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Meet the cosmetic king who prefers his protests muddy

The millionare founder of Lush is no ordinary tycoon – he backs direct action that makes a political stink
  • @tompeck

As the loud-shirted, multi-millionaire purveyor of such bathroom delights as Melting Marshmallow Moments, Vanilla Mountains and Creamy Candy Bath, Mark Constantine is not a man one might naturally associate with batallions of eco-protesters holed up in muddy airport climate camps.

Yet the 57-year-old founder of the high-street chain Lush cosmetics is devoting millions to funding environmental direct-action guerrillas.

The former disciple of Body Shop founder Anita Roddick has never owned a car. He once cut rather a wimpy figure, by his own account, as a "very cold and miserable" protester on Greenham Common.

Twenty-five years later, the so-called bubblebath baron has donated over £500,000 to radical green and humanitarian activists in 12 months. Among the beneficiaries are Plane Stupid, the anti-airport expansion group whose members are known for their willingness to be carted off in police wagons, and Sea Shepherd, the direct action maritime conservation group that has attacked Japanese whaling ships. Constantine is a businessman seemingly revelling in creating a political stink.

"We give to them because no one else will," he said yesterday, breaking cover. "I hate the criminalisation of the environmental movement. These people are vilified as eco-terrorists, when what they're doing is a selfless act. They are trying to look after us," he added. "They need someone to look after them."

He encourages others to throw themselves before the police – and is motivated in part by a sense of inadequacy about avoiding face-to-face protest himself. "I'm not very brave physically and I'm terrified of being incarcerated," he said. "I feel much more effective like this. I like business, and I'd rather make money and give it to those that can use it. Like a Victorian patron kind of thing."

Lush, founded in 1995 to dispense soaps, bubblebaths and fragrances made mainly from vegetable ingredients, made sales of £153m last year from 600 outlets in 43 countries. Constantine has pledged to give a slice of the profits each year to those activists willing to stand up to the powers that be.

He paid the legal costs incurred by Plane Stupid after its members camped on the runway at Stansted in December last year, effectively shutting down the airport.

"His action legitimised the idea of big, ethically run businesses giving money to non-violent direct action groups," says the Plane Stupid spokesman Leo Murray. "People like Mark are not alone in the business world. Hopefully, it will encourage others to do the same." As a maker of beauty products and supporter of radical campaigns, Constantine follows in the footsteps of Body Shop tycoon Dame Anita Roddick, who died in 2007 of a brain haemorrhage. It was Roddick who gave him his first break, over 30 years ago.

"I was making products in my spare bedroom and basically starving to death," he said. "I saw a tiny piece about Anita in Honey magazine, asking for products. She had one shop back then. I sent her some soap samples. and she placed an order for loads of my stuff. It was very exciting." He was to become her biggest supplier in the 80s, with Roddick eventually buying him out for £6m in 1990. He lost the lot in a mail order cosmetics company within two years. But then came Lush, and further riches.

Constantine grew up in Weymouth and left school at 18, by which time he and wife Mo, who works in the business and has invented many of their leading products, had been together for two years. His dalliance with protest was limited to one dreary afternoon on Greenham Common in the 1980s with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. When he found out that his home town of Poole didn't have any cycle paths, he mapped a cycle network and persuaded the council to make it.

This year Lush launched Shark Fin Soap to highlight the killing tens of millions of sharks each year, many for the production of Shark Fin soup, a Chinese delicacy. Sales have raised £22,000 for Sea Shepherd.

Last year, after a meeting with the civil rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, Lush launched the Guantanamo Garden foaming bath ball. Named after the garden in which inmates were not allowed to grow anything. The orange soap ball dissolves in the tub, liberating pictures of the British former detainee Binyam Mohamed, and the Sudanese journalist Sami al-Hajj to float to the surface, along with details of the human rights charity Reprieve.

The Guantanamo-themed bath foam raised so much money for the human rights charity Reprieve that one of Mr Mohamed's first actions as a free man was to drop into Lush's Covent Garden office to say thanks. Constantine cheerily refers to his predominantly vegan staff at the Poole headquarters as "lunatics". He adds: "I'm not vegan so they call me the fish and chipocrite."

Over 100 causes have received Lush funds, money generated principally through Charity Pot, a cocoa butter and almond oil body lotion that retails for £10 – all except the VAT goes into a fund given away in lumps of up to £10,000.

"We want unbelievable value for money," Constantine says. "We could have given that whole half-million to one thing, and not seen any effect for the money. It's better to help people who are really dynamic, and see them do tremendous things."

The accounts for the current year are being audited, but Sophie Pritchard, the Charitable Giving Manager who oversees the Charity Pot, says the company intends to double that £500,000 figure next year. Perhaps Constantine can finally rid eco-protesters of their stereotype as long-haired soap dodgers.