How Anita changed the world

Her pioneering spirit touched lives the world over – and changed the way we do business for ever. Michael McCarthy bids farewell to Anita Roddick, an ethical revolutionary

Wednesday 12 September 2007 00:00 BST

Also in this article:
Her words: Editing The Independent
Comment: 'She had undying drive'

It's a mammoth accolade, is it not, to say that someone changed the world, if, by that we mean that they changed profoundly the way we all think? It's usually said only of figures of titanic international greatness (frequently bearded).

Three good candidates of recent history (all bearded) would be Marx, Freud and Darwin. They changed the way we think, all right. They undermined the idea of human free will. Marx showed that we are controlled by impersonal economic forces, Freud that we are controlled by forces deep in our psyches, and Darwin that we are controlled by the legacy of our human ancestors. Big brains, eh? Not half. And on first consideration it might seem presumptuous to a degree to include in this august company of Dead White European Males a woman from Sussex who sold shampoo. Yet there seems no doubt that Anita Roddick, the founder of The Body Shop, did change profoundly the way that we think about things, in a way that flowed on to change the world itself.

Disregard, for a moment, the thousands of Roddick headlines, to look behind the legend. The achievements of Britain's Green Queen were so many, in so many fields – animal rights, human rights, fair trade, environmental protection, chairing this, campaigning for that – that they are what we first see, and applaud her for vigorously. But they are not where Roddick's true originality lies.

To understand that, we have to take ourselves back 40 years, to the mid-Sixties, when Roddick herself was a hippie on a kibbutz, and try to remember: what was the world of business like, in 1967?

At that time in Britain, business was led by grand and pompous manufacturing companies such as ICI, the chemicals behemoth, or Courtaulds, the textiles giant: huge, monolithic firms employing armies of overalled manual workers, with a few Savile Row-suited, claret-sipping directors at the top. Medium-sized companies were of similar structure.

Small firms, from a garage to a grocery shop, were based around a bloke in a pullover with a pencil behind his ear. What did these companies, great and small, all exist for? To make profits, and as a by-product of that, to provide jobs. Nothing else. To suggest that they might be a force for social good, beyond the subsidised canteen, the company sports field and the pension fund, would have been regarded as bizarre. Social good was what charities, like the RSPCA or the NSPCC, or the churches, or left-wing politicians, pursued.

You could take the view, as Americans forcefully did, that capitalism was benevolent in itself, and spread prosperity throughout society – "a rising tide lifts all boats", John F Kennedy said.

But apart from distributing prosperity, there was no role whatsoever envisaged for business in making the world a better place. Indeed, many of its practices made it a far worse one. Yet business is an immensely powerful force.

What if – nobody even dreamt it, but, nevertheless, what if that force could in fact be harnessed? What if it could be made in some way the thundering engine behind social change, and, indeed, behind improvement?

It seems clear that this revolutionary idea did not spring fully-formed from the head of Roddick when she started the first Body Shop in Brighton in 1976. She said many times that she was merely looking for an income for herself and her two young children while her husband was on a world tour.

But it began to emerge from the nature of the business she had set up. She sold cosmetics, natural and simple ones, as opposed to the crystal-bottled boudoir potions of the major cosmetic companies. There was another difference. Her products were not tested on live animals.

Thirty years ago, such testing was standard practice around the world. Ever had shampoo in your eyes? Boy, does it sting (or at least it used to). So how, 30 years ago, did we test a new shampoo for eye-stinging potential? Drop it in a rabbit's eyes. Of course, you've got to immobilise the rabbit. You wouldn't want to be running after it with a dropper. That would take all day. So you tie it down, slosh in the shampoo, and see how it likes it.

Roddick did not want any part of that. She found that her customers did not either. Her cruelty-free cosmetics sold like hot cakes. She may have stumbled upon the notion of ethical consumerism, but she made two discoveries about it: it was great for business, and it could enable business to change society.

The role of Roddick and The Body Shop in getting cosmetic testing on animals banned in Britain (and soon, in Europe) is the absolutely classic example of using business for social ends in a way that was unimaginable a generation ago. According to Michelle Thew, the chief executive of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV), the pressure group most associated with the campaign, both the woman and her company were crucial.

"When we started, testing of cosmetic ingredients and products on animals in the UK was universal, and the cosmetic companies said you couldn't do it any other way," says Ms Thew. "Anita showed that there was. She and The Body Shop provided a model to show the companies you could do it differently, and most important, they offered shoppers in the high street a choice. And she was absolutely inspiring, with campaigning and petitions. She was absolutely pivotal."

The campaign reached its initial climax in 1997 when the incoming Labour government banned the testing of cosmetics on animals in Britain. A European Union ban is now to follow in 2009, and by 2013, no cosmetics tested on animals will be permitted to be imported into Europe from anywhere.

It would be a perverted soul indeed who would deny that this is a terrific achievement. But Roddick's real originality wasn't just about banning animal testing. It was to understand that her business could do it, could make such a big change. This involved understanding the power of business itself; to realise that, in the right hands, business was the most powerful tool of all.

