Roddick the Radical

Bangkok Post, Outlook - Saturday, March 06, 2004

Body Shop founder is convinced that businesses should pay more attention to principles rather than profits.
As a girl, Anita Roddick’s mother sent her to church with garlic hidden in the hems of her skirt because she didn’t like the minister. At 12, she was agitating for a roller skating rink to be build in her town, because, well, they didn’t have one. By her twenties, she had graduated to campaigning for the homeless.

Anita Roddick’s activist roots certainly run deep. And at 62, she’s still going strong. Most commonly known for having founded the socially conscious beauty product company, The Body Shop, Anita Roddick is at the forefront of the movement for corporate social responsibility.

Hers is a vision for business that takes into account human rights, environmental issues, labour rights and fair trade pursuing „profit with principles“.

It’s a mantra she has lived by, both as a successful businesswoman and personal activist.

Today the Body Shop has grown from one mould-plagued store in Littlehampton, UK, to over 1.980 stores in 50 markets, while still maintaining its socially conscious philosophy.

While still on the board and serving as a consultant for the Body Shop, Roddick is now devoting more time to personal initiatives. She started Anita Roddick Publications, which publishes activist books, many of which are penned by her. She also campaigns for such causes as ending sweatshop labour and freeing political prisoners in Angola.

She was in Thailand this week to speak as part of the „Bridges – Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace“ programme, hosted through the Vienna-based International Peace Foundation.

Said Roddick: „Hopefully I’ve been invited here to bring this message of peace – that economics has to be more human.“

She’s quite a messenger. Fiercely energetic, she radiates passion. Her face comes alive when she talks of the little fishing village she once started a microfinance project in, or the Brazilian indigenous community she traded with to source a Body Shop product.

She also speaks like the veteran campaigner that she is, in a language of catchy slogans expertly sharpened to prick the conscience.

„If you act in a revolting way, people will revolt“, she proclaims. This one’s clearly a favourite. In the course of two hours, she gleefully uses it a handful of times.

What’s revolting her, and what she’s revolting against, is the way business is done in today’s economic-driven society.

„Business is now centrestage. It is faster, more creative and wealthier than governments, more powerful than any other social institution like politics and religion – but if it comes with no moral sympathy or honourable code of behaviour, God help us all“.

That code of conduct shouldn’t just be a set of ideals thrown on a page. She calls for a „a global compact that’s got to have teeth“. It must be possible to penalise or fine businesses who violate the code.

„Stop assuming it’s just about endless profit accumulation. We need to oppose the financial fascism of the stock market, of ever increasing profits“. Partly the problem lies in language, especially that of the financial press, who write in rigid terms of stock prices and profit margins. As words have the power to make our reality, business simply becomes about profit.

Instead, there’s a need to inject philosophical and poetic language into business.

If that sounds a bit too abstract, Roddick also points her finger at „the whole system of business schools“. She minces no words. „Those Harvard Business School case studies are totally inept – they don’t teach about human rights or moral dilemmas ... Social justice just doesn’t come in“.

But what about the courses in Business Ethics and Social Enterprise that in recent years have been gaining popularity at business schools including big names like Harvard?

Roddick quickly dismisses them as „tokenism“, merely adjunct classes that don’t really change the business philosophy.

So in 1995 she started her own business programme, called the New Academy of Business, in partnership with the University of Bath School of Management, which offers a master’s degree programme in Responsibility and Business Practice. It looks to alternative economists, and even to the business practices of a different, kinder era, like that of the Quakers, who she calls „excellent business people“, to fill in the void in traditional business currcicula.

Roddick herself is a frequent guest lecturer. And well she should be, as she has a treasure trove of Body Shop experience to draw on – and the Body Shop has always done things a bit differently. Though she originally started it as simply a means to make a living while her husband was away – riding a horse from Buenos Aires to New York no less – it always had an activist edge. „That’s my thumbprint as an entrepreneur.“

In the beginning, she simply used refillable bottles because it was environmentally sound, and frankly just plain sensible. Then she started involving the stores in campaigns. The blank walls and store windows of the Body Shops became media for public education. Instead of using them to sell a product, they were used to launch a wide range of campaigns. The genius was that the stores were in high-traffic areas and were able to reach a large number of people.

Enter Roddick’s natural flair for communication- „We didn’t have a marketing department for 18 years, and once we did, we stopped winning PR awards“, laughs Roddick, with a touch of rebellious satisfaction.

But what she was doing wasn’t exactly traditional marketing. Nor, she takes pains to make clear, was it cause-related marketing either. Cause-related marketing has become popular among large corporations as a way, purportedly, to „give back“. The typical model ties a product and proceeds from ist sale to a particular charitable cause.

