Environment 911 catches up with Rowena Bird, co-founder of Lush to discuss how the beauty brand sources their ingredients
You would be forgiven if you thought that Lush, the UK-based, worldwide-selling, natural beauty brand was deeply committed to all things sustainable. True, they embrace the philosophy of being good global citizens by supporting the environment with minimal packaging and using natural ingredients, but sustainability is not a company goal. This, however, isn’t as scandalous as it may seem, as Lush’s goal is much loftier than merely maintaining the status quo.
“It’s not sustainable—it’s regenerative,” declares Rowena Bird, one of Lush’s six co-founders, describing the company’s approach to good environmental practices.
Bird says that for Lush, this regenerative approach starts with the sourcing of ingredients, which they purchase from around the globe. The brand has partnered with farmers and cooperatives to facilitate the development of permaculture growing methods over the soil-depleting method of monoculture.
“If you’re sustainable, you can sustain a monoculture. Or you can be regenerative, where you’re turning that monoculture into something; that permaculture where you’ve got more things growing on the same piece of land, giving the farmer a much better income, and giving the soil much-needed regeneration,” Bird explains.Permaculture practices involve complementary plantings that protect the crops so that pesticides are not needed and, with time, when done properly, can revitalize barren land that supports a range of planting and thrives long term.
“Around the globe, we have set up various permaculture sites where we’ve worked with farmers and communities to set up example sites other farmers can visit and learn how they can make more of the land that they farm,” Bird says.
The demonstration sites are important to advance change as farming methods are deeply set in tradition and culture, which Bird says are difficult to change. She cites France, producer of most of the world’s lavender oil, which still adheres to growing the plants in separate rows with the use of pesticides, with it being the only crop produced on that land for years and years.
“We’ve just set up another site in the Lebanon with farmers,” Bird says. “We’ve shown them different ways and [they] are now buying into that and we’re all working together. We’re working with growing the lavender strips along with other plants, and then using no pesticides at all. So, the first batch of lavender oil that will come off in August, that’s going to go into a new product that we’ve got—Co-Mingle, a body conditioning scrub and wash all in one.”
Besides lavender oil, they’re also growing neroli in Lebanon. Tunisia is another source for neroli where they buy from a cooperative of farmers. They’ve recently launched another initiative in Pakistan for growing roses and jasmine.
“Farmers are joining us and growing their roses without pesticides,” Bird explains. “So, we’ve got a demonstration site again where we’re showing farmers, and farmers are coming in and visiting, and then committing to growing theirs without pesticides.”
In Arizona, the company is regenerating whole areas for jojoba, that according to Bird, had been grown there but then stopped. The jojoba oil produced there is destined for Lush products. “There are just so many stories. It’s fabulous,” she enthuses.
Growing crops without pesticides can offer other benefits beyond eliminating toxins, Bird adds. Cotton is a thirsty plant that, interestingly, when pesticides are eliminated, requires less water to grow.
Though Lush endeavours to buy from growers who employ permaculture practices, it can be difficult sometimes given the sheer volume of ingredients required to create their products. The brand uses this as an opportunity to showcase the advantages of permaculture to areas where plants may be at risk of disappearing due to farming methods, market demand or even conflict.
“We get frankincense from the trees in Somalia,” Bird explains. “They’ve been war-torn for so long, but they have the most beautiful frankincense trees...Working with the people there, we can save those trees and give them an income. They weren’t getting that because of the war.”Dealing directly with farmers or cooperatives, rather than through a broker, to provide a fair price for their crops is, yes, ethical, but also provides an incentive to see the financial advantages of permaculture production.
“We’re not going in and undercutting people,” she asserts. "What I’m saying is that when we’re linking in with farmers and cooperatives and working with them, we’re paying what we would have paid for that raw material. We’re not doing it to get things cheaper. We’re doing it to get quality, 100 percent, top-notch [ingredients].”
Facilitating farmers to change up their approach to agriculture doesn’t require any obligation for them to sell to Lush. Bird says that doesn’t benefit either the company or the farmers.
“We prefer people not to be beholden to us because that’s a big pressure,” she says. “We do change our product lines. What happens if we no longer want to use that oil? We’ve taken that product away and that oil isn’t used somewhere else.”
From a creative perspective, the brand doesn’t want to be limited to be always using the same ingredients. It’s about looking for new ingredients, new experiences and new fragrances—all those things, she says, that stimulate creativity.
For Lush, it all comes back to the commitment to regeneration—all over the world. Bird references some land the company has in Guatemala. Ten years ago, she recalls, it was full of elephant grass, and not much could have grown on it. Today, it’s lushly planted with thriving coconut trees.
The regenerative approach also encompasses Lush’s conservation efforts as demonstrated with rosewood trees in Peru which, as they’re protected, can’t be harvested. This situation served as inspiration for another Lush earth-friendly objective.
“You could use it as a [carbon] offset, if you will, but we’re now using the term 'insetting',” Bird explains. “Although companies [can say] ‘we’ve bought this piece of jungle as an offset to what we’re doing carbon-wise,’ we’re going, 'actually let’s not offset. Let’s inset and look at our practices and making those better, not just salving a conscience by buying a piece of jungle.'”