This is a truth which was long unpalatable to the vast majority of green activists and other social-justice campaigners. Roddick's striking image is of the green businesswoman. But what is unusual is not that she was a businesswoman with a green streak; it is that she was an environmentalist who believed in business. Her key insight was made explicit in her book Business as Unusual. "There is no more powerful institution in society than business," she wrote.

She remade the image of business, of course, with The Body Shop: casual, consumer-friendly, smiling, rather as Richard Branson created a new type of company with Virgin. But Branson's was a surface change: he might do business with an open-necked shirt and a grin, but his focus has always been a traditional one: on profits. Roddick's aim was much wider, and once she understood the power of business, she did indeed set about using it to change the world.

Fair trade was her most important cause. She not only sourced exotic products from exotic places but she insisted that the producers got a fair deal for them. It was another new model of doing things: it ran counter to the exploitation of developing countries and their peoples that was long a trademark of Western capitalism. It also helped influence the idea that trade, in the end, was better than aid; poor people were better off with businesses of their own, rather than with dependency on handouts. She put the idea into practice from the late Seventies, and over the succeeding years forced it into the consciousness of Western consumers, not least by her widely publicised trips to meet the people making banana-skin carrier bags and thistle bath-scrubs everywhere across the globe from the Amazon to Nepal, from Iceland to Polynesia.

Most of all, she was the first one to do it. Fairtrade coffee and Fair-trade bananas are commonplace today, but Roddick invented the idea. "There was a lot of hand-wringing about this at the beginning," says Tony Juniper, the executive director of Friends of the Earth. "But she was the one who showed it could be done. While other people were talking about it, she went and did it."

It was only a short step from Fairtrade to fairness in general, and her support for human rights, which led her to take up causes around the world; in recent years she had also seen what a threat global warming was, especially to the poor of developing countries. All these concerns of hers were enormously important; they all made stories and they all made headlines, but in summing up her real achievement, and how she made a major difference, they are essentially details.

She did, indeed, change profoundly the way we look at the world, by changing the way we looked at business, and seeing the scale of what that could do.

"Anita challenged social entrepreneurs to raise their game," says Brendan Cox, the executive director of Crisis Action, a charity that Roddick funded. "She said: 'Enough bring-and-buy sales; let's change the global economy.'"

Where once charities and campaigners had toiled alone, she showed that capitalist companies could succeed even better. She showed that capitalism itself, which had largely despoiled the world for two centuries, could, in the right hands, be put to repairing it – in a way that nobody had ever imagined.

Roddick altered forever the paradigm of business, and in doing so, changed the world in just as powerful a way as did any of the bearded thinkers who went before her.


'I am 60 years old, and I'm not quite done yet with the business of being a woman'

In June 2003 Anita Roddick guest-edited 'The Independent' for a day. She wrote the following column for that paper

I have never been able to stand "old" people, people for whom ageing becomes an excuse for physical and mental inertia. Perhaps that's why my own attitude to ageing is a little ambiguous. I relished the idea of accumulated wisdom, but I was bothered by the thought of ageing as some kind of anteroom to death, and death has always been my bogeyman, to the point where I was scared to sleep in case I never woke up.

However, my phobia was then, and this is now. I am 60 years old, and I'm not quite done yet with the business of being a woman: the worrying about what you look like, how you're relating to people, what they're thinking of you. Nevertheless, I don't look at a younger woman and wish I was her. I want to broker time, not looks. I believe that a door is opening on a decade when I will celebrate everything that has come before in my life. I imagine the day must come when I'll look back and see that door closing, and I'm sure that will be a shock. But between then and now, I intend to make the most of my opportunities and experience.

My life has been unorthodox. It couldn't have been any other way because I am my mother's daughter. Everything I am I can lay at the feet of Gilda, the woman who went hot-air ballooning in her eighties. I grew up in Littlehampton, which was about as twitchy-net-curtain as the South Coast got, so you can only imagine how my mother, a passionate Italian paesano, stood out. She drummed into me that I should be anything but mediocre. And she taught by example. For instance, my feelings about the inadequacies of organised religion were sealed by the sight of my mother hurling a bucket of dirty water at the parish priest when he came to talk to her about my father's funeral.

She also, more importantly, helped form my views about women's roles in the modern world. If you are my age, you grew up in a society which dictated that a woman earned her living through caring for and nurturing the male breadwinner. When you were young, you were never told how remarkable you were, and, as you grew within the social system, the idea that you were smart, courageous and valuable was never expressed.

We brought this training in selflessness into everything we did: to the movements we were in, to the community, to the household, and yet all the time, we constantly failed to recognise our belief in our own inner needs. We weren't taught about our role in history, or the external influences that stole away our sense of self.

Self-esteem has become a derided and dreaded word, but it is not the wishy-washy subject that its detractors would have us believe, particularly those who depend on women's self-sacrifice. On the contrary, self-esteem is the radical route to revolution. This sounds strange because we are not in the habit of making the connection between self-esteem and democracy, dignity, political activism and freedom of sexual expression. We cannot have self-government without the confidence in one's own authority that is at the root of it.

