The Cork Pot Story

I’m thinking about Turtles. Turtles which died because they had swallowed a plastic bag, a bag that once carried some shopping. Discarded, it fell into a river; the river flowed to the sea, the sea joined the ocean. The Turtle died.

We know about Ocean Plastic. We know that the packaging used for retail products makes it easy to handle consumer products; easy to transport, easy to stack on shop shelves. It’s that packaging which is, among other things, causing the problems of Ocean Plastic.

Lush is also worried about Ocean Plastic. Lush perfumer and head of ethical buying, Simon Constantine, wants to start making packaging from Ocean Plastic, (although long term, he has an even bigger aspiration explaining: “The point of intervention is to stop all new plastic production.” Which is an ambitious goal, for sure).

One way to cut out plastic packaging is to sell consumer products without any. Lush calls its unpackaged range its ‘Naked’ line of products. But how do buyers get their naked soap bars home without making their pockets or bags soapy and fragrant? This was the challenge that Simon set his buying and sourcing team back in 2017.

Nick Gumery, creative buyer for packaging at Lush, wondered if Cork might be the answer. Cork is a natural product, made from the inner layer under the bark of the Cork Oak tree (​Quercus suber).​ Traditionally used to make corks (as in stoppers for wine bottles) Cork is actually a remarkable material – anti-bacterial, fire-retardant, water-resistant, flexible, strong, easy to work; and at the end of its life, it can be composted.

Harvested from a living tree, it also has an exceptional ability to sequester carbon, helping to mitigate the effects of climate change chaos. Lush is currently waiting for confirmation from the Carbon Trust that the company has produced the first ever accredited Carbon Positive Packaging. The team’s calculations suggest that each cork pot sequesters over one kilo of carbon dioxide gas (and this is a very conservative estimate). This compares with an aluminium pot which releases 9kg of CO2 for every kg of Aluminium created.

Regenerative Packaging Is Born

Could Cork be used to make a reusable pot in which Lush “Naked’ (unpackaged) products could be taken home, leaving the pocket un-soaped, and those wonderful fragrances retained, in the pot? The dream of a reusable – not just sustainable but regenerative – piece of packaging was born.

The Cork Oak only occurs around the Western Mediterranean and the Iberian Peninsula. It is unique in that it produces cork partly as a defence against drought and partly to protect from the regular forest fires that are naturally part of that region’s ecology. Most Cork oak forest is found in Portugal and Spain, with Portugal producing about half of the world’s total (around 340,000 tonnes) Cork harvest.

Cork is harvested from each tree every 10 years or so which allows it enough time to grow back after it has been taken. Unlike most forestry operations, the tree lives on after harvest so the process of harvesting the cork can be compared with tapping sugar maples for maple syrup, or pollarding a willow to make baskets since these trees do the same. The trees that are harvested grow in the open (in savannah landscapes) rather than in a dense forest and this characteristic has created a magical landscape known as the Montado in Portugal and the Dehesa in Spain.

The patchwork of Cork oaks, other trees, shrubs and open areas of grassland, is immensely rich in wildlife, as well as forming the basis of that area‘s food culture. Jamon iberico – the legendary Black Pig of Spain – grazes under the Cork oaks. And the Cork oak savannah supports one of Europe’s rarest mammals – the Iberian Lynx, as well as birds such as the Imperial and Booted Eagles. These savannahs are also important for migratory birds, stopping to feed on their way to or from their northern breeding areas which include the UK.

But in recent decades the Cork forests have been threatened – with abandonment, damage and conversion to other land uses. Cork forest owners have taken to cultivating the soil under the Cork oaks in the mistaken belief that this makes them grow faster (whereas, sadly, it actually hastens their death by repeatedly damaging their roots) and in the belief that it reduces fire risk.

Some Cork oak forests have been destroyed and replaced with fast growing trees like Eucalypts from Australia. Others have been converted to cereal fields or pastures. One environmental group, Eco-interventions has been working since 2013 to restore an area of Portugal’s Cork Oak forests and so when the Lush team decided to explore the possibility of replacing Aluminium packaging with cork, they turned to this organisation to ask whether it could provide the Cork Pots Lush wanted. Eco-interventions realised that a new market for Cork products could help provide an economic reason for managing Cork oak forests. Starting with Cork from a 400ha area called ​Vale Bacias​ , Cork Connections will be moving on to buying from five other Portuguese landowners . Lush pays €5 to eco-interventions for each cork pot, and this money is used to support the ecological restoration of the Cork oak forest and savannah.

