Ethics girl goes into the entertainment business

<i>Business as Unusual </i>by Anita Roddick (Thorsons, &pound;17.99)
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The Independent Culture

She's not like other business executives, of course. That probably explains why Anita Roddick has written a book so much more entertaining than the usual run of corporate memoirs. This is business as fun.

She's not like other business executives, of course. That probably explains why Anita Roddick has written a book so much more entertaining than the usual run of corporate memoirs. This is business as fun.

One anecdote concerns a visit to the Oglala, a Native American tribe in South Dakota. Anita asked if the Body Shop could use the oil from sage bushes that grew in profusion on their reservation in a shampoo. The tribe had to seek permission from the plant nation, so she piled into a tent for a sweat - a sort of ritual sauna. Just try picturing the pompous, grey executive of your choice in that scene. The plants said no, by the way.

The Body Shop does lots of unconventional things, many of them admirable or cheering. I love the idea of children from the nursery in the company's Littlehampton HQ trooping into the office to say hello to their parents. I chortled over the grass-roots contraception campaign in India, which involved hiring medical students in Madras to lurk at truck stops and hand out condoms to drivers employing the services of local prostitutes.

Best of all was the story that Mattel, maker of Barbie dolls, threatened to sue the Body Shop over its use of a plump doll called Ruby in a campaign ("There are 3 billion women who don't look like supermodels and only eight who do"). Mattel claimed that Ruby was denigrating Barbie's image. As Roddick writes: "The notion of one inanimate doll insulting another was absolutely mind-blowing."

Admittedly, it was hard to repress a shudder at such lines as: "Communication is not just about verbal or visual language, it's about body language too - how you hug and embrace members of your staff." But there is a lot that is appealing about the Roddick philosophy.

As she notes, there is no inevitable contradiction in the idea that business must be moral; that such a powerful force should be harnessed for the good. The Quakers have given Britain many examples. And there is little doubt that the most successful businesses in conventional terms are not the most rapacious. A good business is a responsible one. Unfortunately, her gung-ho version of business ethics has not been great for Body Shop shareholders. The share price has not been performing well, and Roddick has just left to concentrate on campaigning.

She recounts being asked, "Why do you keep calling the Body Shop your company?" and answers that it was her company, lamenting: "If there is one mistake that I regret more than any other... it's allowing myself to be persuaded that outsiders could come into the company and tell us how to run it."

But a loss of freedom is inevitable when you accept money from outside investors through a stockmarket listing. The company's duty to the planet or to farmers in poor countries has to be balanced against the duty of delivering profits to investors. This is, needless to say, not so much fun.

The most bothersome contradiction, however, is between Anita's passion for importing exotic products as a means of enriching farmers or tribes, and her hatred of "free trade". Surely her business ethics are built entirely on the benefits of trade?

She shares with other anti-globalisation campaigners the usual blind spot about the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Of course, the rules of world trade are stacked against developing countries; but thanks to the WTO there are now rules that, in theory, apply equally to all countries. This is a lot better than having no rules, which allowed the rich countries to get their own way all the time.

Then there's the contradiction between her contempt for multinationals and her willingness for her book to be published by a division of HarperCollins. Certainly, none of us can lead a life free from multinational business, so far do its tentacles spread. But to choose a publisher owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation? Surely that's a bit steep for a dedicated activist? However, Business as Unusual is a rarity among business books: informative, thought-provoking and positively enjoyable.