Roddick challenges – naturally – the concept: „You can’t relate a product to human rights or justice“.

 What the Body Shop does is simply ake an issue and apply marketing techniques to get in the public mind. It „markets“ causes, so to speak, completely separately from its products.

Over the years, the Body Shop has engaged in a wide range of campaigns including efforts to stop the dumping of toxic waste in the North Sea, halt the burning of Brazilian rainforests, and perhaps more famously, ban animal testing in the cosmetic industry. One of the most radical campaigns the Body Shop undertook was to take on the Shell Corporation, demanding reparations for devastating the lands of the Ogoni people in Nigeria.

In Thailand, it is currently launching a campaign to „Stop Violence in the Home“, which is targeted at its largely female customer base.

But just as critics of cause-related marketing suspect it is just another marketing ploy to boost sales, it is questionable whether the Body Shop also stood to profit from the public generated by its controversial campaigns.

Roddick firmly denies it. „They [customers] don’t come in because of your causes, they come in because of your products“.

In fact, the campaigns hardly led to sales bonanzas. In many cases, sales would actually dip, particularly with more extreme campaigns. Did the campaigns alienate her customers? Sure. Not everyone got it and some didn’t appreciate being „lectured“ at, she admits.

Then is it really possible to pursue both profits and principles? When challenged, she shoots back, „I don’t see why there’s a conflict between the two.“

While some customers were alienated sometimes, it was never enough to really hurt sales that critically. Whenever pressed for the Body Shop’s key to business success through the vagaries of various campaigns, she always goes back to that classic line of entrepreneurs – having a good product, pure and simple.

What’s more, the campaigns hugely boosted employee enthusiasm, who were given a sense of higher mission than simply peddling peppermint foot rub. This in turn helped to draw customers, who were fanned by employee passion to come into stores, offsetting those who were turned off. Some campaigns really resonated with customers, getting a huge responseand delievering measurable results.

Among the most successful was the campaign to end animal testing in the cosmetics industry. It effectively brought about a change in standards in the cosmetic industry in Europe. Another campaign, in partnership with Amnesty International, led to the release of 17 political prisoners.

Yet despite Roddick’s unwavering passion, there seem to be limits to how much principle can be pursued while still turining a profit. The very animal testing ban that was such an accomplishment later landed the Body Shop in hot water. In the early 1990s, a wave of negative press and even lawsuits questioned whether its „Not Tested on Animals“ claim was 100 percent true.

After an internal environmental audit, the company decided to change their labelling from „Not Tested on Animals“ to „Against Animal Testing“, in effect admitting that they cannot in reality guarantee that a third party supplier has not tested a product or component on animals. Critics may say the revised claim, which still gives the aura of moral rectitude, is somehow disingenous or hypocritical given that fact.

Moreover, Roddick herself becomes increasingly radical, the Body Shop company has demurred from following her direction. Perhaps she has become too radical for business. In a rare moment when her enthusiasm flagged and she became subdued, wistful even, she recalled:

„Since the late 90s, I felt the company was becoming a more conventional company. It wasn’t what I wanted. So I decided to do other things“.

While she is still a non-executive member of the board, she and her husband left their positions as co-chairs in 2002, and she now serves instead as a consultant for product development.

But the problem actually started earlier, when the company went public in 1986. „That was the worst mistake the company made,“ Roddick said with conviction. If they had stayed private, they could have „continued doing what we did brillantly“.

But once they were measured in terms of P and L, they couldn’t.

„When you’re a public company, there’s no time for reflection, for thoughtfulness – you get ´hurry sickness´.“

Then, for a company to be truly progressive, does it have to stay private? Without wanting to oversimplify, she conceded that it is indeed very hard otherwise.

Even with that sobering thought, she keeps her eyes on the „lights at the end of the tunnel“. These include grassroots movements, who bring creative ideas and change from below. Larger NGO movements like the Body Shop’s traditional partners Greenpeace and Amnesty International also have great power.

Community trade is another linchpin of her gospel – small scale trading initiatives with local communities that keep them on their land, together, with their culture intact.

Then there is, in Roddick-speak, „the vigilante consumer“ – by making conscious decisions of what they do and do not purchase, they can push business to make more principled choices

Fifty years after her roller-skating rink ampaign, Anita Roddick shows no sign of letting up. Her views, like anyone’s, are open to debae, but her tenacity is undeniable. She remains doggedly committed to bringing about change.

„Change can happen. It will be slow, but it can happen“.

Nissara Horayangura