative impacts, and not just on the environment, but on animals and the global communities it comes into contact with.