Beauty with a conscience
Here in Hong Kong it can be tough to find beauty products and cosmetics that have been made with an ethical consciousness. Thankfully, LUSH now has a flagship store and spa bang in the heart of Central, making it easier than ever to pick up their fragrant and inventive products, all of which have not been tested on animals.
We were lucky enough to catch co-founder of LUSH, Rowena Bird, on her flying visit to Hong Kong. We chat to Rowena about her career, why it’s important to give great causes a voice and her top tips for leading a ‘greener’ life.
Tell us a bit about your background and how you started working at LUSH.
All of the co-founders at LUSH have worked together for the last 35 years. When I started with them I was a beauty therapist – I didn’t realise that I could actually do beauty as job! It had always been a hobby for me… I’d try to make my own perfume, I’d even make my Granddad’s hair up and put make-up on friends. When I went for career advice (with a wig on and multi-coloured nails… I did them before they were in fashion!) they suggested being a beauty therapist. I got the qualifications and got a job with Mark and Liz at the salon. Our last business collapsed, but we’ve been together since the beginning of LUSH.
In all that time I’ve been a beauty therapist, an inventor, I sit on the board and I look after the partner countries and several other teams. I’ve invented spa treatments and am actually an examiner for our therapists so all our treatments meet the same standards.
What’s the first product you created and how did you go about it?
I don’t know if I can remember the first one exactly, but I think it may have been ‘King of Skin’, a solid body moisturiser that you can use in the shower. I came up with it one night when Mark and I were working in the lab and had decided to invent new massage bars. I remember walking up the road to Sainsbury’s wondering what I was going to buy, thinking about bananas and avocados which hadn’t really been used before (and I didn’t realise what a challenge using these ingredients was!). So that was the first one I properly made, I’ve inspired a few but this was my first patent.
Tell us why you and the co-founders decided to have handmade products?
We didn’t have any money when we first started LUSH, so everything was handmade anyway and we didn’t wrap anything as we couldn’t afford it! And then we actually thought no, this is the right way to go. Quite often that happens with us – when you’re up against a challenge, can’t afford or can’t get a raw material because people that make those raw materials are testing on animals somewhere along the line, then it makes you think about how to get around that. When you want to create a certain product but have difficulties, it makes you more inventive and creative.
So initially we couldn’t afford it, but then we realised that hand-making our products gives people jobs and gives the product character, opposed to just being pumped out of a machine. We do have a lot of factory space, but I imagine it’s still smaller than if we had machinery for the amount we make. All in all, it’s more environmentally friendly. At the end of the day, we want the products to be right for the end user, and you can do that if you hand make it as you’ve got more control.
If you’re hand-making products, how do you maintain the quality?
On all our products we have a sticker that shows who’s made it (a real person!). The idea is that these people are making their mums proud, and when you put your face on something it’s about pride and your reputation. Using as much natural material as we do, things can vary with the season, but if you’re hand-making a product you can see if it’s the right consistency and alter it, rather than steaming ahead and wasting packaging if it turns out wrong.
LUSH is known for being cruelty-free and supporting ethical campaigns, is this because of your own beliefs? How did you manage to instill that across the company as it’s grown?
It is what we believe, how we believe. We see it as having these billboards all across the world where we can get a message across, so why not use that to the best advantage? Obviously we have the right to make a profit and make a living, and allow everyone that work for us to make a living, but we also think that it’s our duty to make people aware of things they should be aware of. There’s so much going on that people need to know about – for example, the cruelty of shark finning in particular to Hong Kong. People don’t understand it. They have the shark fin soup and think it’s a celebration, not thinking about what happened to that shark, where that fin come from. They’re not thinking about the horrible death that the shark has endured, it may have taken a week to die. From what I’m told, it doesn’t even taste that fabulous, yet this shark has died this slow and agonising death. There’s nothing humane about it. They’re pulled out, their fins are cut and they’re thrown back in. A lot of people won’t know that and we feel it’s our duty to inform them.
We don’t shy away from letting people know the ugly truth of what’s going on around them. and we do it in every country, so in North America it’s the tar sands, in the UK it’s the fox hunting, the badger baiting; issues that people don’t want to draw attention to. We always work with a local organisation too to see how can we help them have a voice and get their message across to hundreds of thousands of people.
Do you have a team who focuses on this?
We don’t really have a dedicated team for this – we encourage anyone, any of our staff to come up with ideas. It’s not just someone’s job to go out and look for causes, because anyone can come into contact with something that they feel really passionate about and we’re happy to support anyone’s passion in the business. It doesn’t matter if you work for us part time or you’re full time, if you’ve been here from the beginning or somewhere in between, it really doesn’t matter. If you have a passion and you would like us to support it, you put it forward and then we sift through all the passions, see what it is we can work with and what the group is like, and then we take it from there.
