Is Sustainable Enough?

Can our cosmetics actually be a force for regeneration?
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Words: Simon Constantine
Words: Simon Constantine

What Simon Constantine, head buyer and perfumer, learned while travelling to the source of our ingredients has taken Lush on a journey beyond sustainability.

First and foremost I make perfumes. At 19 I started working in the fragrance factory, learning through doing, mixing essential oils from all over the world. A fascinating world opened up, full of mystery and intrigue. I’d spend my lunch break wondering just exactly where in the world these things came from. Lemongrass oil from Cochin? Vetivert oil from Java? Sandalwood from Mysore? An air of mystery hung over it all, a touch of alchemy to it.

Soon I learned a nasty lesson. These materials had been adulterated; cheap chemicals had been added to increase profit for the supplier. “How could people rip us off like that?” I asked. I realized, this was because of us. We’d pick up the phone and say, “We need it now and we need it cheaper” with no understanding of what this meant. We had contributed to the problem.

Our thinking had to change. Encouraged to go out into the fields I travelled with my colleagues, visiting farms, growers and factories all over the world. These places, Cochin, Java, Mysore; they became places I knew. And it wasn’t always good. New problems sprang up. It wasn’t just cheap chemicals I needed to worry about but slave labour, pollution, land use. The list began to grow.

A pivotal moment was visiting Sumatra in 2006 with Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS) and their partner organization Orangutan Information Centre and seeing the devastation the palm oil industry was having on the ecosystem there. Palm oil is a popular vegetable oil used in everything from soap to margarine, chocolate to biofuel. At first it seems a miracle cure, each tree produces tonnes of oil that can be used in food and as a green fuel. Until you see the rainforest ripped up, orangutans maimed and killed and the peat land burned, releasing huge amounts of carbon in big smog clouds that drift across south East Asia. All this to clear the land for new palm plantations.

How can something grown in such huge amounts, devastating ecosystems and not providing sanctuary for wildlife be sustainable? Well, a plantation could probably keep going for a long time, a few chemicals and it would be sustainable for a number of years. Yet this doesn’t seem right does it? You still need to cut down rainforest to make a plantation, at the moment that’s at a rate of 300 football fields an hour, which by my calculations, means an area the size of Greater London in under two months. Sustainable isn’t enough. The damage done and the demands we are putting on the Earth mean we can’t just draw a line in the sand and say, let’s stay with what we’ve got. Something else is needed.

I started looking for a different way. A way that not only provides a product for us but something that can do more. This is when I met two remarkable people whose work inspired and taught me that something else is possible.

Paul Yeboah worked for many years as a cashew farmer at a local monastery when he was invited to learn about a new design concept around farming and land. It was called permaculture and its aim was to integrate natural design into agriculture. Paul had grown up in a time that saw Ghana lose huge amounts of its forest.

I remember when I first visited him he demonstrated why modern farming just didn’t fit in Ghana. He took me to a field to explain. One side was a field of cassava (a popular root vegetable like sweet potato), sticks of the plant were sticking out of the ground, the soil was baked dry by the hot sun and needing water. This looked perfectly normal to me, we all know that fields of crops look neat and tidy, with one crop planted to make it easier and you assume more productive, a monoculture.

However, Paul turned to the other side of the road. There a farmer had tried something else. Instead of just cassava, there were trees. Some for food, like mango, or firewood, underneath were bananas and plantains. The trees had climbing vines up the trunks, like black pepper. It was a forest of food and must have had more than 15 different species growing, all at different levels and each one helping the other. This forest had a big diversity of crops and spread out over the season, meaning more and steadier income for the farmer. Not only this, but the amount of cassava he got was the same.

I was stunned. How can this ‘mess’ be better than tidy fields? Well it’s simple really; modern farming doesn’t know how nature works. If you think of a fallow field what is it that we mean? A fallow field is left empty so that it can recover from our farming. By this we mean, nature ‘arrives’ and makes the ground fertile on its own. Then we come in, use up all that natural fertility until it’s gone. Paul showed that by planting a more natural food forest you could use species that help one another. A moringa tree which supports black pepper vine for example. He worked on the principle that a forest doesn’t need fertilizer.

Having seen this good work we launched a project with Paul. He found a 20-acre site that was no good for farming. Paul used all the techniques he had learned to help rehabilitate this site. To literally regenerate it into a dynamic farm. He grows a tree called moringa there. Moringa is a ‘super food’ both for humans and for the land. It’s high in nutrients that benefit other plants and its dried leaves are widely used as a supplement. He also collects the seeds and presses them for oil, which we use in creams, lotions and soaps. On this 20-acre site Paul has examples of many examples of businesses, which make a profit through helping heal and regenerate the landscape.

Then there’s Limber. Limber is Peruvian and lives on the Peruvian Amazon. We asked Limber if he could help us as we were looking for rosewood oil. Rosewood has become endangered in the Amazon through deforestation and we wanted to find a way of using the essential oil that didn’t further this problem. Luckily, Limber’s father was able to locate an area with rosewood for us and we got a hurried message from Limber to say that a chunk of forest was being illegally logged. ‘It’s like Avatar down there’ he said. Together we bought the rights to a 14,800- acre concession—that’s an area the size of Auckland city. We wired him the money and he disappeared into the wild for a month.

The concession is beautiful, three miles along the river and nineteen miles inland. Limber worked hard on techniques that mean the rosewood can be harvested with minimum disturbance. It can be pollarded, which means cutting off at head height and allowing it to regrow. He also worked with the local authorities to come up with a 20-year plan by which his team move on each year from the forest, allowing it to regenerate after they take the rosewood. There are 20 ‘zones’, so they move from one to the other to reduce impact on the wildlife.

When I was there they had just built a two-storey house from scratch only from wood that they found on site. They transported a sawmill to the site, on a tiny little boat. On the tracks left by the logger you can see tapir and jaguar prints arriving back. Everything they are hoping to do is to allow it to come back as naturally as possible.

But perhaps what is just as impressive is that the rosewood makes enough money to sustain the whole project. Basically you can leave rainforest standing and still make money from it.

And this is what lights a fire in me. Businesses can spring up around the planet that can profit people while helping repair serious damage. In fact, the longer Paul is on his site in Ghana, or Limber is working on his forest concession, the more good will be done. It won’t just be sustainable, it will be helping to restore and regenerate.

And these are the projects that have inspired innovations like the new cold pressed soap range. Using no palm oil, or petrochemicals, these feature a selection of beautiful, sustainably sourced ingredients, like moringa from Ghana.

Of course it sounds Utopian, but right now, would you want it any other way?

Sustainable isn’t enough. The damage done and the demands we are putting on the Earth mean we can’t just draw a line in the sand and say, let’s stay with what we’ve got. Something else is needed.
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