Mark Constantine is a man on several missions. Not satisfied with bringing the bath bomb to the world, the co-founder of Lush wants to put a rocket under recycling, chemicals testing, asset-stripping on the high street and numerous other issues.
Unsurprisingly for someone who has made a fortune from turning bathing into an art form at an ethical beauty brand, the centre of operations is his bath, where he likes to relax – at 4pm if at all possible. Constantine, who is 70 but looks a decade younger, with his colourful jacket and snow-white locks, says he is not a great sleeper, and if he misses that bathing moment he can find himself mulling over business issues at 3am.
He has recently been thinking about Lush’s Henna Hair Dye, as well as the company’s plastic recycling efforts and the revival of high streets after the pain of lockdowns.
While many chains are closing their flagship stores, Lush is doing the opposite. This year the business, based in Poole, Dorset, expects to spend £7.4m on new shops, relocations and redesigns across the UK and Europe, after permanently closing two stores during the pandemic.
There are plans for a large new spa, hairdresser and store alongside Lush’s London office in Soho, and a grand three-floor outlet in Glasgow next year.
Constantine is stepping into an opportunity created by the troubles of department store chains such as Debenhams and House of Fraser, which once sold the majority of cosmetics in the UK. “[Many of] those doors have closed,” he says.
Family Married to Mo (fellow Lush co-founder); three children and
Education Poole grammar school, then straight to work.
Pay “Less than you’d imagine.”
Last holiday “A lovely train trip from the UK to Florence in 2019. It was part work and part pleasure – visiting various Lush shops in Paris, Germany and Austria, all the way through the Alps to Italy.”
Best advice he’s been given “Dig where there are potatoes.”
Worst career mistake Being tempted to buy The Body Shop.
Phrase he overuses “Fuck, fuck, fuckity-fuck.”
How he relaxes Bath at 4pm.
The expansion comes after a tough pandemic for the group: stores were forced to close for many months, while rapidly ramping up online capability was difficult and costly. In the year to June 2020, Lush dived to a £45m loss as sales fell 20% from a combination of Covid and political disruption in Hong Kong, Spain and France.
In the year to June 2021, sales slid a further 6.6% to just under £409m but the company made a £29m pre-tax profit, helped by more than £28m in government support, including business rates and furlough relief – and 3,000 job cuts.
This year, sales have bounced back – up 10%, excluding the acquisition of Lush’s North American business – and Constantine says he believes profits will improve after negotiating lower rents and lockdown cost cuts. The group has shut five of its six offices in Poole in the past three years and has increasingly shifted to working from home.
Constantine is confident that shops will continue to bounce back. He predicts that interesting independents that have grown online during the pandemic will be flooding on to high streets as rents and rates become cheaper, while the online titans such as Amazon, Google and Facebook make trading online more expensive.
Not one to hold back – whether it’s on your hair issues or the state of the nation – he blames debts created by the private-equity takeovers of once stalwart names such as Boots and Debenhams for the tribulations of well-loved high street chains.
“The high street’s problem is that large, complicated capitalist organisations have bought up all the big retailers and loaded them with billions of pounds of debt. That’s fine in a period of low interest rates. Now we are seeing the tide going out and the end of a period of excess. As interest rates creep up we will see more and more collapses and people moving out of their stores.”
Constantine made his fortune as a supplier to The Body Shop after a difficult start in life – his father left home when he was a toddler.
His interest in cosmetics started with stage makeup, before he worked in a hairdresser’s and a cosmetics shop after dropping out of Poole grammar school when he failed his O-levels. He was taken in by the family of a friend after becoming homeless and sleeping in a tent after a breakdown in relations with his mother and stepfather, and got charitable funding to support is hairdresser training.
Sincde then he has seen a lot of retail trends come and go and has ridden many of them.
“When I started out in retail, Great Universal Stores was the most successful business in Britain and everything was bought from the catalogue. Then there was a huge surge towards [high street] retail and now the surge is back to home delivery. If there is exciting retail, we will all go back to the shops.”
Having cooked up ideas for shampoos and hair treatments while a hairdresser, Constantine sent ideas to Body Shop founder Anita Roddick, becoming one of her biggest suppliers before she bought out his company for £9m in 1991.
Constantine and his wife, Mo, along with four other business partners including Liz Bennett and Rowena Bird, then set up mail order firm Cosmetics To Go which went bust, leading them to found Lush.
With that personal and business history, it is no surprise that Constantine is a believer in never giving up. To illustrate his philosophy, the huge fan of birdwatching tells the tragic story of a conservationist who killed himself when peregrine falcons stopped breeding in Poole harbour many years ago. But now the birds are back in ever-increasing numbers, partly thanks to funding from Constantine.
“Nothing is ever finished – either positively or negatively. Don’t think that because the last peregrine in Dorset has died they won’t return. Don’t think that because we have had a period of time without animal testing that it is done. There is something naive in that thinking.”
On animal testing, Lush is funding a group to try to persuade the government to use its post-Brexit review of regulations to iron out a clash between two sets of European Union regulations: an EU-wide ban on animal testing for cosmetics and the Reach regulatory regime for chemicals, which in some cases demands tests on animals.
The clash means that a company such as Lush, which has strict rules against animal testing by its suppliers, cannot use some products, such as sun-protection chemicals, which under Reach must be tested in an environment involving creatures such as worms, according to Lush.
This year the company will also celebrate the 10th year of the Lush Prize which provides £250,000 every two years to scientists who are advancing non-animal testing.
Lush is also stepping up activity on plastic packaging, setting up its own recycling facility, where suppliers’ unused pots and those returned by customers are broken down and sent off to be turned back into pots. Lush’s black pots, used for creams and gels, are made from 100% recycled plastic but aren’t suitable for recycling in most local councils’ systems.
To encourage its shoppers to bring back the pots, Lush offers a 50p discount for every one brought back.
Using plastic at all might seem odd for an environmentally committed company. Lush says that almost two-thirds of what it sells in its shops does not involve plastic packaging. It has tried to reduce that further but a test of half a dozen “naked” shops, where everything was sold packaging-free, did not prove popular.
Constantine has not given up though. “Customers didn’t want that yet. When they are ready, we are ready,” he says.