Business as unusual: protecting the future

From a speech by Anita Roddick, the founder and co-chair of The Body Shop, delivered at the Royal Society for the Arts in London
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The Independent Online

Leaders in world business are the first true global citizens. We have worldwide capability and responsibility. Our domains transcend national boundaries. Our decisions affect not just economies but societies; not just the direct concerns of business, but world problems of poverty, environment and security.

Business has now entered centre stage. It is faster, more creative, operates more efficiently in change than any other social institution - but if business comes with no moral sympathy or honourable code of behaviour, god help us all.

Many businesses, including The Body Shop, are part of the social responsibility movement, a movement that has been, over the last decade or so, trying to redefine the strong grassroots nature and progressive practices of business. It came out of the Sixties and the counter-culture, out of the activist movement and business practices in Scandinavian countries.

This type of responsible business behaviour is not new: in Britain it goes back to Robert Owen and the early co-operative movement and the Quakers; in the US, the Amish, the Shakers and scores of other communities have used these guiding principles in running their businesses for decades. All it is doing now is re-emerging in our corporate consciousness.

At The Body Shop we turn our shops into action stations for human rights or leveraging customers to speak out on issues that affect them. In short, we are a campaigning company - it is our DNA.

I believe that those now in control - governments, economists, politicians, business people and especially the financial fascists of the money markets - could drive us off the edge. Global planning institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and particularly the World Trade Organisation are very much part of the problem.

They ignore mounting evidence of a social catastrophe that is around the corner, that means widespread and dangerous inequality. These institutions aren't working for the majority of humanity. The roots of conflict are not to be found among the dispossessed and the poor; they are to be found in our global economic policies, which will lead them to retaliate.

What the WTO is doing threatens traditional work. I spend much of every year travelling around the world, talking to people in the front line of globalisation: women, community farmers, children. Globalisation leads to the concentration of wealth inside large multinational corporations. These giants can obliterate social capital and local equity, and create cultural homogeneity in their wake.

Even decisions made by local communities to refuse McDonald's entry (as did Martha's Vineyard) can be overruled. So far, in every environmental dispute that has come before the WTO, its three-judge panels, which deliberate in secret, have ruled for business, against the environment.

Globalisation kills self-reliance, since smaller local businesses can rarely compete with highly capitalised firms who seek market share instead of profits.

Nowhere is public outrage displayed more than in the reaction to child labour. We have ample proof that in the worst forms of child labour, children are being used as slaves. They are sometimes tortured, often confined to the workplace. Whether it's kids working in brick kilns, or working on farms as bonded farm labour. Or kids in sexual slavery. Today you'll find that countries such as Thailand have more prostitutes than monks. This is the direct effect of the mentality that puts economic value on everything.

We must remind ourselves what "free trade" really is. "Free trade" was originally about the freedom of communities to trade equally with each other. It was never intended to be what it is today: a licence for the big, the powerful and the rich to ride roughshod over the small, the weak and the poor.

I see my leadership role as being an irritant, a gadfly - infusing creativity and creating an edge to everything The Body Shop does. There are no signposts to the future, so my advice will always be - challenge everything.