Multi-local business

Anita Roddick
tells Geoffrey Lean why she is an ‘agitator and a saboteur’
and explains why she believes her unorthodox approach
is the shape of business to come

Consider this extract from a diary written at last year’s meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle:

‘Slogans and drums fill the air.
Everyone reminds everyone that this is
a peaceful protest and we sit down in
front of the police... We don’t get any
warning. But we are running with the
crowd, spluttering in shock as the first
tear gas of the Battle of Seattle bursts
into the air... I shout until I feel hoarse.’

The account of a young, radical protester, uncompromisingly opposed to business and trade? Actually, no. The writer is the 57-year-old Chief Executive of a big multinational company, a household name, with a turnover of some $500 million a year, serving over 84 million customers, trading through 1,700 outlets in 49 countries, working in 24 languages and across 12 time zones.

Anita Roddick, the founder and guiding spirit of The Body Shop is proud to have been on the opposite side of the barricades from the other business leaders at the conference. She recalls: ‘I was the only CEO in Seattle who stood up and said that we have to redefine the purpose of business, so that it is less about private greed and more about public good.’

Small and vital, speaking at tremendous speed, leaping up from her chair as we talk to pull books down off the shelves of a small room at The Body Shop’s London offices, she adds: ‘I believe the older you get, the more radical you become. Rabble-rousing, tree-hugging, heart-bleeding – that’s the stuff I like. I am essentially an activist, an agitator and a saboteur.’

The self-described ‘renegade business leader’ was born Anita Lucia Perella during the Second World War in the small English seaside town of Littlehampton to Italian immigrant parents. As a result, she says, ‘I was a natural outsider, and I was drawn to other outsiders and rebels.’ Her schoolgirl idol was James Dean.

Her ‘strong sense of moral outrage’ was ‘kick-started’ at the age of ten when she read a book about the Holocaust, and was reinforced by ‘the most amazing teachers’ at her convent school. She particularly remembers a Sister Immaculate Conception, who devoted a part of the convent to tramps, who she named ‘knights of the road’, encouraging the pupils to look after them.

She trained as a teacher herself, but then won a scholarship to work on a kibbutz, where she ‘learned a love of community’. The visit turned into an extended working trip around the world during which she ‘spent time in farming and fishing communities with pre-industrial peoples’.

After teaching –and spending some time in the Women’s Rights Department of the International Labour Organisation – she opened first a restaurant and then a hotel in Littlehampton with her husband, Gordon. She started the first Body Shop in Brighton in 1976, picking the distinctive dark green colour – by which the firm has become known all over the world – because it was the only one that would cover its damp, mouldy walls.

‘Frugality’ led her to become green in other ways too. ‘It was all about lack of resources. Absolutely unheard of in the cosmetics industry, I found the cheapest little urine sample bottles for my products. I could only afford 700 of them, so I was asking everyone from Day One to bring them back for refilling. We re-used everything, we refilled everything, and we recycled all we could.’

Environmental battle
It worked. She opened her second shop within six months and, with her husband, started the franchise network which spread The Body Shop around the world. The firm went public in 1984, by when it had already fought its first environmental battle, a Save the Whale campaign with Greenpeace.

The campaigns have continued ever since, on the environment and human rights, in support of prisoners of conscience and, most famously, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. ‘We are a campaigning company,’ she says. ‘It is our DNA. We want to improve the quality of life for living creatures around the globe. And we’ll agitate, manipulate, stir, and take advantage of situations to achieve our end.’
‘The idea that business is responsible only to its shareholders mortifies me...’

The company, with the support of its franchisees, has turned its shops into ‘action stations’ providing customers with information on the current campaign, and installing fax machines so that they can send their own messages to its targets.

There is a cost, however. ‘Every time we run a major campaign on human rights there is a major dip in sales because we are asking people to commit themselves to being active rather than to buying a product. That’s why there is all the difference in the world between using business as an agent of change, and the cynical exploitation of issues for sales.’

If all this sounds more like a non-governmental organization (NGO) than a business, Anita Roddick does not apologize for it. She describes The Body Shop as ‘part of the social responsibility movement’.

She, and other business people in the movement, she says, ‘were entrepreneurs who, with the zealousness of a convert, saw that business was not just financial science, where profit was the sole arbiter; it was more about participating in political and social activism, using products as emissaries for social change, or stores for leveraging their customers on social action.’

