Dame Anita Roddick – Body and Soul

anita roddick

Self-proclaimed renegade Dame Anita Roddick’s Body Shop was one of the pioneers of corporate social responsibility.

Anita Roddick sees herself as an activist and a renegade, first and foremost, rather than a businesswoman. While today, her mainstay is indeed a mix of activism and philanthropy, her business credentials are impeccable. She brought The Body Shop from one store sandwiched between two undertakers in Brighton (the company name raised a few eyebrows then – so no change there then) to a chain of more than 2,000 worldwide and then sold it in 2005 for more than £650m sterling.

Throughout her career, Roddick has campaigned tirelessly on ethical issues such as fair trade and sustainable development. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) was at the heart of her business philosophy. When we sit down to discuss CSR in a Dublin hotel, she has little time for the debates over the business case for CSR versus the society case – the latter argues that businesses are part of and mutually dependent on the well-being of society.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of either or,” she says. “There’s a certain tyranny in that. Successful businesses can and should act responsibly. We have proof of that through the Quakers, who ran outstanding businesses – even internationally – without lying, cheating, or stealing money from the business. They had a sense of humanity in their dealings with suppliers, customers, and the community. The alternative is what? Enron?”

She believes businesses find themselves in an era where they have little choice but to behave responsibly. “Companies are now starting to be a little more wary, maybe not through a heartfelt belief that their responsibility is to run a business in an honorable way, but rather in terms of reputation management. You know that if you screw up, your brand is gone, and it’s tough to come back from that.”

The Vigilante Consumer

She also points to the rise of a more educated, sophisticated marketplace. “Consumers are beginning to understand the stories behind how corporations work and are no longer just sympathetic with the product. They want to feel sympathy with the company and know the story behind what they buy.”

Roddick refers to this as the rise of the ‘vigilante consumer.’ “They’re educated and aware; blogs and the internet inform them. They don’t let themselves be enamored by a company’s public relations (PR), and they are powerful. Look at Amit Srivastava, whom I met just last week. He’s a young Indian living in California who has taken up the issue of water being stolen from Indian peasant farmers to go into Coca-Cola. He has galvanized the southern state of Kerala, and they’ve completely banned Coca-Cola, as have several university campuses in the US. Now, that’s powerful. Companies are going to have to sit up and listen to that.”

Another well-documented example of the power of the consumer is the whole Gap debacle several years back, she says. “It’s not only an example of how successful individuals and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can be; it’s also a brilliant example of a company behaving intelligently. It had to take all that crap because it wasn’t diligent enough in its manufacturing. It opened all its factories, posted it online, and said: ‘There you are. We have problems here.

“Its transparency has given it the credibility of brand recognition and approval. If only companies could say: ‘Look, we’re going to screw up along the way, but come with us on the journey’. It’s like permission marketing. The consumer will give you the right to take it slowly if your efforts are transparent and honest.”

Role of the NGOs

Another significant development that gives Roddick great satisfaction is the rise in the profile and power of the NGO. “This new phenomenon amazes me – and the media aren’t touching it. Alongside the vigilante consumer, you’ve got the rise of the NGOs constantly gaining influence. When I was a kid, probably five raised money for African villages. Today, you’ve probably got 40 in Europe just raising awareness on environmental issues alone. They are setting the moral agenda now, and they, too, are having success. One fax to Unilever by Greenpeace stopped it from using genetically modified ingredients in its baby food. That’s powerful stuff!”

However, it’s not just about activist power. Roddick believes NGOs are vital in informing businesses of their CSR policies. “The very progressive companies don’t function without their knowledge. Amnesty did so much to notify me when I was running The Body Shop because human rights, in my case, came before business. The depth of its knowledge is invaluable to any responsible business.

“Many of the NGOs are doing such a good job at getting the information out there that some of the big industries are forming their NGOs to counter-balance it,” says Roddick, in what is likely to be an oblique reference to the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) in the US, which is heavily funded by big players such as Exxon Mobil and Ford Motors. In May 2006, CEI released a controversial ad campaign, including two television commercials arguing that global warming is not a problem. The commercials used the tagline ‘Carbon dioxide – they call it pollution; we call it life.’ The ads recently featured in Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth.

Up and Coming

Indeed, in the next breath, Roddick is getting animated about what she sees as a new wave of young, socially conscious entrepreneurs. She name-checks Jeff Skoll, co-founder of eBay, who sold up in 2001 and set up Participant Productions, the producers of An Inconvenient Truth, and other high-profile activist movies such as Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana, and Fast Food Nation.

So, is the business world transforming? “There is a language change, no doubt about that. The language of responsibility is there, but I fear the management consultants have corrupted it. And I think the biggest change I’ve seen in the past two decades is how economic values supersede every other human value—kindness, generosity, etc.

“There’s a fear in that because if the business is so center stage, then it’s got to have a moral agenda. There is a slight bubble of something exciting going on with the successful young entrepreneurs who now seem more open to being philanthropists. They’re probably not as close to it as my generation was. They’re even saying, ‘I don’t want to get big. I want to be a small giant, well-established and respected in my community. They don’t necessarily subscribe to this notion that everybody has to project themselves into the stock market.”

Indeed, Roddick looks back with bitterness at her Body Shop days on the stock market. “While you are on the treadmill of success and your profits are increasing and increasing, you’re fine; you’re left alone. When the financial journalists come along and expect your earnings to be higher every year, you’re in trouble. It’s a sort of terrorism – these statements say you did £40m last year, so you should do £80m this year.

