Profile: Chattering evangelist: Laurence Marks on Anita Roddick, the Body Shop founder who promised the earth and made a fortune

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The Independent Online
LET'S GET the priorities right for a start. Gordon Roddick is a multi- millionaire chain store retailer with unusual gifts as a business strategist. In 1977, returning to England from a 2,000-mile horseback trek from Buenos Aires to New York, he found that the little cosmetics shop his wife Anita had started the previous year in Brighton was flourishing.

Under his direction the firm quickly expanded and in 1984 was floated as a public company, the Body Shop, boasting that many of its products were made from traditional ingredients bought at fair trade (ie non-exploitative) prices from poor communities in the Third World. It made an operating profit of pounds 30.1m last year. The Roddicks each presently own about pounds 70m worth of shares.

The key to the Body Shop's success has been the identification of its merchandise with the socio-political preoccupations of the teenage girls who constitute its primary market. These are kindness to animals, protection of the Brazilian rain forest, the curative properties of aromatic unguents, survival of Antarctic whales, Third World poverty, the recycling of industrial waste, and sexual allure - not necessarily in that order.

Mrs Roddick's contribution has been a remarkable flair for self-publicity. She is an intelligent, attractive and vivacious woman, good with newspaper interviewers and rather striking on television.

Her spiel is a breathless stream-of-conciousness flow of language describing her feelings about whales, primitive tribes, the ultimate purpose of life, aromatherapy, whether Gordon is or is not 'having a bit on the side', and so forth. Her sincerity is beyond question. No copywriter could have invented the stuff. It would require a satirist of Dickensian powers. Its implicit message is that of the evangelists and snake-oil salesmen who used to roam the small country towns of America in the 19th century: pay up and you will feel cleansed (of the sins of consumerism), you will feel better and you will be loved.

To the 49 per cent of the British population whose ablutions need not much more than an occasional resupply of soap, razor- blades and shaving-cream, Mrs Roddick looks like a pretty smart cookie. (She claims that the firm gets at least pounds 2m worth of free publicity a year.) To many of her customers she is a heroine.

There are two criticisms to be made of her. First, her pell-mell style of speaking sometimes obscures the precise nature of the Body Shop's claim to ethical business practices. In the Independent last week, Sandra Barwick reported an informed estimate that ingredients acquired by the company under fair trade conditions accounted for less than 1 per cent of its sales. This sounds like dynamite.

The company's most recent annual report confines itself to the cautious formulation that it is 'committed to establishing fair trading relationships'. But if that 1 per cent is right, it hardly corresponds with the impression left, perhaps uncalculatingly, by Mrs Roddick's fortissimo boosterism.

The second criticism is that, wilfully or unconsciously, she sometimes confuses business expediency with moral endeavour. She is not the first capitalist to do so. The British Empire was built on the same confusion and with the same sincerity - though the terms of the endeavour were different.

There was a vivid example of the confusion in a television commercial that was running on Channel 4 last week. American Express is a credit card company fighting to maintain its market share against innovative raiders. Mrs Roddick was featured, as several supposedly glamorous entrepreneurs have been, chattering about her business and ending with a plug for American Express.

Nothing wrong with that. But the plug was uttered in exactly the same tone of moral urgency as the spiel about helping primitive tribes. That is why people have begun to feel uneasy about her, why newspapers have become interested in the Body Shop, and why, when it was disclosed the other day that a research outfit in America had questioned the company's rating as an 'ethical investment', there was less than universal grief.

ANITA Roddick is 51. She grew up at Littlehampton in Sussex in the British-Italian community that has been a valued presence in this country since the glassmakers arrived four centuries ago. In our own time, some chemical reaction between the hot Italian temperament and the damp British climate has produced such visionary romantics as Peter Palumbo, the embattled patron of architecture, Charles Forte, the no-star to five- star hotelier, and the unputdownable Mrs Roddick.

Her mother, Gilda, an immigrant from Cassino, owned the Clifton Cafe. After leaving school, Anita trained as a teacher, worked in the clippings library of the Herald Tribune in Paris and for the International Labour Organisation in Geneva, and then hit the hippie trail to the Pacific and southern Africa. Back in Littlehampton, she met another rolling stone, Gordon Roddick, who was a habitue of the Clifton, and married him. They ran a local restaurant for a while before Roddick pushed off on his transcontinental ride.