Some of the best ideas come from our shop staff, as they’re the ones that really have to get behind the campaign properly, talking and being passionate about it in stores. They’re the ones that meet people and get the word out. Now we’re more known for our charity pot sales, small grassroots organisations come into the shop and get in contact. Most people who are doing those ethical things want to support something with the same sort of morals and ethics, so it’s a great partnership.
Not only do the products support great causes, they’re also eco-friendly. In Hong Kong, LUSH is one of the only places you can find eco-friendly packaging and cruelty free makeup and body products. Do you have any tips for living a greener life, especially in such a crazy city like Hong Kong?
Everybody can do something. Don’t switch on your air conditioner unless you have to or turn it down – you don’t have to live in a fridge! If you just increase it by a few degrees that will save power. Carry a fold up bag with you always so you never have to take another plastic bag, I haven’t taken one in about four years. Just having your ‘keep cup’ for your coffee – there’s a million cups a day going into landfills from coffee shops – that’s a heck of a lot of space and they can’t be recycled. They’re not recyclable so we should be putting pressure on these companies. There’s a campaign in the UK at the moment about recyclable cups – people don’t realise the sleeve is recyclable but the cup isn’t.
It’s just little things too, like turning the lights off. Don’t leave your power on, switch it off! They seem like very little things, but if everybody did it, the power, bags and the landfill space, it would be tremendous. If everybody used toothy tabs instead of toothpaste tubes… the amount of tubes that get discarded, it’s like a billion in America alone! A huge number. Use solid products – our shampoo bars are worth three bottles of shampoo. But make changes wherever you can – you don’t have to stop driving or stop flying and change your way of life. You hardly notice the little things, but it makes a difference. We’ve got fabric knot wraps – made out of three plastic bottles – which are used for gift wrapping instead of wasting wrapping paper. You can re-use them again as a scarf or head wrap. Turning something that could have been waste into something beautiful!
Apart from an eco-friendly ethos, what else inspires you to come up with new ideas/ingredients?
I’m open to ideas all the time. I just had an idea at the weekend, so you never know when they’re going to come in. I was thinking about a new bath bomb, but I’m not going to tell you about it just yet! We also got an idea this morning from a tasting session at Grassroots Pantry, finding a new fruit. The ideas just pop up sometimes!
An exhibition we recently saw had a huge impact on us too – it’s about Neil Harbisson, a guy born colourblind who has an antenna permanently embedded in his head. We get to talk to him next week and that’s inspired maybe a new treatment for the spa. Next year, you might see something that talks about being immersed in colour and colour as a sound, and it will come from going to this exhibition. One of the musicians we work with (our own ones that create music for the spa), Simon, has synthesia. This inspired our main treatment, where we mix up the senses with sound.
When you create a spa treatment, what comes first, the music for it or the movement/product?
It can go both ways, so usually we have the treatment, then we work out what music works. When I made The Comforter, I wanted happy music to hum so you’d come out feeling great. With A Hard Day’s Night, we obviously based it on the hotel in Liverpool and remix those songs. For The Good Hour, we use sea shanties, so it’s like your muscles are being ‘hauled away’ – in fact, this treatment is more to do with the music. At every treatment at the spa, the music is integral and just as important as the massage – it’s about all the senses being honed in.
I love spas, but there are none quite as magical as ours – there’s no other spa where I’m going to get a bit of rum in my tea! We focus on attention to detail, making sure everything is thought through, like the little bell to ring when you’re ready. It’s all about the little things and we make treatments the same way we make our products. We don’t just throw things together, we think about everything really carefully.
Next year we’re launching The Planets in Hong Kong and a lovely bath treatment where you’ll have a massage on the side using long pillow to wrap yourself around. It was inspired by the city of Bath in the UK where there are lots of underwater hot spas. The music is inspired by the fairy folklore from that area, and Richard Evans our musician worked with the head therapist in Bath to create the treatment together and tell a story… it’s so soothing.
Read more: LUSH Spa – The Cutest Spa in Hong Kong?
What are you personal favourite treatments and products?
My favourite spa treatment is our signature ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ as the effect lasts for days – it’s a bit like pilates but someone’s doing it for you! The feeling honestly lasts for two or three days and it’s great after a flight. When it comes to make-up, all of them are my favourite! Hong Kong is actually the only place (apart from Oxford Street) that has the full range of make-up – I really like the squares with the three colours as you can mix shades. I don’t know how practical it is… but I don’t care as it’s good fun! It’s great for playing around.
Any tips for keeping makeup on in the heat and humidity?
We have a moisturiser called Magical Moringa which has moringa oil in it. What makes it so unique though is that it has cornflower in it too, so it’s really silky and can sit underneath makeup as a great base for foundation. It mattifies the skin, so when you put foundation on top it holds it and stops it being so shiny. You don’t need much of it either, as it goes far. We also have a product called Queen Bee, which is a styling cream for hair that keeps it soft and manageable.
For travel, I’d also recommend our toothy tabs which are great for hand luggage and our new solid mouthwash! Simply bite it in half, put enough water in your mouth and swill it around. It comes in three different places and is perfect is you’re on the go and need to freshen up.