“So we were fine while keeping the city happy with its profit projections. The minute we started trying to implement the big social actions (it wasn’t the campaigning or the anti-war stuff that worried them), they started to give us hell.”

It all started when Roddick and her team built a new model soap factory in one of the poorest areas in Glasgow. “Because I was so obsessed with the Quakers, we wanted to build a model factory with a day-care center and all those things, and we put 25pc of the profits back into the community. We built a child development center, an adventure playground, and a drop-in center for the elderly. It was my pride and joy.”

Roddick’s face soon drops. “When the financial journalists picked this up, they decided that what we were doing was stealing money from the shareholders! I guess it was the Milton Friedman concept.” Friedman famously held that ‘there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.’

“I remember standing up at a meeting with financial analysts and explaining that my response to them was ‘up your bum.’ This was what we were about, and we were a profitable business, opening 150 stores yearly. But the city doesn’t give you time to practice these social experiments. Assessment, reflection, and thoughtfulness are not the modus operandi when you’re on the stock market. When you’re below their estimation of your profit, the proverbial hits the fan, and you can do nothing about it.”

She tried to take the company private three times. “We’d go to the brink and then just panic. I guess we didn’t trust the banks to stay with us.”

So, what is the future of CSR in a globalized economy? “The dark side of what’s happened to CSR is ‘greenwashing,’ and it’s nothing but that,” Roddick claims energetically. “No matter how many global companies and federations talk of CSR, nothing moves if it gets in the way of profit.

“Until we have a corporate code of governance with corporate teeth—one that penalizes human rights abuses and says this product is not going to be allowed into this country because it has human rights violations attached to it—and until we put in adequate and solid checks and balances, it’s going to be seen as greenwashing—part of the PR.”

So, should we regulate CSR? “Regulate it?” she asks. You bet we should. We regulate how many husbands we can have and what bloody side of the road we can drive on. We can regulate this. It’s not beyond our capabilities.”

Selling Out?

I can’t let Roddick go without asking about the reaction to the sale of The Body Shop to cosmetics giant L’Oreal in March 2006 for more than £600m, of which she is estimated to have benefited to the tune of £130m. Roddick was pilloried at the time for going against all her philosophies on responsibility. L’Oreal’s animal testing and corporate profile seemed to go against everything she had ever held dear.

“Look, if you put your head above the parapet in business and demand a different language and behavior, you will get shot down no matter what you do. If you act greedy, rapaciously, you’re left alone. So I was used to it. You have to deal with it. Happily, most of the negative stuff was against me rather than the company.

“I love L’Oreal, and I was very impressed with its approach. It’s ringfencing The Body Shop and does not intend to take its brand and move it somewhere else. It’s not going to put my products in its distribution. Mostly, I love it for saying it wants to re-enchant the brand because it needed it.”

Today, Roddick works just a few days a year with The Body Shop, but she sees it as an opportunity to make a difference. “I like the idea of being a Trojan horse, of going to them and saying: ‘Look, my deal with you is how can you bring community trading ingredients harvested in the epicentre of struggle into your bevy of ingredients’. And they’re just gung-ho with that. So having the biggest cosmetic company in the world purchasing differently and more humanely sounds like progress to me.”

Roddick had already begun to sell her shares in The Body Shop before the buy-out to fund her philanthropic foundation, so it was an opportunity to move full-time into what she loves.

“When I was running The Body Shop, if the truth be known, it was a communications company for all the issues I cared about. Thank God we had good products that kept us all going. But our politics of consciousness gave us an edge where the competition didn’t want to go. They weren’t going to be putting their shops at Amnesty stations or picketing outside the Brazilian Embassy or Shell. That was our heartbeat. We were activists.

“Now, my whole life is about turning what I was doing in The Body Shop—campaigning—into what I do now, which is campaigning full-time.” Today, she is also involved in strategic giving, with funds from her shares going into projects such as the new Amnesty buildings in the UK and Ireland—the reason for her visit to these shores.

“For me, it’s about making me feel alive. I cannot think of anything worse than sitting on a shedload of money and just accumulating and accumulating – for what? When the alternative is that you’ve got this resource, this amazing ability to be generous. Most of us can’t because we don’t have the money to be. You can look for extraordinary people doing extraordinary things well below the radar. If you can make one person’s life a bit better, healthier, or happier, you’re on the side of the angels.”

Pretty rewarding, then? “Bloody right.”

Sadly, since this interview, Anita Roddick passed away in September 2007. RIP

Who Is Dame Anita Roddick

Dame Anita Roddick was a British businesswoman, environmental activist, and the founder of The Body Shop, a cosmetics company known for its ethical and environmentally friendly practices. Born on October 23, 1942, in Littlehampton, England, Roddick opened the first Body Shop in 1976 to create a business that could positively impact the world. Her innovative approach to cosmetics, including refusing to test on animals, using natural ingredients, and promoting fair trade, was revolutionary and has since influenced the beauty industry.

“Body and Soul” could refer to her autobiography, in which Roddick details her personal life, her journey in creating and developing The Body Shop, and her activism. The book offers insights into her unique approach to business, combining profit with principles and challenging conventional strategies by prioritizing environmental and social issues. Roddick’s work extended beyond The Body Shop; she was involved in various campaigns and initiatives for environmental conservation, social justice, and human rights. Her legacy includes the transformation of the cosmetics industry and her contribution to raising awareness and inspiring action on global issues. Dame Anita Roddick passed away on September 10, 2007, but her influence endures through the ongoing work of The Body Shop and the countless activists and entrepreneurs she inspired.