It Seems to Me
In Memoriam: Anita Roddick, Frizzy-Haired Lady Who Pioneered Social Responsibility in Business
Anita Roddick, fiery founder of the Body Shop cosmetic stores, died last September 11. She was only 64. No one who ever met Anita is likely to forget the passion, energy and dedication that she brought to building the Body Shop into an exemplar of corporate social responsibility. I remember her poking fun at big corporate titans with kindred soul Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s. They were both more interested in the social missions of their companies than the business mission. They both loved poking fun at big corporate titans.
At her death the Body Shop had 2,000 branches in 53 countries, but it was no longer an independent company. Anita sold the Body Shop to the French cosmetics giant, L’Oreal, for $1.3 billion in 2006. Some immediately accused her of selling out. That’s about the last thing Anita Roddick would do. She became a consultant to L’Oreal and fashioned herself a “Trojan Horse” who would move the French company in the right direction.
Dame Anita Roddick (as of 2003) made a number of pithy observations about the business world. Most of the following are from her 1991 book, Body & Soul:
I have no doubt that wealth is corrosive. No matter how sensible I try to be, I think I am corroded by my own wealth.
I hate the beauty business. It is a monster industry selling unattainable dreams. It lies. It cheats. It exploits women. Its major product lines are packaging and garbage.
The trouble is that the business world is too conservative and fearful of change. All this talk about free enterprise, innovation, entrepreneurship, individuality — it’s nothing but hot air.
I believe that if companies are in business solely to make money, you can’t really trust whatever they do or say.
I am still looking for the modern-day equivalent of those Quakers who ran successful businesses, made money because they offered honest products and treated their people decently, worked hard, spent honestly, saved honestly, gave honest value for money, put back more than they took out and told no lies. This business creed, sadly, seems long forgotten.
Large corporations are trying, bless them. Are they trying hard enough? No, but none of us is because the financial institutions are like fascists and just want a return.
After some people criticized her for selling Body Shop to L’Oreal, Anita argued on her website that it would probably have been more valid to accuse her of selling out when she and her husband, Gordon Roddick, took the company public in 1984. Anita explained:
We then became ‘owned’ by people who were happy to downgrade our stock at the merest whiff of community trade, who believed that pioneering an end to animal testing in cosmetics was a threat to our share price….That was, I now realize, selling out. To people for whom a brave, idiosyncratic, maverick, fighting for human rights or social justice in business was a threat to everything they stood for.
Anita Roddick was, in effect, the anti-corporate business leader. She recognized that a lot of people saw the Body Shop “as a flaky organization led by a madwoman with frizzy hair.” She did go her own way. She hated meeting with security analysts. She once spoke at a meeting organized by the ad agency J. Walter Thompson – her theme was “Why I would never use an advertising agency.” When the Body Shop invaded the U.S. in 1988, the Wall Street Journal quoted a Harvard Business School professor who said the company would need, “at minimum,” a major launch advertising campaign. Anita’s response was: “I’ll never hire anybody from Harvard Business School.” And she didn’t. And the Body Shop never advertised.