Lush Co-Founder Rowena Bird Talks Packaging, Preservatives, and the Power of Color

©. Lush

As a veteran product inventor for a hugely popular cosmetics company, Bird knows the industry inside and out.

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to work for an innovative and ethical cosmetics company? While attending the Lush Summit in London last month, TreeHugger met with Rowena Bird, co-founder of Lush Cosmetics and inventor of the company’s famous vegan makeup line, Emotional Brilliance. Bird was lively and talkative, her face captivating with bright blue mascara and her silvery blond hair. She has been with Lush for over 25 years now, and said, with a laugh, that one has to be “slightly unhinged” to be a product developer. “We have very short attention spans; I’m a nightmare in a meeting because I jump around all over the place!” she mused, but it can’t be all that bad, for we had a lovely chat.

Quizzed on the creation of Emotional Brilliance makeup, Bird explained that she wanted to simplify a selection process that is far too complicated in department stores and high street shops. Rather than overwhelming clients with confusing color palettes, Lush offers relatively few – but tremendous thought has gone into figuring out which colors triggers specific human emotions. The idea behind Emotional Brilliance is that, if you’re feeling like you need extra confidence, passion, ambition, strength, or creativity on a given day, you can select a piece of makeup that will help make you feel that way, just by wearing it.

“It is about giving women the power to wear makeup for themselves, not for other people,” Bird said.

Bird was also the mastermind behind the package-free solid makeup I had seen earlier at Lush’s flagship store on Oxford Street. The triangular eyeshadow wedges and square tri-colored lipstick blocks caught my eye immediately, since those items are usually a source of non-recyclable plastic waste.

Apparently, the idea came about while staff were arranging products on the shelves of the new Oxford Street store. All of Lush’s packaging is black, which gives it an unmistakeable and uniform look, but this time it wasn’t working for the makeup collections. As Bird said, “Everything looked so dark. This was makeup, and it looked so dull!” Lush owner Mark Constantine told Bird she had a week to come up with something better, and she finally concocted the idea for solid triangles, blocks, and bamboo tubes for lip stains. Clearly it worked. The items are eye-catching and even more likeable for their lack of packaging.

Even more impressively, the bamboo is sourced from Fukushima, Japan, in order to put energy, purpose, and income back into a greatly disadvantaged area. (Lush also hires organic cotton growers in Fukushima to make the fabrics for wrapping, as the company uses very little wrapping paper.)

I asked Bird about the company’s continued use of synthetic preservatives – a practice that Lush insists is safe but has been a real point of controversy for many customers who wish Lush would go all-natural. Bird was slightly defensive, pointing out that there are many parabens (chemical preserving agents) on the market that are far worse than the ones Lush uses, which are methylparaben and propylparaben. Despite this, the company minimize their use by keeping only fresh products on stores shelves.

“Other cosmetics companies show their parabens far higher up the ingredient list than in our products. This is because they’re kept in warehouses. They’re old by the time you start sticking your finger in them. Lush’s are not. At maximum, they’re six months old.”

In Lush’s UK stores, all items are pulled from the shelves after four months, and that number goes up to six months in the United States. Those items are usually donated to charity or given to staff. Bird told me that Lush “never, ever, ever has buy two, get one free sales.” That would encourage customers to stockpile goods that are not meant to be stockpiled; they’re designed to be used as quickly as possible.

While Lush continues to maintain that select parabens are safe for human health, the company does acknowledge the worrisome environmental effects in its Preservatives Handbook. Product inventor Helen Ambrosen writes:

“Synthetic preservatives that are available to the cosmetic industry, like parabens, stop things decaying in the environment, so when people use them they are going down into water systems and so on. There’s an argument for preserving products with materials like honey, which will not harm the environment in any way, as they will break down naturally.”

This is precisely what Ambrosen has been working on – creating “self-preserving” versions of many favorite Lush products, using natural ingredients like honey, salt, clay, cocoa and shea butters, vegetable-derived glycerine, even silken tofu and Japan wax. In the meantime, though, customers are given the choice between self-preserving and chemically-preserved products, both of which are available at stores.

Bird believes it should be up to the customer to choose what they want, using the example of a solid, preservative-free shampoo bar, compared to a liquid shampoo that comes in a plastic bottle:

“We’re all about giving you the choice. We reserve the right to make a profit, to make a living, and to be able to offer employment to 15,000 people around the world. We hope the customer will say, in the end, that they don’t want to use the [shampoo] with the preservative, with the plastic bottle.”

TreeHugger was a guest of Lush at the Lush Summit in February 2017. There was no obligation to write about the summit, products, or any interviews that occurred.