Anita takes the stand: no jokes, no chewing

Simon Garfield
Friday 02 July 1993 23:02

ANITA RODDICK sits at the front in creased linen and snake-motif waistcoat, wriggling and itching away, wishing she was with Kayapo Indians, not at all happy with the constraints of the High Court in the Strand. But Mrs Roddick, Body Shop's 50-year-old founder and group managing director, is here of her own volition, risking a week or two's takings by bringing a libel action against those who claim her business image is a sham.

The Body Shop is suing Fulcrum Productions and Channel 4 for suggesting in Dispatches in May 1992 that Mrs Roddick and her company practised not all that they preached, that their customers were being duped by rhetoric. The programme asked such things as: was the Body Shop's mountain gorilla face flannel conceived with more concern for profits than for endangered species? Were Body Shop staff really part of a family, or merely indoctrinated with Mrs Roddick's fiery polemic?

At the core of the case is the Body Shop's policy against testing its products on animals, the tenet on which the company has built its reputation, and has grown from a quaint shop in Brighton in 1976 to about 800 outlets in 40 countries, from a pounds 4,000 loan to an annual turnover of pounds 168m, from five staff to 5,000 (many of them in white shirts emblazoned FREEDOM), from an outlet for aloe and jojoba to a souk of peppermint foot lotion, liquorice bubble bath and neck gel. The products used to say 'not tested on animals', now they say 'against animal testing' (they say it on duffel bags, on flannels, on mugs); this may be connected with the fact that some of their ingredients have been tested on animals, but by their suppliers, not them, and not in

the last five years. The programme- makers contest that this makes them no better than most cosmetics companies. Mrs Roddick says the programme was a malicious hatchet job.

For her performance we have had to wait a little. For most of the week it was the turn of Gordon Roddick, Anita's husband of 23 years, chairman of the company, silent partner.

He has a dark suit, brash tie, dashing hair and a debilitating stammer, compounded this week by courtroom nerves. People talk of him as a brilliant businessman, the nuts and bolts behind the frantic hill-tribe greeter. And the businessman is angry, because he's calculated that the Dispatches programme resulted in a pounds 463,000 loss in trade.

Cross-examining for the defence, Richard Rampton QC held up a litre bottle of aloe: 'This bottle has already been opened,' he said. 'That's not to say the top has been taken off it, but to say that it has already been introduced into the proceedings. This label lists ingredients that have been tested on animals, have they not?'

Mr Roddick: 'It does not breach our five-year rule.'

'Yet it says on the label 'Against animal testing'. Doesn't that suggest that the ingredients have not been tested on animals?'

'It's a campaigning slogan. We do not breach our five-year rule.'

There then followed much on what the five-year rule actually means, what the Body Shop asks its suppliers, if its suppliers furnish many barrels of nasty bunny-tested stuff immediately the five-year rule is up.

'There's no room on the label to explain everything,' Mr Roddick said. 'If our customers are interested, they will ask for more information, they will ask for a leaflet.' (The leaflets currently available in Oxford Street do not make much of this rule, although they do boast that the banana hair putty is 10 per cent bananas, as opposed to Mrs Roddick herself, who may - by including the following at the end of one leaflet - be regarded as 100 per cent bananas: 'We don't consider our customers to be mere consumers - we consider them to be our friends. How about suggestions for improvements or new product ideas? Do you know any good jokes?')

No jokes in court, though there was a bizarre interjection from Mr Justice Jowitt. 'I've noticed there have been a couple of people chewing. This is not a suitable activity for a court of law.'

Yesterday was showtime. Mrs Roddick took the stand (her big day should have been Thursday, but a juror called up sick). She was worth waiting for: though she was born in Littlehampton, West Sussex, she looks quite the tribal warrior today, boisterous conviction, unflappable belief, hands flailing, almost enjoying the joust. Her frizzed, hennaed hair is a marvel - clear testament to what brazil-nut semen will do for you.

She's off to a fine start when asked by her counsel, Charles Gray QC, what she did with the royalties from her autobiography. 'All the royalties went to groups we were espousing - a medical foundation for victims of international torture . . . a rape crisis clinic in America.' This set the tone, as Mrs Roddick took us to the Majority World: India, Malaysia, Mexico - the Body Shop trades with them all and pays 'First World prices', even for beaded foot massagers.

Mr Gray and Mrs Roddick played it like Saint and Greavsie. 'Am I right in saying that in 1986 you received the Business Woman of the Year award?' He was. 'Did you receive the Order of the British Empire in 1988?' She did. 'You have been awarded four honorary degrees?' 'Something like that.'

Mrs Roddick was visiting a Penang tribe when the Dispatches programme was broadcast. 'When I got out of the forest I rang up Gordon and he told me about it . . . I was appalled.' It was all so cynical, she said, all so misleading; cruelty without beauty. 'It was like the whole thing we're doing was some huge marketing exercise. I knew about the British wanting to knock everything, but this was so irregular.'

Cross-examining, Mr Rampton managed to get down to the knuckle fast. 'Much of your campaigning stance is a ploy for commercial gain, Mrs Roddick.' 'Absolutely, absolutely not. If it was all for commercial gain, all I had to do was make a cream that gets rids of wrinkles or makes your bust bigger. That's what the cosmetics industry does. That's how you make your millions.'

The case is expected to last several weeks.

Sandra Barwick is on holiday.

(Photograph omitted)

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments