Dame Anita Roddick: The Body Shop

The Body Shop founder inspired millions and challenged the status quo

Twenty-six years ago the Brighton Evening Argus ran a story on a dispute between two funeral parlour owners who were upset about a new cosmetics boutique which had opened up next door.

It wasn’t the nature of the business they were getting hot under the collar about, but its name. They thought the green shop front emblazoned with the words Body Shop in gold leaf might put off prospective customers.

“They wanted me to change my shop front which I had just spent £870 of my £4,000 loan on,” recalls Roddick. “My smart move was to call the Argus and tell them I was being threatened by Mafia undertakers who wanted to close me down.”

The press loved it. The story of the beleaguered single mum with the house in hock trying to support her two kids with a bootstrapping start-up worked a treat. The small splash made Body Shop a cause célèbre, won plenty of local support and an important battle to get the business off the ground.

The anecdote is a small aside, recounted with a chuckle and a hint of outrage in a long interview. But although the battles got much bigger as Roddick’s business grew into the multinational retailer it is today, anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Body Shop story will instantly recognise the defining characteristics of its fiery feisty founder in those early days: Ethical Anita versus the big bad world.

There has never been any compromise in Roddick’s views on how business should be done: this is why her husband Gordon was tasked with handling the City suits (“they didn’t like me talking about sexual tension at work”) and why she stepped away from the business in 1998 when the shareholders said a campaigning chief executive was not what they wanted for Body Shop.

You might think after 30 years of business and the comfort of a healthy shareholding and a wedge of cash in the bank Roddick’s hunger for campaigning might have diminished. But little has changed since 1976. Her latest venture, a publishing start-up, produces books on ethical matters. It promotes her on the speaking circuit and all the profits go into campaigning. The only difference being that now she occupies the position of an icon for women and female entrepreneurs: “Something I don’t take lightly.”

And there is still plenty to shout about when it comes to what she sees as an ethical vacuum in business today. She rails against the suffocation of UK businesses as they outsource to cheaper countries; the failure to preserve the needs of shareholders in public companies; the lack of respect for the responsibility of business to the community at large; the ongoing need for women to conform to a male template in order to succeed; the lack of recognition of value that employees bring to a business.

Roddick is emphatic about what this means in practice: not sandals, beards and group hugs in the boardroom but the adoption of simple moral values. “People use the excuse of business and leave their morals at the front door and I don’t know how they get away with it. “But can ethical business really fit in with the cut-throat world of today?

Her business, she says, is living proof. She describes Body Shop, once worth £100m, as a “great business experiment” which is still proving a point: you can run an entrepreneurial business, provide a return to shareholders while campaigning on ethical issues and placing a high value on human capital.

“Being ethical in business is not about giving stuff away. It’s about your relationship with your employees, it’s about the aesthetics of the workplace and it’s about communication,” says Roddick. “There is no reason why the workplace can’t be a genuine creative place, why there can’t be flexitime, why there can’t be transparency and even good manners.”

If Roddick doesn’t sound like a business woman it’s because she has never claimed to be one. She puts her success down to a need for a livelihood and sees herself as the accidental entrepreneur. For Roddick business has been a means to an end and the bigger picture, which was more important than making money. Who knows, she may have a point.

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