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Crazy about cork

One way to cut out plastic packaging is to sell products without any. But how best to transport and store these 'naked' items? We believe cork could be the answer...

Plastic; we all know it's a huge problem. This is why we love 'naked' products so much; no packaging required. But how do buyers get their naked shampoo bars home without making their pockets or bags soapy and fragrant? This was the challenge that Lush perfumer and head of ethical buying, Simon Constantine set the buying and sourcing team back in 2017. Nick Gumery, creative buyer for packaging at Lush, wondered if cork might be the answer.

Why cork is awesome

Cork is a natural product, made from the inner layer under the bark of the Cork Oak tree (Quercus suber). The material is 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; the process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide, ultimately helping to reduce the effects of climate change. In fact, in August 2019, Lush Cork Pots achieved certification from the Carbon Trust as a Carbon Neutral packaging product. The certification verified that each 35g Cork Pot sequesters over 33 times its weight in carbon dioxide, removing approximately 1.2kg CO2e from the atmosphere.

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. “Cork is harvested no more than every nine years; that’s a legal limit to prevent stressing the trees," Tom Chambers, from the Lush Regeneration & Sustainability Circle explains. "People may be confused and think we are harvesting the trees. Of course not! It is the fact that we can harvest the bark every 9 or 10 years or more that keeps these trees in the landscape.”

Where we source our cork from

The cork oak (quercus suber) 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  cork harvest; around 340,000 tonnes. In fact, Portugal loves cork. So much so, that in December 2011, the cork oak was unanimously declared to be Portugal’s national tree. 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.  While the cork oak savannah also 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.

Out of problems comes promise

In recent decades the cork forests have been threatened. Fear of fast-spreading fires has led many landowners to unintentionally degrade the forests through practices such as clearing away the understory. Mistaken in the belief that this makes them grow faster; whereas, sadly, it actually hastens their death by repeatedly damaging their roots. Some cork oak forests have been completely destroyed and replaced with fast growing trees like eucalypts from Australia. Others have been converted to cereal fields or pastures.

Environmental group, Eco-interventions, has been advising locals on how better to restore and regenerate these native forests since 2013, and so when the Lush team decided to explore the possibility of replacing aluminium pots 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 the forests. Starting with Cork from a 400 hectare area called Vale Bacias.

Part of what Eco-interventions (via Cork Connections, an independent  offshoot project) did was to provide Portuguese cork forest owners with native shrubs to replant where they had been lost through cultivation, but only on the condition that the growers stop cultivating and desist from using artificial fertilisers or pesticides. This initiative has seen tens of thousands of shrubs being planted over the years, back into degraded cork forest.

Potty about pots

Cork Connections got to work in the cork lab and produced a prototype shampoo bar case using a self-built machine. The cork-tainers looked great, so the baton was passed to Giles from Lush’s Green Hub to apply his engineering skills. He tweaked the production process and made it more efficient, then sent the machinery to Portugal where it was incorporated into a local factory. "People are be able to replace products made from plastic or unsustainable materials, with cork ones," Tobias, spokesperson for Cork Connections explains. "And using the cork and selling these products supports the regeneration of the native forest.”

What's more, in order to truly be considered regenerative, the final leg of the cork pot's journey is made by sailboat. Instead of trucking the pots from Portugal to the UK, the sailing freighter brings cork pots, plus salt from Portuguese Salinas, Irish moss seaweed, and signs made from eucalyptus and invasive pine wood produced from another Lush-supported project, Verdegaia (restoring forestry plantations back to native wildlife-rich habitat).

And the rest is history, as since 2017 the Lush Cork Pots have been a real winner with fans of naked products. And here are some tips if you're yet to try one for yourself...

Bathroom buddies

The cork pots will be perfectly happy in your shower or bathroom. “We find that the cork draws the moisture away from the shampoo bar and therefore contributes to preserving the product,” reveals Nick. After use, try popping your shampoo bar in the cork lid to help it dry faster.

Keep it clean

Give your cork case a quick wash out once a month (you can use any shampoo bar product left in the pot, trust us it will work great) and leave it to dry overnight.

One case for them all

Remember you can refill your case whenever you replace your shampoo bar! No need to buy a new one each time. Also check them out in the bath... they float!

Over and out

At the end of the product's life, your cork case can return to the earth to nourish the soil without leaving any toxic residue, because this natural product is completely biodegradable. Just pop it in your food waste bin or straight onto the compost heap.

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