Rowena Bird is picking up trash when we meet. Her hair is soft pink, her lips painted a brighter pink and she’s wearing Parly Adidas sneakers made from recycled ocean plastic. On her recent visit to South Africa, she’s cleaning up Milnerton beach, across the bay from Table Mountain. Together with a group of about ten people, organized by The Beach Co-op and Clean C, Rowena collected two big bags of small plastic items in a couple of hours.

Rowena is one of the six founders of Lush, a cosmetics company with an environmental conscious. You’ll know the Lush shops from their very strong fragrance, which is not surprising considering many of their products are “nude” or sold without packaging. Products are 100% vegetarian, anti-cruelty, about 85% vegan and said to be handmade.

Rowena first joined the manufacturing company founded by Mark Constantine and Liz Weir, who made product for Anita Roddick’s The Body Shop. When the relationship with The Body Shop ended, the partners developed a mail order company, Cosmetics-To-Go. And when that failed, the six Lush founders put all their money into a new venture which 25 years later is the multi-national cosmetics company millions of people love.

Rowena’s role at the company is to take care of invention, product and brand knowledge, make-up and company’s spa. “I sit on the board. I travel. I make make-up. I look after 5 teams,” she says. “We’ve never used plastic micro-beads found in cleansing and exfoliating products. Instead we used natural exfoliators such as aduki Beans, ground almonds and sand.”

Over 40 % of Lush’s products are naked and 90% of the packaging is made from post-consumer recycled (PCR), recyclable and biodegradable materials. Labels are made so they can go straight into the recycling system, says Rowena. She feels strongly, like the rest of the Lush team, about responsible packaging and waste. “We’re stripping enough out of the planet and we shouldn’t be putting our rubbish back into it,” she says. “Every bit of rubbish you throw away irresponsibly will most likely end up in the sea”.

The ultimate goal of Lush, Rowena says is to have no preservatives and no packaging. The unpacked products include their solid shampoo bars, conditioners, hennas and massage bars. This saves millions of plastic bottles from being produced, transported and disposed of every year.

Because 40% of the product is naked, 40% of the products are without preservatives. Rowena says, “Unpackaged stuff doesn’t need preservatives because there is no water content. A solid soap is much more hygienic than a liquid soap. There are bacteria in the water but no bacteria on the dry soap. Nothing lives on that dry soap”.

Rowena is a trained beauty therapist. She remembers how her mother’s friends “would give me their old lipsticks and I’d melt them down and make new ones”. She is currently developing the new range of make-up, which will be launched next February. They have taken the old make-up range off their shelves. “We’re reworking it. If it’s not good enough, you shouldn’t sell it. I wasn’t proud of it. But I’m very proud of the new range, not necessary about the make-up itself but about the packaging. Many things come without packaging”. Describing the new solid foundation she says, “They don’t look beautiful but they work. We’ve dipped them in wax, the part which you’ll hold is this waxed bit. We have 40 shades of foundation. It goes from lovely and pale to lovely and dark.”

Does she use Lush products only? No, she says. “The Lush pink hair care is too bright. I like a paler version. At my age, I shouldn’t have a very bright colour. I tried beetroot for my hair. But the colour consistency with natural is difficult. As much as people want you to be natural or use natural ingredients, they want it to do the same thing every time”.

Clearly, Lush plays a balancing act (what works for consumers, what works for the product and what works for the world), but they do lead the way in packaging responsibly, or rather, not packaging at all.

“I wish more people would copy us,” Rowena says.

Did you know?

*Lush has a naked section in their shop in Milan and will be opening a naked store (100% packaging-free)  in Berlin soon.

*Lush has 932 shops globally (including 105 in the UK and Ireland), 22,000 employees and £995m turnover (sourceThe Guardian)

*Lush products in Lush stores are kept fresh. Anything older than six months gets taken off the shelves and goes to another cause.

*Lush support co-ops that benefit women and education, and women’s and agricultural causes wherever they can. The nice thing, says Rowena, when you buy from us, you can’t help helping someone else.

*The company pays the right tax and carefully sources their ingredients, and are audited each year by Ethical Consumer. (Source The Guardian)

*To date, the Slush Fund, which the company funds by setting aside 2% of what it spends on raw materials and packaging, has invested $5.1 million in community agriculture projects across 21 countries.

*Essential oils can cost more than gold.

*Ro’s Argan, one of Lush’s top sellers, was inspired by a trip Rowena made to Russia. “They eat a lot of cherries there. We thought we could make a body butter with cherries and chocolate – I made this product.”

Picture credits: Bekah Vogel / and others supplied