Big Issue Vendor

Lush founder Mark Constantine shares his own experience of homelessness

Mark Constantine started bath bomb behemoth Lush from his kitchen but with a history of abandonment and homelessness his success has been hard-won. Now the firm is setting its bubbly sights on world domination

Meet the man who saved your Christmas. When it comes to gift-giving, Lush founder Mark Constantine and team have given you, your friends and family, put-upon parents and teacher-pleasing school pupils an easy out. The trusty bath bomb, uniting the country like only something glittery could, was dreamt up by Constantine’s wife and Lush co-founder Mo – and stands strong as the nation’s favourite stocking filler.

Since starting the business in his Poole kitchen in 1995, to being the main supplier of hair products to Anita Roddick at The Body Shop, his company went from strength to strength. It is now one of the world’s biggest cosmetics firms, out-performing the rest of the UK cosmetics market last year and making Constantine the man behind the world’s top Christmas present go-to. Lush hires more than 800 extra factory workers over the festive period to cope with the demand.

And the 66-year-old knows a lot about grafting; after experiencing troubled school years, family estrangement and homelessness, it was hard work that helped him to turn his life around.

That is an emptiness that is quite beyond bleak. It’s a sheer, blank absence

Constantine’s father left when he was two years old, and the Lush founder reached his fifties not knowing whether his dad was alive or not. After a breakdown in the relationship with his mother and stepfather, Constantine became homeless aged just 16. He lived in a tent in an area of woodland while working days, evenings and weekends to afford food and clothes.

“I often think about the epidemic of people with jobs who are homeless,” he says. “I didn’t have addiction problems, that wasn’t an issue for me. The lack of family was. I was homeless because nobody cared at home. And that is an emptiness that is quite beyond bleak. It’s a sheer, blank absence.”

Before long, he was taken in by lifelong friend Jeff Osment’s parents. “I blew in when they left the door open! I learned compassion, friendship, the benefit of charity from their selflessness,” Constantine says.

The experiences of his youth have had a lasting impact on the entrepreneur – and his business. He designed a scent named Dear John, which he describes as a comforting perfume created in response to the persistent feelings of loss he could never shake. And the success of Lush was, he acknowledges, due in part to his “entrepreneur’s wound” – a demonstration of worth to the parent who left him as an infant.

Recognising that, even well after Lush established itself on the global cosmetics scene, the absence of Constantine’s father continued to eat away at him in adulthood, Osment decided on an unusual birthday gift – launching an extensive and secret search for Constantine’s dad. “We would all like to sort out our nutty friend, wouldn’t we?” says Constantine. “Jeff determined quite correctly that maybe knowing a little bit about my family background would help me.”

The result of that search is detailed in the new biography of Constantine’s life, written by Osment (we won’t give any spoilers). “Even before the book, I owed Jeff rather a lot,” adds Constantine. And giving back is core to the Lush ethos: the company has donated more than £50m to charity, and works with Joshua Coombes, a stylist who gives haircuts to homeless people.

Constantine’s early experiences of negative family life are also woven into his own approach to business. Constantine has a daughter and two sons, all involved in the business – eldest Simon, 36, is head perfumer and head of ethical buying while Jack, 34, is chief digital officer and product inventor, and Claire, 28, is head of retail. “We are a very close family, but it can be very intense,” he says. “It’s like an episode of The Archers every week.” He aims for a similar feeling of supportive imperfection among his staff. “We’re muddly and messy and trying our best.”

Constantine has been exploring the emotional significance of scent in the hope of “constructing a feeling” for almost the entirety of his career. Karma, one of Lush’s original and most popular scents, he describes as a flashback to a moment in time; the 1970s, when he was working at the Elizabeth Arden store in London where David Bowie would swing by to have his make-up done.

“The whole place reeked of marijuana and incense,” he recalls. When creating the scent in the late Nineties, he also wanted it to evoke the Massive Attack album Protection and Street Spirit (Fade Out) by Radiohead, released around the time he was launching Lush. So “instead of having depth and high notes” he wanted “all middle notes, streams of creamy stuff”.

Like the other scented products, bath bombs are an opportunity for Constantine’s expression and others’ experience. But he’s not content with dominating bathtubs around the world if he can’t do some good with his platform, too. “Why shouldn’t I try to make bath bombs and save the planet at the same time? You can be commercial and have some standards. Despite what everyone says, you do not have to sell everything to sell something.”

This will come as no shock to anyone who caught wind of Lush’s ‘spy cops’ window displays which caused a stir earlier this year, or indeed to anyone who has been paying much attention to the cosmetics company since its inception. Constantine has stood strictly against animal testing since he began making products, and years later the ‘fighting animal testing’ tote bag is an instantly identifiable Lush product seen up and down high streets everywhere. The company’s bath bombs, shampoos and solid soaps have been a long-standing contender for those seeking vegetarian, cruelty-free Christmas gifts.

“Even when you’re really broke, you can still have things you aren’t going to do. Being cruel and unpleasant to animals unnecessarily seems to be one of them. I’ve never seen the sense in it.”

Lush has long retained a commitment to ethical operation, from sustainability in their packaging to eco-friendly ingredients to the treatment of their staff, all pushed by Constantine’s personal principles. But when the company dipped its toe into something distinctly more radical, it saw an unprecedented pushback – and the loudest public support yet.

It was an effort to raise awareness of the ‘spy cops’ scandal, in which undercover policemen tasked with infiltrating leftist protest groups are alleged to have entered into intimate relationships with group members. Store fronts were adorned with faux crime tape reading “Police have crossed the line” and posters depicting officers were stamped “paid to lie”.

Everybody is going to make mistakes. Your standards and transparency, they’re key

The displays were eventually taken down after the company faced fierce backlash from the Police Federation of England and Wales, the media and the public – more than 30 complaints were submitted to the Advertising Standards Authority about the campaign while others threatened to boycott the retailer. But Constantine says he has no regrets. “There were several lessons I learned. One of them was solidarity – which isn’t a word that capitalists use. The only thing that put me off is putting my staff through the stressof those few weeks, they were the ones manning the stores,” he adds. “So I think I would probably want a vote of confidence from everyone before we did anything like that again.” But he is realistic enough to acknowledge that no company is perfect. “We’re not that good. Everybody is going to make mistakes. Your standards and transparency, they’re key.”

Constantine still wants Lush to be the biggest cosmetics company in the world. “You have to ask simple, childlike questions sometimes. We’re telling the truth and we’ve got all these beautiful materials in our products and we’re good value for money and we’re not filling the place with plastic. So why aren’t we the biggest? 

“My ambition is to go home, watch the telly and have some cheese on toast. Lush’s ambitions are a bit larger. It all depends on who wins.”

Dear John: The Road to Pelindaba by Jeff Osment is out now (Lush, £14.95)