City & Business: One or two flies in the peppermint foot lotion

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The Independent Online
EVERY day last week I expected to see the extraordinary Body Shop saga die a quiet death, overtaken by more serious news and quietly forgotten. But each day more potentially damaging allegations have surfaced about the high- minded toiletries group. Already the shares have sunk more than 10 per cent.

The stakes were raised yet again yesterday, first by a report that the RSPCA is now advising shoppers to switch from Body Shop products to more rigorously cruelty-free products, and then by the company's decision to go on the offensive against Jon Entine, the TV producer responsible for many of the earlier allegations.

This is no longer an August silly season story, if it ever was. Anita and Gordon Roddick, the Body Shop founders and biggest shareholders, are now fighting for the credibility of their business.

The doomsters say it may already be too late. Their view seems to be that the Roddicks have finally been rumbled: Body Shop's green clothes are looking ragged, and the group is beginning to look no less rapacious than any other profits-hungry company.

Even before the RSPCA entered the fray, the company had suffered a barrage of allegations about its less than perfect pollution record, its treatment of franchisees and the less than widespread use of its much-trumpeted 'trade-not-aid' policy. And there could be worse to come: the long-awaited Business Ethics story - publication this Thursday - could be more damaging.

Body Shop's ethical credentials are the main thing distinguishing it from the string of copycat products now on every shop shelf from Boots to Tesco to Woolworths. The pessimistic view is that with its squeaky clean reputation in tatters, the customers will desert in droves: Body Shop RIP.

It's an intriguing theory - and one that finds favour with the many in Fleet Street and the City who find Body Shop's holier-than-thou preachiness too much to stomach. But I don't quite buy it. Journalists have been digging for dirt on Body Shop for a decade now, and have come up with little that has stuck. We've seen supposed exposes of Body Shop before now. The Channel Four Dispatches programme sent the shares into a temporary tailspin in May 1992 - from which they recovered. The Roddicks later sued and won.

Doubtless the revelations this week will create plenty of noise and the shares may lose more blood. But they will have to be truly revelatory to make much difference at the tills. Ultimately it will need more than the accidental spill of 60 gallons of shampoo into the New Jersey sewers to alter shoppers' perceptions of Body Shop as essentially on the side of the angels.

And anyway, I'm not convinced the majority of Body Shop customers are trying to make an ethical statement every time they buy a tub of peppermint foot lotion. They just like peppermint foot lotion and will continue to fork out for the stuff regardless.