Lifestyle

Inside Lush's First UK Plastic-Free Shop: From Solid Shower Gels to Naked Employees

Can Lush's Manchester store help you break your plastic beauty habit? 🛀

I’m having my hand washed in a basin at the front of Lush’s Manchester store by Alessandro Commisso, the man who invented the product he’s now demonstrating: a triangular bath bomb that you can use in the shower. We’re surrounded by actually-naked Lush employees, wearing nothing but aprons. Until just a few moments ago, they were braving the freezing outside air to cheer the long line of people queuing to enter the store.

Inside, it is absolutely heaving. Everyone is taking selfies with Lush’s newest products, and I’m trying not to knock over all of the neatly stacked products with my bag as I manoeuvre my way round the displays. We’re all here to witness Lush’s latest innovation: it’s new ‘naked’ store, where the products are packaging free – which explains why many of the staff have ditched their outer wrappers too.

This is Lush’s third naked store – shops in Milan and Berlin opened last year – and the first in the UK, where the company will be banking on a growing appetite among British shoppers for brands to act more responsibly over waste.

In the queue, I chat to three shoppers from around Manchester, who have come into the city centre for the store opening. It is really important that they can buy cosmetics that aren’t completely encased in plastic, they each explain. When a shopper steps into Boots or Superdrug, they’re confronted with wall-to-wall plastic. But with this store, they say, it’s different.

A standard Lush shop does make use of plastic packaging: but in this Manchester store, those little black pots have been ditched. As a result, 50% of the products typically found in Lush have been replaced with items that don’t need to be packaged.

I’m handed a “bottle” of shower gel – a solid block, moulded in the shape of the kind of bottle you might ordinarily take into your bathroom. It smells delicious, though it’s a tiny bit oily to hold. I’m assured, however, that it works in the same way as a regular shower gel.

Next comes a range of solid shampoos and conditioners – I’m even handed a solid hair treatment, which comes to life when it’s lathered up with water. Further into the store and I’m curious about a pot of what look like leaves in a silver tin pot. At £1.50 a pop, they apparently work as a great eye mask after being soaked in water.

And then there’s Lush’s latest makeup innovation – its naked glow sticks, solid highlighters which come in a variety of colours and can be used on lips, eyes, and cheeks for £11.95 each. If you’ve already used the brand’s egg-shaped, solid foundations and matching concealers, you’ll have an idea how these little crayons work.

Developing products without packaging has been a challenge, admits Daniel Campbell, one of Lush’s seven UK product scientists – and the man who invented its Valentines-inspired aubergine and peach bath bombs. The products that you see on shelves in stores first came into life at Lush’s design centre in Poole, Dorset, where they were tested in the on-site bath before being produced for sale.

Making a packaging-free product often involves making a liquid into a solid – and Campbell explains that to do so, they essentially take all of the ingredients, remove the water, and find ways to blend it together so it holds a shape. “When I did the naked shower gel it was about 20 mins work from idea, to finishing it, to taking it to a product meeting. That’s how quickly things can happen,” he says.

“But then you have things like the solid body lotions – and they are a right pain in the bum. You have to get water in there to hydrate the skin and moisturise, but if you have too much water the product melts or dries out or is crumbly. So that was about six months work to get right.”

“As a consumer you shouldn’t have to worry about how items are recycled or how they’re sourced – that’s our job."”

The challenge is not over once at that point – Lush has to make sure its products without packaging are as good as the ones with, and then persuade customers that they should try the new stuff. Because, as Campbell notes, lots of us care about the environment but we also need to spend our money wisely.

“We want our cosmetics, and we want them to be good and then we want them packaging free. And that’s the job of the cosmetics industry – as a consumer you shouldn’t have to worry about how items are recycled or how they’re sourced, that’s our job – and we need to do that as an industry.”

The products in Lush’s naked store don’t exactly come cheap. A solid shower gel can set you back £9.95, and a solid liquid hand soap £8.95. But back outside, chatting to customers in the queue, the idea that the company is taking steps to cut back on its environmental impact is clearly attractive.

Katie Sutton, from Manchester, has popped down in her lunch break to see what’s in store. She’s been shopping at Lush for years and is excited by the idea she can shop plastic free. “I just want to try and reduce my impact on the world and of plastics that end up in the ocean. The war on plastic straws really irritates me because I know some disabled people rely on them – but if I can do little actions like shopping plastic-free that can only be a good thing,” she says.

“I’m just going in to see if there’s anything new I haven’t bought before. I do shop at Superdrug, buying non-animal tested products, but most of my stuff I actually buy from Lush nowadays. I didn’t used to when I was a broke student but now that I’ve got a salary, I do treat myself.”

Shoppers want products that are better for the environment

Rachel de Ridder, a 33-year-old from Manchester, has been queueing for half an hour when we speak. “It’s really great to have somewhere I can buy packaging free … It’s very challenging at the moment so the more shops that open and give us options the easier it’ll be,” she says.

But without any packaging, how easy is it to practically transport my shopping home? I queue up with my shiny new items and on the way to the till pick up a cork case for my shampoo bar, and a tin for my solid shower gel. The cashier puts the rest of my items into paper bags. It’s not plastic – but it does show just how hard it would be shop with no packaging at all.

She asks if I’d like a printed ingredients list for my items – Lush’s plans to strip back on waste means they are eliminating labels. I say yes, as I’m curious, but another Lush staff member shows me the new Lush Labs app: take a photo of a Lush product anywhere and it’ll pull up ingredient information, and even run a video demo to show you how to use the product.

I’m excited to see how I get on with my new products. But for now, I’m just hoping my naked shower gel and hair conditioner don’t melt on the train home to London.