Liv O'Hanlon: Back to nurture

Campaigner Liv O'Hanlon has left London to champion the greatest cause of all - planet Earth. Here, she describes her mission to salve the world
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The Independent Online

One evening in May 2003, I announced to my dumbfounded family that we would be leaving London. I can't say I was filled with a fizzing zeal to start Britain's finest organic skincare company (that came later), just a deep urge to get the hell out of what was becoming hellish.

In the background, there had been the September 11 attacks; terrorists killing tourists in Bali; the invasion of Iraq. Daily, the danger seemed to be creeping closer to home, with bomb scares at airports and on the Underground - a fear finally made gruesomely real last week. My mother-hen instincts were already on alert.

And then, on a personal scale, we had one of those days that gets you down, that pulls you towards a decision. Our elder son had just been mugged for the third time. Our younger son was battling with a teacher pacing herself for retirement. At least he had plenty of time to tell me how his day at school had gone: it had, as it so often did, taken us an hour-and-a-half to travel the three miles home.

My mother, meanwhile - quadriplegic and in a nursing home six miles away - was unhappy because the staff were leaving in droves and those that were left had little time for a kindly chat. She needed somewhere more peaceful, with consistency of care.

And then there was me. I'd been campaigning for better treatment of children in care for 12 years, and the new Adoption and Children Act was now on the statute book. What more could I do? And after all that time with no pay, my bank account was in desperate need of some balancing.

By September, the boys were enrolled at Downside School, a Benedictine establishment near Bath, and we'd rented a 16th-century farmhouse with stone flags inside and cows out. It was smelly, cold, misty and damp during that winter on the Mendips, but it quickened the house-hunting pace, I can tell you. Each time I tramped round another house, I saw a different future flashing before me: running a vineyard; setting up artisans' studios; keeping cows/hens/pigs; growing flowers/vegetables/soft fruit; raising compost worms. It had to be something that allowed me to write my own timetable. It also had to be something to do with living, feeling, and being part of the countryside. Impossibly romantic perhaps, but heartfelt nevertheless.

Finally, we found Rock House and its walled garden, where the silky winter sun was peeking through the branches and lighting up the winter green. There was a roughly made herb wheel and a terrible slabbed patio, but the planting was truly wonderful. Suddenly the thought jumped into my head: "That's it. A herb garden. Now what was the name of that woman at Downside, the medical herbalist looking for a garden?" I'd heard about her but never met her, and here I was predicating my tomorrows on a stranger.

We met. Bruna, too, saw the garden's possibilities. Even better, she had run a business making herbal cosmetics for a couple of years in the US. She was passionate about the herbalism but not the rigours of marketing and administration; I needed someone with the ability to make first-class products who shared my principles.

A couple of months later, we were baggy-eyed with researching our competitors, the regulations governing the production of cosmetics, designers, web experts, suppliers of bottles, jars, herbs, plant oils and every other necessary element. By then, we'd discovered a lot more about each other, been cross once or twice but laughed a lot and gradually pulled together a clear idea of what we wanted to sell and the way we wanted to run our company.

We saw it as a holistic enterprise. We wanted products - natural and unadulterated - that looked good, did good things for our customers and generated profits that could be put to further good. It's about elegance in the round, an elegance of purpose and action.

Yet we found surprisingly few companies doing what we intended. There were plenty of products making similar claims but, on closer inspection, we often found that they contained elements such as mineral oils (from petrochemicals), lanolin (from sheep) and other ingredients that Bruna (and many others, including the Women's Environmental Network and the Soil Association) consider unpleasant or even perilous.

This long list of man-made chemicals commonly used in cosmetics includes what we consider the big no-no ingredients. These include parabens, which act as preservatives but have been associated with breast cancer; phthalates, which have been linked with sub-fertility; triclosan, which doesn't break down properly and has been found in breast milk; sodium lauryl sulphate, which acts as a skin irritant (inside and out); and propylene glycol, a moisture retainer ("humectant" is the technical term) that can cause rashes and has even been linked to damage of the central nervous system. We shouldn't forget, either, butylated hydroxytoluene, a preservative antioxidant that is banned from baby foods but is not an illegal substance for use on the skin. For us, it simply didn't make sense or seem fair that companies should sell products that could harm their clients.

It would be foolish to argue that all chemicals are bad or that it's possible to lead a life without them. High-minded intentions are often undermined by low practicalities. At my most extreme I disapprove of cars - beastly, noisy, dangerous, smelly things - but I use one every day. I dislike supermarkets because of their dull uniformity and the huge dent they make in local productivity but, yes, I visit them regularly. I know that chocolate is bad for a metabolism like mine but do I have the character to deny myself? Um, no.

My passion is for honest dealing. What took me into campaigning was that the authorities lied - lied unforgivably about the condition of children in the care system. They evaded the uncomfortable truths that more and more children are separated from families who can't look after them and are then treated neglectfully by the state. Similarly, I can't stand business when it misbehaves and mis-sells in order to build inordinate stashes of dosh.

It's sometimes expensive and usually more troublesome to stick to greener rules, but we do our best at Great Elm Physick Garden. We use what's in our flower-beds (augmented by local producers of equal passion) to make creams and potions that are healthy. We've opted to go down the organic route because we feel we're dealing with known effects rather than unknowns. We bottle in glass because it's pure, easy to recycle and cannot leach anything into its contents. The boxes and bags and wrapping are as environmentally sound as we can find.

So far, so simple, and the elegance continues in our profit recycling. We are not self-sacrificing - of course we want cash benefits from Great Elm - but doing something good with money renders it all the more pleasurable. It sits neatly, too, with the fact that small groups with difficult causes find it almost impossible to gain financial backing. Great Elm is very unlikely to give any money to any national charities: in all the years I attended endless meetings about adoption reform, there were pitifully few admirable individuals from the big guns. The impressive people came from the organisations that we will favour: small, beleaguered, struggling, unrecognised. We will, hopefully, give them a bit more than a dream of a first-class cream.

01373 814607; www.greatelmphysickgarden.co.uk

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