Global fairtrade cosmetics entrepreneur Mark Constantine has been a pioneer in transforming the UK’s ethical retail market. He talks to Alicia Buller about his rise to the top and why he tries to do not what is good, but what is ‘right’
Mark Constantine is one of the most difficult people I’ve ever interviewed. I don’t mean that in a bad way (I giggled through most of it): it’s just that he likes to do things his own way and that doesn’t always fit neatly into a set of interview questions.
The snazzily dressed Lush co-founder won’t be drawn into banal talk of ethical business and sustainability either: “I don’t get involved much with all that talk. There’s a lot of people talking and a lot of people not doing very much.”
You see, Constantine is not your average retail magnate: for a start he doesn’t drive a car and never intends to (‘it looks very complicated to me’); he boasts an encyclopaedic knowledge of British bird song, and also thinks we should do away with roads, cities and urban ephemera.
Constantine is not your average retail magnate: for a start he doesn’t drive a car and never intends to; he boasts an encyclopaedic knowledge of British bird song, and also thinks we should do away with roads, cities and urban ephemera.
In fact, so understated is Constantine about his many talents that German newspaper Der Spiegel once asked him to take a sonogram test before an interview as they didn’t believe he’d written the bestseller bird-watching book ‘The Sound Approach to Birding’. “Typical Germans,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.
Constantine’s earnest and somewhat unorthodox approach to business and life has served him well. His company, Lush, is one of the world’s best known cosmetics grocers and supplies fresh, handmade,minimally packaged, non-animal-tested fizzy bath bombs, soap and shampoo, to over 900 shops in more than 50 countries.
Constantine co-founded the Poole-based company in 1995 with his wife Mo and four others, in a spin off from a previous mail order business called Cosmetics To Go – a company that collapsed through “a combination of overtrading and flooding”.
Was it a painful experience to lose Cosmetics To Go? “I lost two million quid. You end up on your own, absolutely on your own. At the final dissolution, the administrator wouldn’t even shake my hand. It was hard.”
When I tell him that bankruptcy is common, he remains contrite: “But that doesn’t make it ok, does it?”
It’s clear that the Lush boss is a complex, driven man, who is loath to cut himself some slack. For decades, Constantine attributed his ambitious personality to his father leaving home when he was just two-years-old. But one day that all changed.
“I finally met my father when I was 60-years-old and he died about six weeks later. But it was wonderful. I think we had a mutual delight in meeting.
“Did it change me? Did it make less driven? I didn’t lose my drive when I met him, so I think it’s ingrained in my DNA. I wake at 4.30am every day – although sometimes I’d rather I didn’t!”
It is this very same energy and drive that has helped to catapult Lush onto the global stage and cement its status as a household name. After licking their wounds from the demise of Cosmetics To Go, the founders spent what money they had left on market-fresh fruits and vegetables to make handmade products for a modest shop in Poole. Little did they know they would – sooner rather than later – have a global phenomenon on their hands.
The company’s practice of inventing all its own products with a personalised touch, while creating local jobs and using local resources, struck a chord with consumers. Today the firm remains dedicated to freshness and even adds stickers to all products showing who made it, the day it was made and best by date.
Rather than rely on machine-made formulations, Lush makes products as needed to ensure that everything delivered to shops is as fresh as possible. It’s also a brand built on strong values, such as minimal packaging waste, no animal testing and ethical sourcing; in this way, the brand has always been ahead of its time. Like The Body Shop, which Constantine supplied in the 1980s, Lush is a pioneer of the ‘cosmetic grocers’ concept, showcasing beauty products that are both fun and ethical.
Like The Body Shop, which Constantine supplied in the 1980s, Lush is a pioneer of the ‘cosmetic grocers’ concept, showcasing beauty products that are both fun and ethical
As well as being a soap maker, Lush bills itself as a “campaigning company” that uses its global reach to champion ethical issues through its shop fronts and websites. Over the years the bold retailer has run a variety of campaigns on issues such as animal testing, palm oil, vegetarianism and packaging; to causes such as fox hunting, shark finning, climate change and destitute refugees.
Limited edition products are often created with all the proceeds going to aid the direct action groups and charities; petitions are signed in stores; signatures are collected on its website; and intense media outreach is activated with the aim of educating the public and bringing about change.
Ahead of its time
The more I talk to Constantine, the more I realise that he has authentically created the type of company that every business aspires to be today. He has built Lush on rock solid beliefs and he supports charitable causes not because it’s “good” but because it’s “right”. And his customers love him for it.
Constantine is a man who was practicing ‘business with purpose’ long before the ubiquitous noughties workshop leaders enthusiastically coined the phrase.
But the businessman is modest when asked the secret of Lush’s success: “People have given us their trust. I really enjoy what the internet has given us today in terms of transparency. People could bullshit before but that is much harder now. The web allows everyone to self inform and reach their own conclusions. Then they can buy accordingly. It’s now your individual choice, you can look and you can judge and if you believe in us then you can spend your money with us.
“If you go to a market, you are going to go where you get the best value. That’s the basics of being a merchant. If you’re kind enough to trust me, then I’m going to try to behave with your money. There’s not much more to it.”
If you go to a market, you are going to go where you get the best value. That’s the basics of being a merchant. If you’re kind enough to trust me, then I’m going to try to behave with your money. There’s not much more to it
Constantine is a storyteller. He seems to find it easier to explain his sentiments with stories. He tells me he has seven grandchildren, three of them girls. Every Christmas he takes them to Selfridges in London and he chooses dresses for them.
“There was a very nice shop assistant who helped us,” he says, “and she asked me what I did.” Constantine replied that he worked for Lush. “Do you own it?” she asked, adding “when I saw how you support Palestine causes I moved all my business to you.”
And that is how it works. Constantine believes in being ‘right’ and customers believe in Lush. He adds: “It was so interesting to be told that. I am happy to stand by her – she can be my spokeswoman.”
While the retailer notes that things are ‘moving forward’ and that businesses are becoming more eco-friendly, he warns: “when you dig a little deeper you find these facile adages that don’t stand up to any scrutiny”. He says that he hopes the movement towards compassionate business isn’t “just a fad”.
“If you look at the progress in the last few decades, I’m very optimistic that we will find solutions. I think animals and plants are very adaptive so I don’t see climate change as such a problem, apart from those people that live in areas that are going to be affected. I think we can adapt, change and improve.”
Throughout the interview, Constantine projects a fascinating mix of bonhomie and deep thought. He is a man who believes passionately in what he does and it’s infectious. He talks a lot about drive and a need to do the right thing. But what is it exactly that makes this colourful businessman stroke studious birdwatcher stroke family man tick?
“One thing my dad taught me was ‘there is more to family than being held’. I think people get caught up in losing people but they always remain. People are taken from you; but how you behave and what you do in your life does genuinely live beyond you and that is important. Being a family man is important but leaving an impression on society is also important. This can mean more than dishing out hugs. I believe doing something with the broadest scope has the highest purpose.”