‘Cosmetics Are A Pleasure And A Delight’: Interview With Lush Co-Founder Rowena Bird

By Charlie Colville

1 year ago

Rowena tells us all about the Lush Spring Prize 2023

At some point in their life, every Brit has walked past a Lush store and found themselves lured in by the wonderful smells of soap and bath bombs spilling out onto the pavement. Lush has been a British high street stalwart for almost 30 years, having set out with the mission to ‘to leave the world Lusher than they found it’ – and give us a fantastic bath time while they’re at it. This spring, the brand is running another edition of the Lush Spring Prize, an award celebrating environmental and social regeneration around the world. We chat with Lush co-founder Rowena Bird, just as the shortlist is announced, to get her take on the regenerative movement and the amazing people driving change, as well as Lush’s plans for 2023.

‘Cosmetics Are A Pleasure And A Delight’: Interview With Lush Co-Founder Rowena Bird

Rowena Bird portrait

Rowena Bird

Hi Rowena, thank you for sitting down with us today! Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?

My name is Rowena Bird and I’m one the Lush co-founders and product inventors. Myself and five other co-founders – Mo Constantine, Mark Constantine, Helen Ambrosen, Liz Bennett and Paul Greeves – founded Lush in 1995 in the sleepy seaside town of Poole, Dorset.

The areas that I concentrate on at the moment are the buying of our beautiful ingredients, our regular company leadership meetings, founders meetings, our Greenhub and customer service. I like to be involved in as many aspects of our company as I can be so I can be the most supportive.

Wow, it sounds like you have a lot going on these days! What made you want to start a brand like Lush?

We lost our previous company, Cosmetics to Go, when we over-traded. Sometimes you can go too over the top with customer service, then throw in a flood and a sale and the worst can happen. We all wondered what to do with ourselves and had to admit that we were fairly unemployable as we were so used to working together and having things our way, which is not always the conventional way.

From this, Lush was born. We still had the shop on 29 Poole High Street (the first ever Lush shop that still exists today) and a passion for cosmetics. The fact that the six of us were good friends and each had a different skillset meant we could turn our hand to anything. We wanted to continue doing what we loved, which was creating and selling beautiful efficacious products.

Lush has been a household name for nearly 30 years – has it changed at all since its founding?

We still live by the same guiding statement that we started with over 27 years ago, our We Believe statement. We started with this in 1995 and we have only ever added to it. More recently, in 2017 we added ‘We Believe in the Freedom of Movement’.

The founders are still hands-on within the business and still inventing and developing innovative products for our customers. From just the six of us with one shop in 1995, we now have over 14,500 colleagues worldwide and 863 shops globally. It’s a nice, big community.

Yellow poster with 'Bring it Back' in large font

Lush’s Bring It Back poster

Love that! We hear that Lush’s mission is ‘to leave the world Lusher than we found it’. How are the Lush team going about this?

With passion, innovation and by going against the grain with radical initiatives that put people and the planet above profit! From packaging-free cosmetics to supply chains that protect wildlife and regenerate land, we have been paving the way for more ethical and sustainable ways of doing business for over 27 years.

We’re fighting animal testing, sharing fairly through generous giving programs and making every effort to minimise our impact with policies that meet the needs of a changing and constantly evolving world situation, in areas such as air transport, energy use, materials into landfill, recycling rates, pollution and waste outputs.

We have been using 100 percent recycled plastic for our pots and bottles since 2008 and have had a closed loop for our black packaging since 2012. The Lush Earth Care team galvanised this, along with the introduction of initiatives like our Bring it Back packaging returns scheme (where customers could bring back any full-sized Lush plastic packaging to a Lush shop to be recycled, and receive a 50p deposit for every plastic item returned to spend on their Lush basket that day) and later this year we will open our new Green Hub after a relocation to a bigger and better premises to further support our efforts.

Speaking of exciting projects, the 2023 Lush Spring Prize shortlist was recently announced. Could you tell us a bit it?

We run the Lush Spring Prize every two years in collaboration with Ethical Consumer, on alternating years to our other award programme called the Lush Prize which is focused on celebrating advances in the non-animal testing field. The Lush Spring Prize is focussed on environmental and social regeneration, and it offers a prize fund to people and organisations who are striving to leave their environments and their communities better than they found them. It’s about going beyond sustainability, going beyond simply ‘doing no harm’ or minimising the damage of extractive practices, and instead showing how we can work with nature to create abundance. It’s about helping people to meet their needs in a way that also protects and restores our living planet – their food needs, housing needs, community needs and more.

Wow! What made you want to launch the prize? 

We have been inspired by movements like permaculture and agroecology, which you could think of as being under the ‘umbrella’ of regeneration, for many years. Our Ethical Buying team focusses on embedding regenerative practices into the way we source our ingredients and other raw materials, and in the past we’ve worked with many suppliers who are aligned with permaculture, agroforestry and other regenerative movements.