She admits that her approach ‘polarizes’ opinion. ‘Because you are not behaving in a way that is appropriate for a CEO or head of a company and are acting more like an NGO or a not-for-profit organization, you are challenging everything that is a comfort zone. But who has the right to tell me that my entire business should be just the maximizing of shareholder profit?’

Affecting millions
‘The idea that business is responsible only to its shareholders mortifies me with its narrowness. How can we pretend any longer that business is only about economics when it has so obviously become the dominant socio-political force on the planet?

‘Because everything we do in business affects millions, and because business is now centre stage, wealthy and more powerful than governments, God help us all if it fails to show a moral sympathy or an honourable code of behaviour.

‘Businesses are not found in nature, they are made by you and me, and so we can change the function of them. Business has to be a force for social change. I can imagine a day will come when compassion counts as much as cash flow.’

The same goes for trade, she adds. ‘Free trade was originally about the freedom of communities to trade equally with each other. It was never intended to be what it is today – a licence for the big, the powerful and the rich to ride roughshod over the small, the weak and the poor. It is not trade that we are against; it is exploitation and unchecked power.’

‘Globalization gives us a world whose nations are more and more reluctant to go to war with each other because they have too much at stake in each other’s economy, a world where human rights are supposed to follow increasing prosperity. All we need to do to make this dream come true, we are told, is to make sure that people, organizations and governments get out of the way of the multinational corporations who are trying to make it all happen for the good of all people.

‘But I spend much of every year travelling around the world, talking to people in the front line of globalization: women, community farmers, children. I see the other side of it: poverty; forced labour; sweatshops; children forced to work long hours; the poisoning of water, air and land; the dislocation of communities; gross inequalities of wealth.’

Internationalism, she says, is the opposite. ‘It means that we can link together at the local level around the world and use our power as consumers to change business. Even more important, it means that we can start understanding each other in a way that no generation has managed before.’

Anita Roddick likes to call The Body Shop a ‘multi-local business’ and describes how it trades directly with 38 ‘communities in need’ in 21 countries. Since 1987, for example, it has been buying wooden massagers from Tamil Nadu in India; the order has now grown from an initial 2,000 foot rollers spread over six months to nearly 50,000 of them a month, along with 20 other products.

The firm it now deals with, Teddy Exports, employs some 500 people, mostly women, and mostly also formerly casual, unskilled agricultural labourers. A trust runs a primary school, health workshops so far attended by over 3,500 people, and an AIDS awareness campaign cited as a model for the rest of the country.

It gets babbasu palm oil from a cooperative supporting 12 communities in northeast Brazil, buys shea butter from a cooperative in northern Ghana made up of women from 13 villages, gives a livelihood to Indian women in Mexico who make body scrubs from cacti using an ancient Aztec technique, and has set up a soap factory in a deprived area of Glasgow.

She says: ‘I hope we can measure our success by our ability to show just what’s possible if a company genuinely opens a dialogue with communities. I would rather we be measured by how we treat the weaker and frailer communities we trade with, than only by how great are our profits.’

It is unorthodox, but Anita Roddick firmly believes it is the shape of business to come. She says that ‘more customers are actively choosing to buy from companies that believe in the same things as they do,’ and talks of a major new element in business, ‘the rise of the vigilante consumer, who is becoming more and more powerful as governments are getting less and less so. We are seeing for the first time a grassroots public debate about the behaviour of corporation and business.’

She certainly intends to be part of it, citing a favourite saying: ‘A woman in advancing old age is unstoppable by any Earthly force.’ And she adds: ‘If the progressive nature of this company gets watered down, I am out of it like a bat out of hell. I don’t want to spend my life looking at bloody moisture creams.’

PHOTOGRAPH: Jean Jaques Crance/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Time to act | A climate of change | Melding heart and head | Looking through green glasses | Multi-local business | World Environment Day 2000 |
At a glance | Competition | The greening of Goliath | Unfair trade | No sleeping after Seattle | Disproportionate effects | Liberal rations | New millennium, new regulation | Secretary-General’s Report | Pachamama: Our Earth, Our Future


Complementary articles in other issues:
Sixto J. Incháustegui and Elizabeth Mook: Pride and participation (Small Islands) 1999
Mark Moody-Stuart: Picking up the gauntlet (Climate & Action) 1998
Don de Silva: Hope in a raindrop (Oceans) 1998
Susan Hazen: Environmental democracy (Chemicals) 1997
Margaret G. Kerr: Profits with honour (The Way Ahead) 1997
John Browne: A new partnership to make a difference (Climate Change) 1997
Don de Silva: Pumping with life (Water) 1996