Lush founder on sustainable business: Don't worry, be profitable

Mark Constantine is not your typical businessman. In his striking floral and tieless shirts, he talks with a passion rarely heard in boardrooms, firing questions back at his interviewer and hyphenating his own thoughts as he muses over what it means to run a green business.

Perhaps that is no surprise. As co-founder and managing director of Lush, Constantine's attitude is fitting for a man who has made a fortune from selling sparkly, wonderfully scented bath bombs to the world.

But you would be mistaken to underestimate the business savvy that has complemented the showmanship that has helped turn 19-year-old Lush into one of the U.K.'s most successful and sustainable retail brands. The company is well-known for its commitment to environmental values and has pioneered the selling of many of its products without any packaging. It has also embraced an approach to supply chain management with such zeal that even the glitter in its products is biodegradable.

Moreover, Lush has eliminated palm oil from its supply chain and Constantine revealed he refused to join the Fair Trade cosmetics label scheme because it was not stringent enough.

Constantine's ethical supply chain roots run back to his early 20s, when he was a major supplier for The Body Shop, working closely with Anita Roddick until she bought out his business.

'The right people' with 'the right attitude'

But when I ask about supply chain management, he is keener to talk about Paulo Mellet, an environmental activist and buyer for Lush who died last month of cerebral malaria contracted while digging trenches for a farmer in Ghana.

Credit: LushDuring his time at the company, Mellet spearheaded a number of environmental campaigns and worked closely with suppliers around the world, including setting up a deal for Lush to buy cocoa butter from a Columbian peace village and helping to buy a nature reserve in Peru.

"If you have the right people and they have the right attitude, it's surprising how brilliant it can be," said Constantine of his departed colleague. "When it gets that good, it isn't something that you can bring into eco-speak."

The company may be in mourning, but Constantine is also keen to remember a colleague driven by his desire to help some of the world's poorest communities. "If we hadn't allowed him to do that, he wouldn't have worked with us," he said. "If you employ passionate and committed people and you give them that free range and they've got a broad enough imagination, things happen that you would imagine are happening anyway, but when you really look into it, they aren't."

Living large (yet responsibly) with Lush

Although Constantine's Body Shop beginnings gave him cutting-edge experience of how a successful green business operates, his move to establishing Lush certainly was not smooth. Using the money he earned from selling his business to the Roddicks, he set up Cosmetics To Go, which was far more focused on funky packaging than ethics. It went bust, and Constantine set up Lush with an initial goal of simply putting food on the table.

He is confident of the brand's appeal now, but in the early days, he wasn't sure if people would hate Lush or find it, well, a bit lush. It was only when he opened a shop on the King's Road that he realized he may have hit the jackpot. "At one time, we were getting 1,000 people per week asking to do business with us," he revealed. Last year the company recorded a group turnover of nearly $621,583, up 11 percent from 2012, and it now has more than 900 stores across the world in 52 countries, all of which are working to embrace some of the highest environmental standards in the retail and cosmetics industries.

There is just one message that Constantine has for other green businesses: Do not be afraid of capitalism. He maintains that his products are successful because they are fun and not too "worthy and brittle."

"I am not utopian," he said. "I like the situation we're in. I like making a profit. For most green businesses, they are capitalists, and I think that for environmentalists, we often get caught up with anarchy and the anti-capitalist movement and that is disingenuous and wrong. It's okay to be a capitalist and it's okay to be conscious of what that does and enhancing people's lives at every level of that."

What the customer doesn't see (and shouldn't have to worry about)

Credit: Chris Chrisss via Flickr"The real art," he argued, is creating a product where customers don't think about ethics when they make their choice, at least not consciously.

But behind the scenes, Lush is fiercely committed to ethical standards, as it seeks to fight a war on waste and over-consumption. Constantine said he shuns three-for-two offers used heavily by Boots, The Body Shop and other major outlets, arguing that they just encourage people to buy more of certain products than they needed in the first place.

Instead, Constantine touts the perfect consumption model for a green business is when a customer keeps coming back to buy more of what they really need. To make its point, Lush campaigned for legal aid for Guantanamo Bay prisoners with a "buy one, set one free" offer.

"If you only give proper value and you don't discount, you just give good service where you really focus on getting the right thing for that person with as much skill as you can, you will be doing more for the environment than more or less anything else you could do," he said. "It's the waste that's the massive issue."

Meanwhile, Lush continues to pay some of the highest corporation tax rates in the country, in stark contrast to the likes of Amazon, Starbucks and Vodafone who have all come under fire in recent years for minimizing their tax bills. And Constantine is urging all businesses to pay the London living wage of £8.80 ($15.07) per hour.

Celebrating the Lush life

Where does Lush go from here? Constantine said he hopes to increase the number of stores back up to the 1,000 mark at some point. He closed down a few in the past couple of years in response to concerns that the level of service may have been declining.

But aside from that, he appeared broadly satisfied with the current performance. "We're doing all right. It's OK," he said. "The problem with people in these green businesses is you spend far more time berating yourselves and worrying about everything than celebrating the successes."

Top image of Lush store by Andrew_Writer via Flickr. This article first appeared at Business Green.