The Lush Spring Prize is purely philanthropic, so it’s not connected to our Lush supply chain, though one of Lush’s core missions is to leave the world Lusher than we found it, so we also want to celebrate and work with other people and organisations who are putting that ideal into practice.

rainforest Photo by Raphaël Menesclou

(c) Raphaël Menesclou

And when will the winner of this year’s prize be revealed?

We’re excited to announce the Lush Spring Prize recipients in May 2023. Each prize year, we host a fabulous prize ceremony where we aim to showcase great regenerative work and hopefully inspire other people, businesses and policymakers to also implement truly regenerative change. The work of Lush Spring Prize recipients have the potential to inspire very radical transformation in our social and political landscapes which could not only help minimise the disastrous effects of the climate and nature crises, but also make many people’s lives better and healthier – both humans and non-human animals.

Each time we host a Spring Prize event, we also welcome out prize recipients to host peer-to-peer knowledge sharing sessions. It’s a great opportunity to bring people together who are working on similar issues but sometimes in very different contexts. We’ve heard from previous prize recipients that the opportunity to network and learn from one another is sometimes the most impactful part of the Spring Prize, even beyond the financial award.

It sounds like an amazing event. Any specific shortlisted projects you’re excited to tell our readers about?

There are 73 amazing potential recipients this year, and each one of these shortlisted organisations is tailoring the nature-inspired principles of regenerative work to their own unique context. From refugee-led permaculture and mushroom growing with the Rwamwanja Rural Foundation in Uganda, to culturally-appropriate and climate-friendly housing after natural disasters with Tātānaki in Tonga, or Voedselpark Amsterdam who are working to reestablish common land for regenerative growing in the city – all of the Spring Prize shortlisted organisations represent something special to celebrate about the regenerative movement.

Lots of inspiring people! Speaking of, who or what inspires you to drive positive change?

Our customers and Lush colleagues around the world! That’s what they want and what they expect from us too. It’s our job to take it seriously and do everything we can to make change. We have a responsibility to them and the planet and we don’t want to let them down. We are 10 percent employee owned at Lush, and the Employee Benefit Trust is there to let us know what our colleagues around the world care about and want to see happen. This will be the company we want it to be!

Lush store interior

Is it possible to create products that help the planet, rather than harm it? 

Cosmetics are a pleasure and a delight. We all enjoy using them and they often give us confidence but they’re not essential to life, therefore I do not think they should be full of ingredients or full of packaging that in any way takes from our planet or harms our planet in its production or in its afterlife.

Lush products are super powered with ingredients which do as much good in the world as they do on your skin. We use self-preserving formulas (over 82 percent of Lush products are now self-preserving) that care for your skin barrier and avoid accumulating in our water systems and harming aquatic life. We only ever buy ingredients from companies that do not commission tests on animals and we pioneer new materials and methods to create compostable, recyclable or refillable packaging where necessary, and go naked where it’s not. Currently 66 percent of Lush products are plastic packaging free.

Since 2005, Lush shampoo bars have saved the use of nearly 170 million plastic bottles from landfill, which is estimated to be over 4000 tonnes of plastic avoided.

Where we do package products, all of our packaging is designed to be recyclable or reusable. Not only that, we’re also utilising packaging that sequesters more carbon dioxide than it emits – in 2019, we launched Lush cork pots that sequester over 33 times its weight in carbon dioxide, removing approximately 1.2kg CO2e from the atmosphere.

It sounds like you’re creating a lot of positive change. It can be hard to tell what’s genuinely good for the planet when it comes to the health and beauty industry – how can shoppers keep a critical eye out for greenwashing claims?

The only way is to dig deep, ask questions and not believe everything you’ve been told. Transparency from a brand is key if you really want to know where products come from and how they’re made. At Lush we go through all the layers and have strict policies in place. For example, we don’t buy from suppliers that test on animals and we always take into account workers’ rights, the environment and transport when buying ingredients.

We purchase our materials directly from producers – the farmers, growers and processors – wherever possible, in order to learn the true story of each ingredient. Through buying direct from producers we are also able to support and help finance some really worthwhile and forward-thinking projects worldwide that make us proud.

Epsom salt cubes and massage bars on blue wavy background

Lush’s Epsom salt cubes and massage bars

Does Lush have anything else exciting in the pipeline for 2023?

Always! The year started off with some wonderful product launches, including our first venture into the world of fitness with the launch of magnesium massage bars and Epsom salt cubes. We also launched a beautiful new self-preserving facial moisturiser which features many of the same ingredients as our best selling Dream Cream.

Moving further into 2023, we’re looking forward to the official opening of the new Green Hub, exciting brand collaborations, the re-launch of our henna range and True Colours book and lots more product innovation along the way. Watch this space!

Exciting! And do you have any words you’d like to leave our readers with?

Small changes can make a big impact. Small things like remembering to carry a reusable bag, water bottle or coffee cup are a good first step to reducing waste and our impact on the planet.

Remember to be kind to yourself, others and the planet. The world can feel unfalteringly dark and heavy at times, the last few years undoubtedly so. Lush is encouraging a culture of kindness. We want to spark moments of joy, with beautiful beneficial products for every need that have had a positive impact at every stage, and encourage not only gracious giving but opportune moments of self-care.