Message in her bottles: The Roddick shop

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Indy Lifestyle Online
All this week the beautiful and passionate face of Anita Roddick, of the Body Shop, has loomed on the nation's television screens. Her zeal is missionary, and it brings her great joy. The joy, we understand, is derived from trying to use the Body Shop to set up trade initiatives and trade-not-aid schemes in the developing world.

Then, after some on-screen hugging and greeting of native women who apparently live at the end of a long dusty track navigable only by a rugged truck, comes the descent into bathos. To carry out the noble task, this modern missionary depends on her American Express card, that worldwide symbol of the rich capitalist consumer. 'There is no option,' says Anita Roddick, reminding us of Maggie Thatcher's words.

Self-consciousness is not Mrs Roddick's style. This is a woman who once bared her pubic hair to satisfy the curiosity of indigenous women. No doubt she would be surprised to hear the chuckles that, in some quarters, greet her latest television appearance. 'Cynics, up yours]' she would say, as she has said before, for Anita Roddick, like Michael Portillo, detests the prevailing mood.

Mrs Roddick, as managing director of the Body Shop, has set out her stall on the moral high ground. She should not be surprised when critics try to evaluate her company's activities in moral terms. At the end of this month the US journal Business Ethics is to do that by publishing an account of the company's green credentials and commercial morality. Written by Jon Entine, an investigative journalist, it is not the first time the Body Shop has come under scrutiny.

Anita Roddick has in the past deliberately courted press attention. It is the high profile she has achieved for her company and herself that now attacts scrutiny. The trouble is that Anita Roddick's face is that of the Body Shop. From the company's very beginning it has been easy for her to attract free editorial coverage instead of buying advertising space; and Body Shop has had a policy of using the press, using Anita as the lure. 'It's only because I'm always available to the media for interviews,' she says cheerfully in her book Body and Soul, published in 1991. 'At a conservative estimate, we probably rack up about pounds 2m worth of free publicity a year from editorial coverage.'

The contradictions in her image may be more evident to others than to herself. Those who know her say she has an extraordinary mix of qualities, that she can be absolutely genuine, committed, imaginative, likeable and highly irritating, all at once.

With personality projection like hers, it is hardly surprising that Anita Roddick's irritating characteristics - including a high moral tone that can, as with any missionary, easily sound self-righteous - have drawn the attention of critics, just as her passionate, spontaneous, anti-establishment idealism has attracted multi-thousands of young buyers into her shops.

Even the company's critics find the warm, spontaneous side of her nature appealing. Richard Adams, of New Consumer, a company owned by a charitable trust seeking to improve business ethics, has been asking the Body Shop for detailed figures on the proportion of its sales stemming from the kind of trade-not-aid activity which Anita Roddick is currently advertising in her American Express appearances. Gordon Roddick said yesterday that fair trade initiatives take up a 'disproporionate amount of resources' but gave no figures. Mr Adams estimates that ingredients obtained under fair trade conditions account for less than 1 per cent of overall sales. Last autumn Mr Adams had a three-hour meeting with the Roddicks in the Body Shop boardroom: 'I said, what you have done is set up your own definition of 'fair trade'.' Anita Roddick slapped her hands on the table, jumped to her feet, rushed to the balcony, and stood there, breathing deeply. 'He's right] He's right]' she exclaimed excitedly, says Mr Adams.

Richard Adams was heartened by this typically warm reaction. It was, perhaps, only to one point in the discussion, for he later sent a five-page summary of what he felt had been said at the meeting to the Roddicks. It remained unconfirmed, and the question of exactly how much of the Body Shop's trade is fair trade with the Third World remains uncertain. Does it matter, ask Anita Roddick's many admirers. At least she is doing something. The shops' invididual charity works are extensive. The record on environmental campaigning is impressive. The 1994 accounts show that the group made charitable donations last year of pounds 881,068 (though, in her book, Anita Roddick herself modestly points out that some philanthropic projects result in enormous media coverage and could be costed as public relations).

As Charles Secrett, director of Friends of the Earth, a charity that has worked closely with the Roddicks, says, what are other companies doing by comparison with the Body Shop's record of campaigning on environmental and ethical standards? 'I think she's dynamic and sincere,' he says. 'She has a very strong sense of personal morality and environmental ethics that she and her husband apply to their personal lives and in all their business dealing.' No one doubts Anita Roddick's personal sincerity. There is no question that she is being truthful when she says, while backing American Express with her firm's reputation for morality, that her primary joy is not in her firm's profits, but in developing them unselfishly to help others. How much actual trade not aid occurs is a separate issue.

There is no question that Anita Roddick is, as she says, against animal testing. Last summer, she and her husband, Gordon Roddick, chairman of the Body Shop, won a libel case against Channel 4 gaining pounds 1,000 each in compensation and pounds 267,000 towards lost profits. The fact that her company's policy, which only bans ingredients tested on animals in the past five years, is less stringent than a few other companies, does not call into question the strength of her own opposition. 'We list Body Shop in our category D,' says Kate Black, director of Beauty without Cruelty. 'We admire their record on campaiging. But for products we prefer a fixed cut-off date for testing rather than a moving five-year limit, and as their own 1994 accounts say, they have been using a slaughterhouse product in their bath pearls.'

Inevitably, questions over how Anita Roddick's personal beliefs are translated into company policy will continue to arise. The truth is that, in spite of the thrust of the Body Shop's publicity, Anita Roddick is not, and cannot be, the embodification of the group. The interests of a woman whose chief passions are environmental awareness and Third World development through trade are never going to overlap identically with those of a public company with international interests. She may say, as she does in Body and Soul that she does not believe that the business of a business is to make profits, and that she has no obligations to 'speculators'.

A person or a charity can logically hold these views, but a public company cannot. The exact proportion of trade-not-aid within total Body Shop sales may remain unknown, but profits and shareholders' returns are spelt out in full on recycled paper each year. In the year to 1994 the group made an operating profit of pounds 30.1m. Adjusted earnings per share were 10.1p, up 36 per cent on the year before. So much for obligations to speculators.

Anita Roddick's flair and dynamism were a huge asset to the company in its beginnings. But using the media for free publicity always carries a price. The time may have come for more of a separation of personality from promotion if the Body Shop is to continue to please the varied interests of consumers, environmentalists and speculators.

(Photograph omitted)

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