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Crikey. Not that again. The rough sleeping thing. Mark Constantine, founder of Lush, the fast-growing beauty products company, betrays uncharacteristic irritation when this question is raised.
“I wasn’t living in the woods for very long,” he says, “It was one of Anita’s favourite bloody things, though.”
He explains that Anita – Dame Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop – was a wizard publicist. So she loved telling reporters that her main supplier was a “mad herbalist who slept in the woods”. As if Mr Constantine was some kind of Green Man, with foliage sprouting from him.
“In fact, I had nowhere to live,” says Mr Constantine, 55. He fell out with his parents when he was 16. He lived in a bivouac that summer back in the mid-1970s. No real hardship for a lover of the great outdoors.
He and his wife Mo set up Lush in 1994. It now has almost 500 stores and produced sales of £145m in the year to June 30 from such products as Karma Soap and Green Party bath bombs. None are tested on animals and packaging is minimal. The company is aiming to carry forward the ethical mission of Dame Anita, who died recently.
Lush is increasingly in the public eye. Reporters are going through the cuts. Once again, Mr Constantine is facing dumb questions about his months spent sleeping in the undergrowth.
It is all “a bit personal”. But Dame Anita, and her husband Gordon, bruised Mr Constantine’s feelings far more by selling out to L’Oréal for £130m last year. “If you were going to sell the leading ethical company in the world, there couldn’t be a much worse choice than L’Oréal,” he says. L’Oréal tests some of its ingredients on animals. It is part-owned by Nestlé, a company that Mr Constantine blames for “the fact that 3m coffee growers live in poverty”.
L’Oréal says it is “totally committed to a future without tests on animals”. Nestlé says it “operates the world’s largest direct coffee purchase scheme, thereby ensuring a good return to the farmer”.
Mr Constantine tried to buy Body Shop himself in 2001, an approach Dame Anita dismissed as a bad joke. He was under the impression that the Roddicks would welcome his overtures. Their rejection wounded him deeply. His relationship with Body Shop had been “a love affair”. But of the kind that ends badly.
“I would have liked the opportunity to continue [Anita and Gordon’s] legacy,” Mr Constantine says, “so I was cross when I wasn’t able to do that. And I was sad as well.”
He adds: “What I’m critical of here is one act in a life, not a life. What Anita contributed was massive. Look out there and you will see some bloke selling the Big Issue who wouldn’t be there if it had not been for Anita and Gordon. They inspired hundreds and hundreds of [social entrepreneurs] to get off their backsides.”
It all started when the teenage Mr Constantine made some beauty products, having learnt the necessary chemistry while studying trichology. Then he toted the soap and shampoo round potential buyers. Their verdict was: “Too earnest, very authentic, not at all commercial.” But when Mr Constantine met Anita Roddick, who was running just two Body Shop outlets at the time, she was impressed. He became a close associate and supplier.
“It was dreadfully stressful,” says Mr Constantine, “but it was also very, very exciting. I was in the fastest growing cosmetic company in the world and they were using my ideas.” Relations only soured after Body Shop floated in 1984, when the partnership with his main customer became uncomfortably formal. Body Shop bought the intellectual property rights to his supply business, Constantine and Weir, in 1991 for £9m.
Reading the above, you might conclude that Mr Constantine is a brooding grudge-bearer. Nothing could be further from the truth. He is irrepressibly cheerful. His craggy face splits continually into a grin. And it is not just him. The kids running the Carnaby Street store just around the corner from the company’s London headquarters are sweetly blissed out. Perhaps it is the heady smell of the brightly coloured millstones of soap piled on the counter. Or maybe it is the in-store soundtrack – a sitar player working his way through The Doors songbook.
Mr Constantine says he wants Lush to be “legendary”. His role models are “great Quaker businesses that had great ethics and great standards”. He hopes to open another 500 stores, making a round 1,000. Lush is expanding rapidly overseas, with Japan a particularly hot market.
What interests Mr Constantine most is solving problems. For example, he laboured long and hard to come up with a perfume that smelt “green” or, as he puts it, “fresh, piquant, with a mossy odour”. Finally, this year, he cracked it with a product called “Go Green”.
Another puzzle is proving tougher to solve. Mr Constantine would like to broaden the ownership of Lush shares. But he is extremely nervous of the stock market, which he believes can force ethical businesses to abandon or water down their principles. He says: “Maybe what we need is another kind of stock market where [ethical] companies can trade and it’s understood they will abide by certain [rules] above others.”
He is considering distributing free shares to employees. But for the moment Lush will continue to be owned by Mr and Mrs Constantine and their “angel”, Peter Blacker, the property investor, who holds a big minority stake.
The trio shared dividends of about £5m in 2004-06, according to Companies House. Mr Constantine, who lives in Dorchester, cycles a lot and avoids air travel, so a flashy car or private aircraft are out of the question. His main indulgence is bird song. He is funding a project to record and publish all the sounds emitted by all the birds in the zone known to twitchers as the Western Palearctic.
Mr Constantine’s own vocalisations are frequent, varied and upwardly inflected. But his optimism is tempered by the stoicism of an entrepreneur whose mail order business, Cosmetics to Go, failed ignominiously in 1994, partly due to the unreliability of the Royal Mail.
Asked how he feels about the success of Lush, he weaves Kipling into his reply, saying: “I have experienced the collapse of one business and the success of the other. You have to meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same. One person cannot be both that rubbish and that good.”
Beware the unethical investor: advice for green entrepreneurs
The ethical stance of Lush, the beauty products retailer, has contributed to its rapid growth.
Its preparations are not tested on animals, do not contain animal ingredients and are sold with little packaging.
Mark Constantine, Lush’s founder, has the following advice for aspiring ethical entrepreneurs:
● Do not sell shares to investors whose moral priorities may be different from your own. If you do, you may come under pressure to take courses of action that are inconsistent with the ethics of your business.
● Campaigning should come as naturally to an ethical business as its core activity. Lush’s exploits have included trying to dump a lorry-load of manure outside the European Parliament in protest at animal testing.
● An ethical business does not have to be an inefficient business. Companies that Mr Constantine admires have “a lot of environmentalism in their supply chains”. They have “cut down their energy consumption because it is economic as well as green”.
● Conventional wisdom is often wrong. The beauty industry spends heavily on packaging and advertising. Lush does neither. Its customers “don’t want the packaging or advertising because neither is any use to them”.