Dame Anita Roddick

Idealist entrepreneur who with the Body Shop took 'cruelty-free' products into the high street

Wednesday 12 September 2007 00:00 BST

Anita Lucia Perilli, businesswoman: born Littlehampton, West Sussex 23 October 1942; managing director, The Body Shop 1976-94, chief executive 1994-98, co-chairman 1998-2002, non-executive director 2002-06, consultant 2006-07; OBE 1988, DBE 2003; trustee, The Body Shop Foundation 1990-2007; married 1970 Gordon Roddick (two daughters); died Chichester, West Sussex 10 September 2007.

From the outset Anita Roddick was a myth-maker. One of the most lauded and yet controversial businesswomen of her generation, she specialised in apparently breaking the rules. She was a pioneering woman in a man's world. She turned a cottage industry selling hand-made products into a global brand worth millions. She lambasted the "pin-striped dinosaurs" of the City, despite the fact that they were financing her. She embraced green issues before they were fashionable. She averred that shopping was a moral choice. And she insisted that making money and making the world a better place were not incompatible. That was her triumph. Her tragedy was that in the end she came to believe her own PR.

She was born Anita Perilli in 1942 in Littlehampton to an Italian immigrant family, the third of four children. She grew up, between education at the local convent and secondary modern school, working in her parents' café which is where, driven by her mother's thrift, she learned the value of recycling. But from the outset she had her eyes on the wider world. Aged 10, she came across a book about the Nazi concentration camps which is what, she later said, kick-started in her "a sense of outrage and a sense of empathy for the human condition". Aged 13 she engaged in her first piece of activism, joining a march for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Turned down by drama school she surrendered her ambition to become an actor and in 1962 went to Bath to train as a teacher. There she received a scholarship to study on a kibbutz in Israel. It gave her the taste for travel which before long led her to Tahiti, the New Hebrides, New Caledonia, Australia and South Africa. Along the way she became fascinated with the beauty treatments used by local women using freely available natural ingredients.

The knowledge remained dormant for several years during which she met her future husband, Gordon Roddick. They had one child, then married in 1970, and then had another. But the couple found it hard to settle. They tried running a picture-framing shop, then a restaurant, then a hotel, before Gordon announced that he wanted to ride horseback from Argentina to New York, in emulation of some celebrated Swiss explorer. She agreed and then mused on how she would make a living in his absence.

She recalled some of the beauty treatments she had seen on her travels. "In Polynesia," she later recalled, "I had seen women rubbing cocoa butter on their breasts and bellies and bums. Their skin was like velvet." She teamed up with a local herbalist to recreate some of the natural therapies – cocoa-butter moisturiser and tea-tree facial oil.

In 1976 she opened a small business in Brighton which she called the Body Shop, a name she had seen over a garage that specialised in panel-beating, and immediately gained a burst of publicity when two nearby funeral directors objected to the shop sign she erected. The dingy premises were painted green to cover the damp walls.

By the time Gordon returned from his adventuring the shop had become such a success that she had opened a second. She had invented 15 products based on natural ingredients, most of them based on cocoa butter. They were sold in small, plain plastic bottles designed to hold urine samples. Their labels were hand-written by Anita who told customers that if they brought them back she would refill them. "We recycled everything, not because we were environmentally friendly but because we didn't have enough bottles," she said.

Even then Anita Roddick knew the power of storytelling. Tales of the products and how they were made were displayed alongside photographs of the countries she had visited and the tribes peoples she had met. She was selling the story as much as the product.

Within a few years the Body Shop – with its pineapple face scrub, peppermint-oil foot lotion and strawberry exfoliators – became one of the icons of the British high street. Its "cruelty-free" products were advertised with letters a foot high in its store windows pronouncing, with studied ambiguity, that Roddick was "against animal testing". (In the early days many of her ingredients had none the less already been tested on animals.) But the formula was clear. It was possible both to consume and to campaign, and not just against animal testing but, as the years went by, for the planet, against war, for human rights, for "trade not aid" and for the empowerment of women.

Roddick's language was that of the Sixties. She talked about "love" and "education" and "empowerment". Her message to Big Business, she said, was: "You're a global citizen, now. You have to measure your greatness by how you treat the weakest."

This was the highpoint of Thatcherism and Roddick's message was counter-cultural. With her Italian looks, her wild curly hair, her questioning of the primacy of profit and her laddered tights and Doc Martens she was the antithesis of the neatly-coiffeured greed-is-good, no-such-thing-as-society Iron Lady.

The Body Shop helped the nation salve its conscience. Valued at £8m in 1984 when it was floated on the London Stock Exchange the company, as it went public, spread franchises all over England. Its value swiftly rose to £30m. By the time her first US store opened in 1988 Roddick, a font of intense energy, had been named Business Woman of the Year and appointed OBE. Soon the hippie entrepreneur was being showered with awards from universities and charities on both sides of the Atlantic.

