Anita Roddick, capitalist with a conscience, dies at 64

The death of Dame Anita Roddick from a brain haemorrhage, after suffering from Hepatitis C for 30 years, was met with great shock by the many she inspired. James Macintyre charts her success

Two years after Anita Roddick found out from routine tests that for several decades she'd been carrying a painful and depressive disease, she finally broke the devastating news on her internet blog. "I have Hepatitis C," she wrote on 14 February this year. "It's a bit of a bummer but you groan and move on."

The message's selflessness defined a woman who devoted her life to ethical causes, dragging the ecological movement into the mainstream and making saving the planet fashionable. "What I can say is that having [the disease] means that I live with a sharp sense of my own mortality, which in many ways makes life more vivid and immediate," she went on. "It makes me even more determined to just get on with things." It was characteristic determination and optimism from the early pioneer of the burgeoning eco-movement.

Born in 1942 to an Italian immigrant couple in Littlehampton, Anita Roddick was always a self-described "outsider" with a "strong sense of moral outrage," awakened when she found a Penguin book about the Holocaust at the age of 10. She trained as a teacher but a captivating opportunity on a kibbutz in Israel "turned into an extended trip around the world," on which she would represent the UN.

Soon after the kibbutz experience, which ended abruptly after she was expelled for a practical joke, her mother introduced the young Anita to "a Scotsman named Gordon". Our bond was instant," Dame Anita wrote later. The pair married and had two daughters and, after opening a restaurant and a hotel in Littlehampton, Dame Anita created The Body Shop in 1976, unveiling the first shop in Brighton.

It was to emerge some three decades after she founded the Shop that she had been all that time carrying the potentially deadly disease, believed to be from infected blood given to her during the birth of her youngest daughter, Sam, in 1971.

Last night, her family issued a statement saying Dame Anita, who was 64, had died at 6.30pm from a major brain haemorrhage at St Richard's hospital in Chichester, where she had been admitted on Sunday evening after suffering a severe headache. Her husband and daughters Sam and Justine were at her bedside.

Although she campaigned on human rights causes ranging from opposition to the death penalty to domestic violence, it was as the founder of The Body Shop that she was best-known. She said she had no idea the chain would take off, let alone become a national institution which helped popularise the green movements, enabling her to fulfil her passion for campaigning against animal testing.

"I started [the shop] simply to create a livelihood for myself and my daughters, while Gordon, was trekking across the Americas," she said. "I had no training or experience ... 30 years on, The Body Shop is a multi local business with over 2045 stores serving more than 77 million customers in 51 different markets in 25 different languages and across 12 time zones."

The shop's appealing, colourful soaps and gift boxes of skin products were much-loved by their millions of customers, keen to buy goods sourced from the developing world.

"The original Body Shop was a series of brilliant accidents," she said of the Brighton store. "It had a great smell, it had a funky name. It was positioned between two funeral parlours – that always caused controversy. It was incredibly sensuous. It was 1976, the year of the heat-wave, so there was a lot of flesh around. We knew about storytelling then, so all the products had stories. We recycled everything, not because we were environmentally friendly but because we didn't have enough bottles. It was a good idea. What was unique about it, with no intent at all, no marketing nous, was that it translated across cultures, across geographical barriers and social structures. It wasn't a sophisticated plan, it just happened like that."

On The Body Shop's trade-mark green branding, Roddick joked that it was established by accident because it was the only colour that could cover the mould on the walls of her first shop, whose products were inspired from a combination of travelling the world and lessons from her mother's beauty habits from the Second World War.

"Why waste a container when you can refill it? And why buy more of something than you can use? We behaved as she did in the Second World War, we reused everything, we refilled everything and we recycled all we could," Roddick wrote.

The shop even invested in a wind farm in Wales, as part of its campaign in support of renewable energy. In 1988 the success of Mrs Roddick – hailed as an inspirational pioneer last night by Gordon Brown – was recognised with an OBE.

For Dame Anita, the truly exceptional entrepreneur, business and ethics came together. "Businesses have the power to do good," she wrote. "That's why The Body Shop's Mission Statement opens with the overriding commitment, 'To dedicate our business to the pursuit of social and environmental change.'"