Lush is now buying around 35,000 pots a year from Cork Connections (an Eco-Interventions offshoot), but plans to increase this to 500,000 pots in a year’s time. But Lush isn’t just interested in the pots; it wants to ensure that the pots it buys are produced from Forest which is also being restored. So it buys at a high enough price to cover the cost of a forest restoration and regeneration programme.

Eco Interventions, via its Cork Connections offshoot business, provides Portuguese Cork Forest owners with native shrubs to replant where they have been lost through cultivation, but only on the condition that the growers stop cultivating and desist from using artificial fertilisers or pesticides. And to date, income from Lush buying Cork pots has already led to 20,000 shrubs being planted over the last 12 months, back into degraded Cork forest.

Lush recognises that transport has a big impact on its product’s credibility as being truly regenerative and so the final leg of this story is a journey by sailboat. Instead of trucking the Cork pots from Portugal to the UK, Lush has just received its first consignment of 6,000 pots via a sailing freighter. The SV Gallant docked in Poole Harbour on July 4t​ h​, bringing Cork pots, salt from Portuguese Salinas, Irish moss seaweed; and signs made from Eucalyptus and invasive pine wood produced from another Lush-supported project,​ ​Veredgaia​, which is restoring forestry plantations back to native wildlife-rich habitat.

I spoke to project instigator Nick Gumery on board the SV Gallant, as we made our way sedately past Brownsea Island. (He had just spent the morning with the local BBC TV news, who covered the story as did local paper the ​Bournemouth Echo​).

Nick knew that the press might be cynical and take the view that the sailing voyage was no more than a publicity gimmick. But they would be wrong. He wants to test the waters and see if it really is feasible to move freight by sail and not least because Lush needs to move a lot of raw materials​ ​around and is looking for, and committed to finding, more sustainable methods of doing it.

“It’s a serious test of logistics and whether it makes business sense,” he tells me.

Nick is also keen for people to get away from thinking that Lush does everything for charitable reasons, especially if it is going to influence how other businesses operate: “Business won’t change if it’s solely done charitably. Lush is interested in its impact but wants to show, as an ethical business, it can still make a profit.”

It is clear from speaking to Nick, Lush’s Cork Pot encapsulates, in the palm of one hand, the challenges that face retailers and consumers, who want to change their business practises and consumption habits.

And it could even start a global packaging revolution.

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
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10 Responses to The Cork Pot Story

  1. Lindsay Southcombe says:

    This is fantastic. A company that really understands what sustainability is and isn’t just making stupid replacements for plastic, like corn starch. The cork forests are an amazing ecosystem and I always try to get wine that is corked to support it but this project is a lot better. I also have a pair of cork shoes and a bag. It is a great product.

  2. Great to have an optimistic story. Currently wrestling with the issue of kauri dieback. Huge swathes of tracks have been shut long term and permanently to protect the trees for ‘future generations’. I can’t reconcile my feelings about this – and there is evidence that this is about land politics and resources rather than environmental science.

    • Miles King says:

      thanks Sasha – great to hear from you. Yes the various Phytopthera’s are causing havoc to trees across the world. But of course there will be others seeking to exploit the tragedy to pursue their own ends. Is there any evidence that walkers have spread the disease, as opposed to, say, forestry contractors?

      • Well quite. And the wild pigs which have increased in number and the movement of soil downhill through rainfall…it’s the end of hiking as it once was in the North Island. Very political. A Rahui in place – a customary ban on use by Maori iwi (tribes).Cannot be openly questioned and the lack of honest debate is stifling.

        Is the spread of this fungus? related to climate change?

      • Miles King says:

        Phytophthoras may be responding to climate change – but the main problem is that they are invading new places where plants have no resistance to them – hitching a lift via soil on imported plants, and on other things (eg vehicles) and spreading that way.

  3. What a story – i feel quite uplifted. Well done Lush

  4. joturner57 says:

    Very exciting possibilities for sustainable packaging, that also supports habitat. Think many, including myself, are heartened to hear of companies such as Lush who have a long-range commitment to finding sustainable alternatives to plastic. Hope you’ll keep us updated on how this project evolves. I know where I’ll be shopping next time I need something fizzy and fragrant for some gifts….

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