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Look out, Amazon! Online shopping giant feels the wrath of Mark and Mo Constantine - the husband-and-wife team behind cosmetics chain Lush

The team who made a fortune out of their products without compromising their ethics have a new enemy in their sights
  • @c_blackhurst

Christopher North is a friend of mine. But please don’t be offended, Chris, that I don’t want to rub my body all over in the shower gel bearing your name. North is the managing director of Amazon UK, and the Christopher North range of toiletries is the latest jokey wheeze from Lush, the British retailer whose shops come with a  pungent smell of fruity soaps and bath bombs. The mistake of North, or rather Amazon, was to use the word “lush” to sell products that bore a remarkable resemblance to Lush’s “fresh, handmade” soaps, shampoos, lotions and rubs.

Lush refuses to sell via Amazon and accuses the internet giant of misleading people into thinking they’re buying genuine Lush toiletries. Amazon will not back down; a court case has ensued, and this week the first round went to Lush. Amazon has indicated it will appeal, and in the meantime, Lush has launched a guerrilla attack by trademarking Christopher North.

There are plans for Christopher North deodorants and toothpaste, but first up is the gel, complete with more jibes on the packaging aimed at North and Amazon: “Rich, thick and full of it”; it will go “straight to your fulfilment centre with its super saver delivery”; “it’s not taxing to take care of your skin with this product packed with Amazon Prime ingredients”.

Amazon and North are not the first to feel the wrath of Mark and Mo Constantine, the husband-and-wife team behind Lush. Others include: the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lush staff dressed as badgers to protest against the proposed mass cull); the EU (a pile of manure was dumped outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg to highlight animal testing); Guantanamo (the comedian Bill Bailey posed in bright orange underpants outside Lush branches); the killing of sharks for shark fin soup (Lush created Shark Fin Soap, made from seaweed and sea salt, complete with a cardboard fin); the fracking industry (Lush is the main funder of Frack Off and employs Tamsin Omond, the environmental activist who chained herself to a barricade at the fracking testing site in West Sussex, as the firm’s “head of global campaigns”.)

Then there’s Anita Roddick. Mark was a hippie hairdresser when he met the late founder of The Body Shop. Born in 1953, he was thrown out of his home by his mother and stepfather when he was 16 and lived rough for a period in the woods in Dorset. He moved to London with the intention of working in theatrical make-up – he was already fascinated by natural skin creams and powders. As a bloke, he found himself barred by what was effectively a female closed shop so he went into hairdressing, but still working, on the side, on his hair and beauty products.

He read about Roddick (she’d just opened her second shop) and sent her some samples. One was a henna cream shampoo, “which looked a bit like you’d just done a poo”. Roddick liked the romance of Constantine living among nature, and placed an order for £1,200.

Together with Elizabeth Weir (now Bennett), Mark formed Constantine and Weir, based in Poole, Dorset. Soon, Mark’s wife Mo joined the cosmetics firm, which grew to become The Body Shop’s main supplier.

The relationship between the Constantines – Mo looked after the creative side, dreaming up new lines, and Mark, the making, marketing and selling – and Anita was close. The Constantines were more than mere suppliers, however. They took credit for being the inspiration for much of what The Body Shop did and stood for – it was Mark, for instance, who persuaded Anita to make opposition to testing on animals a major part of her sales pitch.

When The Body Shop floated on the stock market, City analysts were quick to point out that they were too close, that 80 per cent of the chain’s best-sellers emanated from just one source. Roddick was too reliant on the Constantines and Weir, and her advisers told her to buy them out – which she did, for £6m. Part of the deal was a five-year, non-compete clause. The Constantines went into mail order, starting Cosmetics to Go, but, despite the popularity and novelty of its shower jellies and soaps, the business failed. They remained determined to stay in the industry, and in 1995, after the non-compete had passed, they launched Lush.

The brand’s unique approach came about more from fault than design. They had little money, and instead of investing in packaging, they went for a minimalist style, treating soap like cheese (they were inspired as well by the London cheese shop Neal’s Yard) and selling it by weight in portions wrapped in plain paper. This led to the Lush “smell” – unlike rivals’ shops, theirs did not contain cardboard and plastic to mask the smell of the goods. “I didn’t think, let’s make it really smelly and that’ll advertise it,” said Mark. “If you take all the packaging off it really is smelly. Even the money smells of it. We go home and everything smells of it.” Lush grew, and grew. Today, it has 830 stores in 51 countries. The Constantines own 63 per cent, making them worth more than £200m.

In 2001, the Constantines tried to buy The Body Shop. The response of Anita and her husband Gordon was to laugh it off as “an early April Fool’s joke”. After that, they were at each other’s throats. When L’Oréal, part of the Nestlé corporate behemoth, bought The Body Shop, the Constantines could scarcely contain their disapproval.

It’s certainly the case that for all their casual, still-hippie-after-all-these-years, totally ethical manner, the Constantines do display a tough, calculating streak. It would be naive to suppose that anybody can grow a company to such a size without having one.

Mark wears flowery Paul Smith shirts; Mo mixes away in the garden shed. They have three grown-up children who are in the business, and grandchildren. Mark’s passion is birdsong – he’s produced a self-published book with two CDs and has attempted to catalogue every bird call. They support numerous animal, environmental and political causes (among them UK Uncut, the anti-tax avoidance group, and OneWorld’s Freedom for Palestine), and 2 per cent of Lush profits go to charity.

All that and more have made them the poster couple for doing everything right. Inevitably that brings with it a degree of opprobrium and suspicion, some of it undoubtedly based on politics, some on jealousy, some on the fact that they’re not giving freely all of the time and they may wish to chase a profit just like any other capitalist. They’ve not always been successful. Cosmetics to Go was one flop; so was another, the improbably titled B Never Too Busy to Be Beautiful chain of cosmetics shops.

Critics are quick to jump on them if there’s a suggestion that any of their products do not match the claimed squeaky-clean formula. There’s an anonymous blog, The Smell of Bullsh*t, devoted to attacking them, their methods and employment practices.

So far, though, there has not been a howler. They’ve stuck to their principles and have not been caught out. They know they’re a target, not least from Amazon. But they’re nothing if not prepared: Mark has trademarked his own name in case Amazon dos the same to him.

This one will run and run. My bet is that as with David and Goliath, Lush will win. Chris, if I were you, I would back off – having a garish pink shower cream, complete with murumuru butter, Brazil nut oil and acai berry, named after you should surely signal “enough”.

Life In Brief

Born: Mark Constantine, July 1952, Sutton, Surrey,

Born: Mo, 1953, Warwick.

Family: Married in 1973, and have three children and two grandchildren.

Education: Mark attended Weymouth Grammar before leaving school at 18. After O-levels, Mo left school to pursue secretarial training.

Career: Mark and his friend Liz Weir set up beauty manufacturer Constantine and Weir. Mo joined the business and they became the largest supplier to the Body Shop. Constantine and Weir were bought out by The Body Shop in 1990 for £6m and the money was used to set up Cosmetics to Go, a mail-order business that closed in 1993. In 1995, newly named Lush opened a second and third shop in London’s Covent Garden and King’s Road. The first opened in Poole.

They say: “You know the feeling when you go to your mother’s dressing table and you want to fiddle with the stuff? That’s the feeling we try to get into the shops.”

Others Say: “Mark is the one who actually got Anita Roddick fired up about green things.” Janis Raven, whose PR company promoted The Body Shop