Anita Roddick's new caring consumerism had made her business Britain's most successful international retailer. The company had its ups and downs, as rivals started making similar "cruelty-free" products, but again Roddick rode the Zeitgeist, switching her stores' focus to "saving the planet" in the early Nineties just as public awareness of environmental issues began to accelerate. "The politics of the Body Shop has always been its DNA," she said. "The shops became our billboards".

It was an extraordinary achievement. She had taken "cruelty-free" products out of hippie health-food shops and into the high street. She had shown that profits and care for the planet were not irreconcilables. She took the concept of giving every business a social and environmental audit, which had been pioneered by the fair trade company Traidcaft, and applied it for the first time to a large business. She became a key figure in turning the idea of corporate social responsibility – what she described as "the notion of business as a community, the notion of spirituality in the workplace" – from an idealistic fringe notion into a mainstream concern.

Yet not everything in the Roddick empire was as it seemed. Her preachy style had long irritated many in the business world. They saw her "anti-City" attitude as massively hypocritical. But the criticisms began to come from many who should have been her natural allies. The Body Shop began to take flak for what critics claimed was a gap between its ethical image and its products.

There were damaging media stories of child labour in India, and shampoo factories polluting local rivers. Experts in fair trade revealed that the company's prominently displayed claims to pay fairer prices to the Third World poor covered less than a fraction of 1 per cent of its turnover. Human-rights campaigners said, witheringly, that although pictures of Anita Roddick in the jungle with penis-gourded men looked great in Body Shop displays, the benefits on the ground were unclear – with tribal traditions destroyed and dependency created on faddish products like Brazil nut hair conditioner for which demand might well prove unreliable.

Roddick simply shrugged as such criticisms. "If you wear a bullseye on your back saying 'I'm doing things in a different way,' you're going to get shot at," she said. "We're too interesting a company not to take pot-shots at."

She was a consummate player of the media game, with a good ear for a quotable sound-bite. Yet this great polemicist was also unafraid to get the facts wrong so long as they made the right point. As the years went by she began to believe her own rhetoric, with both positive and negative results.

As the Body Shop became a global brand, those at the helm of the business became more focused on commercial priorities. The founder's radicalism became seen by insiders as more of a liability than an asset. Fellow directors expressed scepticism about the Body Shop's anti-war protests during the First Gulf War. In 1998 she was persuaded to hand over the day-to-day running of the company to a chief executive, Patrick Gournay. In 2002 she stepped down as co-chairman and dedicated just 80 days of the year to working as a consultant in her stores.

The rest of the time she used to increase her activism across a wide range of causes. She donated $1.8m to Amnesty International, supported orphanages in Romania, advised the think-tank Demos, campaigned for the release of the three prisoners wrongfully imprisoned in Louisiana. Her portfolio of interests was huge. She was a supporter of Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Shelter, the Big Issue magazine, the anti-death penalty organisation Reprieve and founded the HIV and Aids charity Body and Soul. She campaigned strongly against slave labour in Bangladeshi sweatshops. In 2003 she was made a Dame.

But though in 2004 the Body Shop had been voted the second most trusted brand in the UK and the 28th top brand in the world, its fortunes began to suffer. In 2006 its shares tumbled nearly 20 per cent on the back of lower-than-expected Christmas sales in the UK and United States. The following year the company was sold for £652m to the French cosmetics manufacturer L'Oréal.

Roddick fans were outraged. L'Oréal had been given the lowest rating of any cosmetics firm by Ethical Consumer magazine because of the company's record on animal testing. It is also part-owned by the bête noire of the liberal-left, Nestlé, notorious for its strategy of selling baby-milk powder to breast-feeding mothers in the Third World. After the Body Shop's long years of intense campaigning against animal testing, it seemed a huge betrayal.

Roddick, who with her husband owned 18 per cent of the shares, made a reported £130m from the deal. Her erstwhile supporters saw it as further proof that the idealist entrepreneur had lost her way. Her defence that the Body Shop would become a Trojan horse that would change the policies of L'Oréal was dismissed as self-deluded.

Anita Roddick, as before, shrugged it off. Throughout her career she had defined and redefined the Roddick myth. It was not about beauty but about celebrating the female form. It was not about profit, it was about purpose. It was not about power, image or celebrity but about "being heard". In the time that was left to her, she said, she wanted to continue her championing of ethical business, human rights and saving the planet but would also turn her attention to philanthropy, claiming in an interview that "she didn't want to die rich".

"I want to define success," she once said, "by redefining it. For me it isn't that solely mythical definition – glamour, allure, power or wealth. Any definition of success should be personal, because it's so transitory. It's about shaping my own destiny."

There would be few who would deny that Anita Roddick did precisely that.

Paul Vallely

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