Temperamentally, they are opposites. He is a quiet north- countryman, educated at an independent school, Merchiston Castle in Edinburgh, and at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, with a slight stutter that makes him diffident about public appearances. The union of a high-spirited woman with a sober man is often a successful recipe for a lasting marriage.

They have two daughters in their early twenties, a home near the firm's headquarters in Littlehampton, and another in Scotland. Roddick plays polo. His wife collects Victorian portraits of mothers and children. She spends up to half the year visiting Third World communities, some of them extremely primitive, looking for marketable ingredients and processes.

There are now more than 1,000 Body Shops in 45 countries, 100 of them owned, the rest franchised. Enter one and you are surrounded by shelf upon shelf of tiny sweet- smelling bottles containing green, pink, yellow and purple lotions (miniaturised versions of the tall jars one used to see in suburban chemists' windows in the 1930s) and brightly coloured beads of soap - wampaum for the natives.

It is a palace of innocent visual and olfactory pleasures. 'Smell is the company's most important marketing tool,' says a City investment counsellor. 'The first thing customers do when they walk in is to smell something. Nobody does that in Boots.'

Prominently displayed on a red-clothed table at the entrance is a poster requesting signatures for a petition of the Stop Trade in Endangered Species campaign. For customers, moral engagement is part of the company's stock-in- trade. (It gave pounds 880,000 to charities last year.) For professional environmentalists, the stores offer a sympathetic target audience.

The Body Shop played an energetic part in Save the Whale in 1985, Save the Brazilian Rain Forest in 1989 and the petition against testing industrial products on animals in 1990, and has subsidised The Big Issue, the weekly produced and sold by the homeless. Sometimes wit sneaks in, too. A slogan on a Body Shop truck reads: 'If you think you're too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito.'

The road to the youth market is littered with the bleached bones of ruined businessmen. For the Roddicks to have built so apparently durable a commercial edifice on the shifting impulses of the teen generation takes nothing less than genius. 'Gordon's the financial strategist,' says the same investment counsellor. 'He and the small group of very bright senior managers around him run the Body Shop.

'He devised the franchising operation. That's the key. It minimises the risk to the company because they don't bear the capital outlay for opening new stores. The firm's not perfect. What company is? But every stock market analyst I've spoken to regards the current brouhaha as marginal. The Body Shop is an extremely sound company.'

Charles Secrett, director of Friends of the Earth, says: 'The reason we collaborate with the Body Shop on campaigns is that they really do put their money where their mouth is. They state their principles clearly. We don't think there's any other company in Britain that has such a good track record.

'Of course, they're in business to make profits. But they know it makes commercial sense to be as environmentally sound as they can. If you investigated, you would find things they could improve. But I don't get the impression that they have ever claimed that they base all their commercial operations on the fair trade principle.

'To me, what they're doing is running a campaign to improve trade relations with poor countries. The correct question to ask is what is the proportion of fair trade any company can get involved in, given present trading arrangements. I could give you a list of 100 companies that are real eco- criminals.'

That, surely, is the point. If it turns out that the Body Shop has not been anything like as philanthropic as Mrs Roddick seems to have claimed, her environmental ambitions were nevertheless large, and to have achieved even a small proportion of them is probably more than most respectable corporations do, let alone Secrett's 'eco- criminals'.

And, if it turns out that she has been less than candid, she is at least, in her eccentric scatter-shot style, more upfront than the secretive musclemen of international commerce: bankers, commodity traders, arms dealers - and the corporate emperors who finance arms sales to wretchedly poor countries in the hope of being granted oil or mineral exploration rights.

'Don't ever be afraid of chatterboxes, Lizaveta Bogdanovna,' says Shpigelsky in Turgenev's A Month in the Country. 'They're not dangerous. The dangerous ones are the silent ones with a lot of temperament, a little bit mad, with huge backs to their heads - those really are.'

(Photograph omitted)