Last year The Body Shop was bought by L'Oreal in France for £652m. Though she eventually scaled back her work with the chain once it was firmly established in the public psyche – she continued to help it, and said recently of the company: "Today, it is impossible to separate the company values from the issues that I care passionately about – social responsibility, respect for human rights, the environment and animal protection."

The controversial L'Oreal purchase shocked the fans of the fair trade campaigner, who once famously said: "I hate the beauty industry, it is a monster selling unattainable dreams. It lies, it cheats, it exploits women."

But Dame Anita said she was confident the legacy and values of The Body Shop, would survive. "I'm not an apologist for them [L'Oreal]," she said. "I'm just excited that I can be like a trojan horse and go into that huge business and talk about how we can buy ingredients like cocoa butter from Ghana and sesame oil from Nicaraguan farmers and how we can do that in a kindly, joyful way, and that is happening."

Recently, Dame Anita had turned her focus to giving away money to good causes through her Anita Roddick Foundation. "I wanted to do something useful with the money I had while I am still able to," she said.

Though she died prematurely, she continued to vigorously highlight injustices throughout the world and as late as 6 September was blogging on the "Angola Three", describing the case against the remaining two "political prisoners" – apparently framed for the murder of a white prison guard – as "a gross injustice." It was a cause she was passionate about, and she visited the notorious prison in 1990.

She was also a children's champion and in 1990 co-founded Children on the Edge, which worked on behalf of disadvantaged children in Eastern Europe and Asia. A strong campaigner against globalisation and global warming, in September 2001 she joined with Greenpeace to lead a high-profile international campaign against Exxon-Mobil (Esso), the world's largest oil and gas company, and 'No 1 Global Warming Villain'.

"This is the company that refuses to accept a direct link between the burning of fossil fuels and global warming, and that has turned its back on investing even a single penny on renewable alternatives, such as wind and solar," she said. She campaigned tirelessly against animal testing, against the dumping of toxic waste and against pollution, frequently teaming up with Greenpeace.

In June 2003, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, Dame Anita guest edited The Independent, focusing the edition on the plight of refugees throughout Europe.

Known for her hippyish dress sense, she described the sunset of her life as the most exciting period. "I believe the older you get, the more radical you become," said Dame Anita, who frequently quoted the author Dorothy Sayers who said: "A woman in advancing old age is unstoppable by any earthly force."

It's a true description of a life of service to ethical causes that blazed a trail around the world. Happily, her radicalism has been passed on to her daughters. In 2003 Sam organised a "naked street party against the war" outside her erotic boutique Coco de Mer, with the theme "liberate yourself from political bondage".

In the internet posting announcing her illness, Dame Anita spurned self-indulgence. Describing her characteristic decision to campaign on the disease which blighted her life, Dame Anita wrote: "In a way, campaigning with The Hepatitis C Trust is business as usual. I've always felt that activism is my rent for living on this planet and I've always wanted to celebrate and protect the human body. In a way, speaking out about my hep C is just carrying on what I helped to start at The Body Shop. Life has just taken a more interesting turn."

Tributes to a unique pioneer

* John Sauven, the executive director of Greenpeace: "She was a amazing inspiration to those around her ... She was so ahead of her time when it came to issues of how business could be done in different ways ... She was a true pioneer. When you were with her, the energy she radiated was phenomenal. She just really stood out in a crowd."

* Friends of the Earth director Tony Juniper: "Anita was a leading light of the modern green movement, and was one the first people to combine a profitable business with environmental responsibility ... Anita was an independent thinker and political activist in her own right. She will be sorely missed."

* Clive Stafford Smith, legal director of the anti-death penalty organisation Reprieve: "We were so happy to have her. She was so full of life, so fantastic, so dedicated, so energetic."

* Prime Minister Gordon Brown: "As one of this country's most successful businesswomen she was an inspiration to women throughout the country striving to set up and grow their own companies. She will be much missed and my thoughts are with her family and friends."

* Charles Gore, chief executive of the Hepatitis C Trust: "She was always willing to do anything to help. It was extraordinary how it wouldn't matter what it was ... Working with her was so joyful ... She took all her causes incredibly seriously but she never took herself seriously, which made her great fun to work with.

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