Sitting in his London office, Mark Constantine appears to enjoy the publicity generated by his decision to fund anti-aviation pressure group Plane Stupid. Earlier this month they staged a sit-on on the runway at Stansted Airport which grounded hundreds of flights.
Together with his wife, Constantine is the majority owner of Lush, a chain of 600 cosmetics shops in 44 countries with an annual turnover of GBP144 million. Seventy percent of its products such as soaps or “bath bombs” are sold without any packaging. There was no master plan to his business “It was just about opening shops and hope for the best,” he said.
Constantine, 57, became a vegan aged 21. But he recently began eating fish again because “I found it too embarrassing,” he told me in his office in Central London. “You go to dinner with somebody and they
cook something (with fish) and what are you going to do? Make a big fuss and spoil their evening?”
Yet his aversion to fuss certainly does not extend to Stansted, where his team spoiled the day for thousands of travellers. He admits there may be a whiff of hypocrisy about his stance since he is a frequent flyer,but he is unrepentant about that.
“We employ more Vegans than any other company,: he said “and they call me a fishandchipocryte. But you can’t be doing everything… You cannot be the perfect green person if you are encouraging people to
consume……….. I don’t want to be the one bloke doing something while everyone else just talks about it.”
So he supports the direct action tactics of Plane Stupid, but that’s funding anarchy surely? “I don’t see it as anarchy,” retorts Constantine.
Constantine blames governments in general and UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown in particular, for the failure to provide a lead. “”I’ve been trying all my life to set some sort of example of green living and eventually I’ve come to the conclusion that this is something we have to do together and without being too earnest,” he said. “We need great planning and not green talk from our government if we are going to see something happen”. I am basically a socialist so I’d like to support Gordon Brown, but I’m still waiting for him to do something”
In his personal life Constantine does set some sort of example. He does not drive a car, and cycles to work each day from his home near Poole to Lush’s UK factory. And he still personally guides schoolchildren around Poole Harbour, showing them the natural features of interest.
He visits his London office by train, and stays in a hotel across the road. He spends a large proportion of his personal time bird-watching, and has published books cataloguing bird song, his love of which may
stem from the two months when he lived in the woods near Poole after being thrown out of his mother’s home by his step-father. He recalls with pleasure “the cooing of the doves and wood pigeons”.
It is mainly through his business that Constantine practices his environmental beliefs. The decision to do away with packaging wherever possible saved up to 75% of the cost on some products, Constantine said. As a result he can make a greater profit and simultaneously provide a better quality product. He also tries to inculcate green standards amongst his suppliers.
“We buy our ylang ylang oil from the Comores islands, off the East coast of Africa,” he said. They produce nearly 90% of the worlds Ylang Ylang oil in small distilleries, built out in the jungle.
“They use part of the forest to stoke the fires in the distilleries.We persuaded them to start using solar powered stills instead of cutting down wood.”
Constantine continues to practice environmentalism on a personal level. “The key is being modest with your consumption,” he said. “But I am more interested in the ethics of the supply chain,” he said. And Plane Stupid? Will he still be taking their calls? I supported them then, and I support then now,” said Constantine.