While many brands have only recently clued into the concept of zero waste, Lush have been pioneering package-free beauty for over twenty years. Initially, it stemmed from economic necessity. A previous business venture of the founders went bust after the cost of their overly-packaged products exceeded their profits - so they had no choice but to cut the packaging. The fact that this aligned with the founders’ environmental values was a happy coincidence that became a driving force for what they do today.

As a beauty obsessive who has been trying to reduce her environmental footprint, I’ve closely followed how Lush have been changing the beauty landscape for years – and I was ecstatic when they invited me to Seoul for their annual showcase of innovations.

The first day in Seoul, we stop at Café Onion, a chic, sparsely decorated haunt for a quick coffee to warm up (the barometer rarely nudges above zero degrees during our stay), before setting off to the showcase at Café Erolpa, located in the trendy Seongsu-dong area of the city. The two-storied event space is teeming with Lush employees, customers and media, with every imaginable space highlighting a cool new initiative or product. I dolefully admire the kaleidoscopic spread of bath bombs, and desperately wish my tiny Sydney flat had a bath – they’re piled high in all their glittery, rainbow-hued glory. A beaker of scented dry ice floods the room as we sniff out more of the brand’s wares. Shampoos and conditioners can be found in bar form (they’re the equivalent of three bottles of product, making them a good economic option, too). Body lotions and gels, plus facial oils, cleansing balms, and more also come in ‘naked’ form (i.e. without packaging). I learn also about their series of naked stores in Milan, Berlin, Manchester and Hong Kong that are completely packaging-free, and even offer exclusive new products that also come sans casing.

Zero waste extends to beyond just products at Lush. We’re shown gift packs adorned with gilt, printed wrapping paper, which we learn is produced with leftover banana fibre and second-hand clothing. Staff demonstrate the Japanese art of furoshiki, where pieces of silk and other beautiful materials are used to wrap presents, and can then be enjoyed again by the recipient.

Image: Instagram @cafe_erolpa

The (highly necessary) conversation arounds sustainability and beauty can often feel, dare I say, a little miserable – we’re often encouraged to use products that are less effective and less enjoyable versions of their conventional counterparts. Happily, this is not the case with Lush. Their products are fun, they work brilliantly, and are a complete joy to use, while also being as guilt-free as a beauty product conceivably could be. I get to have a chat with Lush Product Inventor Alessandro Commisso, who demonstrates this point exactly.

Photo from Lush

“From day one, over twenty years ago, our shops were full of naked products – big slabs of soaps, bath bombs with no plastic, shampoo bars with no bottles,” he shares. “We are now into this era of zero waste and it seems very innovative, but actually we’ve literally been doing it since day one. If you went into the very first shop, on day one, they would have had a big array of naked products.”

With less money being allocated to packaging, this helps up their budget in other respects. “It allows us to use the best, most expensive and precious natural, raw materials – you know you’ve bought what’s inside and not the bottle.”

Their zero waste philosophy has actually been a source of inspiration to dream up whole new categories of product – like packaging-free makeup. Take their Slap Stick foundation, for instance: “They look like makeup sponges, but they’re actually product – it’s a bar of concentrated foundation,” he explains. “As a formulator, it’s a massive challenge as you have to create the perfect skin feel, the perfect coverage. You’re changing something that might have been used for 100 years, and people have to get used to applying it.” Also available are ‘naked’ concealers, highlighters and refillable lipstick cases, inspired by vintage designs.

And while they were pioneers in this space, they’re eager to see other brands follow suit. “We’re like a little pimple in the cosmetics industry – we’re itchy and we might irritate a lot of people around us, but we are necessary. We need to do this,” says Alessandro. “We are very happy that this is becoming the conversation – the more people actually developing zero waste products, the happier we are. Zero waste should be the standard. We are leading the way, but please do follow.”

Our second day, we head to the opening of Korea’s first Perfume Library in Myeongdong. Koreans are famously beauty obsessed, and this precinct is the throbbing heart of Seoul’s skincare mania – the Lush store is edged by the cream of the K-Beauty crop.

The Perfume Library is a space conceptualised by Mark Constantine, one of the brand’s founders, as a cosy, home-like corner to enjoy the scents; the shelves are lined with bottles of perfumes and books that informed their creation (Alessandro put it as a little like being in Mark’s lab, and following his thought process). Which is fitting, as each scent has a rich and fascinating backstory – like anxiety about climate change (The Smell of Weather Turning) and Mark connecting with his biological father for the first time (Dear John), which add an extra layer of interest to each perfume. Each library has a range selected specifically for the individual store, to match their clientele’s tastes and preferences.

Photo from Lush

Alessandro told me that unlike most brands who aim for consistency for each and every bottle of scent they produce, Lush embrace the variety. “The experience on the skin is very different to a lot of other commercial brands because of the high amount of natural ingredients that we use, which means that every perfume will smell different on everyone’s skin,” he explained. “We take the risk but it’s a good risk.”

Image: Instagram @lushkorea

The Lush perfumes are rich in essential oils, which is another space in which Lush are trying to create some good. Alessandro explains: “We have been working with groups and social enterprises on the ground to create different models for essentials oils – how they’re grown and produced.”

“For instance, one of the essential oils that is featured in the Lord of Misrule perfume is patchouli from Sumatra. We’ve been working with a charity for over ten years and we’ve started this campaign to reclaim some of the unused palm plantations to turn them into forest or productive forests.”

Ultimately, it’s comforting – and exciting – to know that if you’re after environmentally friendly products with excellent ethical bona fides, Lush have got you covered. Alessandro summed it up perfectly: “We would like everyone who comes to a Lush store to know that we have thought about all of these and they don’t need to worry – they just need to enjoy, because we have done all of the homework for them.”

Story by Tess Schlink

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