As British retailer Lush expands globally, the head of ethical buying at the handmade cosmetics company says he is facing an almost impossible challenge - ensuring all products are free of slave labour and other human rights abuses.
Simon Constantine, the son of two of Lush’s founders, said sales doubling and an almost 50 per cent jump in profits to 31 million pounds ($40 million) since 2013 created the potential for wider social impact by sourcing from more local communities.
But he said this growth had also opened a labyrinth of new problems for privately-owned Lush - which prides itself on products ethically sourced, environmentally friendly and not tested on animals - particularly as it expands in Asia.
Founded on an ethos to do good while doing business and campaigning on social issues, Lush vowed in 2014 to stop using mica from India in cosmetics as child labour was found to be rife in the industry.
The company also refuses to use sandalwood from India for similar worker concerns, instead sourcing from Australia, and has drastically reduced its use of palm oil, concerned about deforestation, human rights abuses and slavery in that industry.
Constantine, known by Lush’s staff as the “guerrilla perfumer” for combining campaigns on issues like fox hunting and gay rights with his role as the firm’s head perfumer, said expanding to around 930 stores in almost 50 countries had thrown up challenges and the best Lush could do was to be totally open about its efforts to be clean.
“From the supply chain point of view we have struggled to keep up,” Constantine, 34, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at Lush’s quirky offices in the English south coast town of Poole where upturned reclaimed wooden pallets serve as meeting rooms.
“With the amount of work you need to do to keep on top of things and everything changing so rapidly … I would never be comfortable saying our supply chain is 100 per cent clean.”
It seems a lot of the beliefs that Lush has held for a long time have suddenly become much more mainstream and relevant. We’re at the right point to offer products with the ethics people are suddenly looking for.
Simon Constantine, “guerrilla perfumer”, Lush
Lush is one of a growing number of companies attracting consumers willing to pay a bit more for ethically sourced products obtained in a sustainable way with workers treated fairly and environmental and social impacts considered.
Workers at Lush’s factory in Poole were working an earlier than usual shift on request this week so they could leave earlier and enjoy a rare heat-wave on the nearby beach.
Lush, set up in 1995 and widely known for its colourful, fragrant bath bombs, has benefited from this new consumer consciousness, with surging sales giving rise to factories in Britain, Germany, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Canada and Croatia.
Lush has also established itself in Asia where it has almost 250 stores. Constantine expects this growth to continue as Lush opens its first store in Thailand this year and seeks to re-enter India after an earlier attempt to work there failed.
But he admits that growth and the move to Asia brings more challenges for Lush’s efforts to monitor its supply chain.
The United Nation’s International Labour Organisation estimates about 21 million people are victims of forced labour with 56 per cent - or 11.7 million - in the Asia-Pacific region.
“Asia is a great region, we source a lot of our ingredients from there as well, but it changes so rapidly that it is difficult to keep up,” said Constantine, who has a team of buyers in Asia to audit and monitor suppliers.
Working more outside Britain has also brought other challenges for Lush, which has backed causes from stopping badger culling, anti-fracking, to supporting Guantanamo prisoners, through in-store campaigns and financial donations.
“We tend to be a bit of bold and stupid in Britain and that has stirred the pot sometimes, certainly around fox hunting with people .. coming into stores and knocking things off shelves and threatening staff,” Constantine said.
“But globally sometimes we’ve veered away from particularly controversial campaigns … where it may end up with people being arrested or put in jail. It is also about staff safety.”
Next he is looking for a sourcing project in Lebanon that could benefit Syrian refugees - similar to other projects in Africa and Asia intended to support local communities.
As to Lush’s recent growth, Constantine puts it down to being in the right place at the right time.
“It seems a lot of the beliefs that Lush has held for a long time have suddenly become much more mainstream and relevant. We’re at the right point to offer products with the ethics people are suddenly looking for,” he said.
($1 = 0.7596 pounds)
This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org.