So it is no wonder that, when we had been taught otherwise for so long, in my youth, habits of freedom were difficult to acquire; and also why so many of us were (and are) ambivalent about feminism. Even now, a full 35 years after the women's movement started, glossy magazines targeted at women are still full of advertisements bombarding us with images of smiling and compliant women, whose message seems to be nothing more complicated than: "Shut up, get a facelift and stop eating."

Which brings me to an area I know well: the cosmetics industry. Even in its best light, the industry is dull and unimaginative, run by men who create needs that don't exist. Its primary function is to make women unhappy with what they have; it plays on insecurities and self-doubt by projecting impossible ideals of feminine beauty. It is also racist, rarely celebrating women outside Caucasian culture, and has conspired to leave us alienated from our own bodies.

We have been taught to despise the bulges, stretch-marks and wrinkles, which show how we've worked hard, in and out of the home; how we've produced fabulous kids; enjoyed good meals; tossed back a drink or two; laughed, cried and endured countless indignities; how we've groaned and moved on.

Why don't we celebrate the change of flesh? The ageing of the flesh? Why is perfection and youth always the ideal? Why do we think of wrinkles as some kind of "disease"? How is it that, for instance, "beauty" magazines can devote acres of space to fashioning such natural processes as cellulite and ageing into phoney medical conditions, and yet fail to run articles exposing the tobacco industry?

But it is in the wider business world where I feel most despondent about the role of women. According to reports, if women continue to progress at the current rate, it will be 500 years before they have equal managerial status in the world. Five hundred years! And after that, it will be another 475 years – so we are talking about the best part of a millennium – before women will hold equal political and economic status in the world.

Until the Seventies, women remained virtually invisible as managers. Now that's changing, largely because, in a ferociously competitive economy, no company can afford to waste valuable brainpower simply because it's wearing a bra.

But still we have professions controlled by men; women have little access to their social networks, and there are still misconceptions of women's abilities. Investigations into women's progress are relatively few, but the worst syndrome of all is how sparingly women support each other. Women managers fail to mentor, and women journalists often fail to support women activists.

We have to rethink the whole practice of management education to bring gender issues out of the shade and into the sunshine. Everywhere I travel, I encounter people, mostly women, who instinctively know how to manage this planet, but are silenced by a soulless worldview that privileges the white, the male, and the educated. Truly engaged global management education must engage in a dialogue with all voices.

There is a myth that suggests that the way for a woman to succeed is to undergo a metaphorical sex change, to be tough-talking or to smoke cigars. But research from the United States shows a different profile emerging: women managers who are effective social initiators, anticipating problems and possible solutions. Women build alliances, bring people together and, most importantly, they develop networks. Their biggest strength is communication.

Never forget that some of the greatest social-justice movements of our time have grown up out of a sense of shared community: the women's movement, the gay-rights movement, the ecology movement. It was women's innate sense of consciousness-raising that got these movements off the ground and we must never, ever lose that sense of shared collective action which is our heritage.

As we age, we want to be heard, whether it's in marriage, politics, friendship or in the workplace. We also become more radical. That's our pattern. As Dorothy Sayers said, "A woman in advancing age is unstoppable by any earthly force." I hope to be no different. And, after all, I am my mother's daughter.


'She had the undying drive to make things better for people'

By Esther Walker

Before Anita Roddick came along, the residents of Achuapa, Nicaragua, were not having a good time. In 1998, the area had been devastated by Hurricane Mitch, one of the most severe on record, and a resurgence of internal conflict had torn rural communities apart and destroyed hospitals and houses.

The Body Shop founder visited local farms and discovered a sustainable market for the farmers' production of sesame seed oil. By 2001, 130 farmers worked full-time to supply her firm's entire quota. Today, Achuapa has a new medical centre, a school and even its own small bank, which provides small loans at preferential rates.

The farmers of Achuapa are not the only ones to have had their fortunes reversed following a visit from Roddick. The Body Shop now sources ingredients and products from a total of 29 local suppliers in 23 countries, including cocoa butter producers in Ghana and aloe farmers in Guatemala.

In 1989, Roddick attended a gathering of Amazonian tribes protesting against a hydroelectric project that would have flooded their lands. She struck a deal, which still exists, to buy brazil nuts, which were then crushed to make moisturisers and conditioners. The revenue allowed them to protect their land, and to demarcate further areas of forest as protected against loggers.

Another supplier is Teddy Exports, from Tirumangalam in southern India. Adult workers, who make the Footsie foot massager and the Bag For Life, are transported to the factory and given free meals. Their children attend the Teddy School nearby, funded in part by the Body Shop.

Another success story concerns beekeepers from the miombo forest of north-western Zambia. Without access to a large, sustainable market, their profits were negligible. Today, the number of beekeepers has risen from 2,000 to 6,000, including 600 women.

"When I visit the farmers in Achuapa, the first thing they say is, 'How's Anita?'" says Dr Graham Clewer, head of community trade at the Body Shop. "She went everywhere, she knew everyone; it was her life. She had the ability to put herself in other people's shoes, and the undying drive to make things better for people. She was my hero."

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