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January 2005
A Dame of Big Ideas
The Satya Interview with Anita Roddick

 

Anita Roddick
Photo courtesy of Anita Roddick
When Anita Roddick founded the Body Shop in 1976, it was out of an emerging need to support herself, and she didn’t expect the endeavor to last more than a few years. Originally, Roddick sold 20 products inspired by recipes and natural ingredients she had picked up in her travels around the world. Integral to the Body Shop was an ethic of concern: incorporating environmentally sound ingredients and practices into the products and using the shops and items to raise consciousness and inspire activism among consumers. With their simple reusable bottles and no-frills packaging, the public soon caught on, launching the Body Shop into one of the most successful beauty products chains in the world.

Roddick now sits on the board of one of the world’s top 25 brands, and moved on to found a communications company publishing books that deal with the social issues she is most passionate about. Among others, these currently include the privatization of the global water supply, global conflict fueled by international trade, and freeing the American prisoners known as the Angola Three—political prisoners held in solitary confinement at Angola prison for over 31 years.

While in New York for a stop on a tour for her latest releases, Troubled Water: Saints, Sinners, Truth and Lies about the Global Water Crisis and Numbers (with David Boyle), Dame Anita Roddick sat down with Rachel Cernansky for a discussion about the Body Shop, her thoughts on the state of global economics, and what it’s like to be an older—and radical—woman.

What was the original idea behind the Body Shop?
It was about survival. My husband Gordon decided to trek from Buenos Aires to New York for two years, and the kids were very young. I said, ‘I’ll find a little livelihood and tread water until you come back.’ That’s when I came up with the idea of the Body Shop, which wasn’t going to be for more than two years—then we were going to go to Australia to run a plantation.

I think women are really good at setting up things they’re interested in if they have a bit of knowledge, and I was a history teacher, so research was crucial for me. I also traveled a lot in my 20s. If you were a working class student in the 60s you had the most sublime advantage, you belonged to a student union and travel was so cheap. I lived and studied in a kibbutz in Israel, which was a pivotal experience in community-based [living] on the land, protecting each other, with an economy determined by the family farmer. Then I visited the Polynesian islands for three months, and used what they were using on their skin and hair. It didn’t take a lot to realize everything from their garden was the first cousin to cosmetics.

In Morocco I found piles of mud called rhassoul—you mix it with water and wash your hair. In Tahiti, women had the most extraordinary skin. They took lumps of cocoa butter and rubbed it on their bodies. All those became the building blocks for the original 20 products that I had. You’ve got to go to the past and collect the ideas. When Gordon said he wanted to travel, I thought I’d open up a shop selling these 20 products. I called it the Body Shop (painting it green because it was the only color that covered the mold), and I was jammed—this is the irony—between two funeral parlors, who really objected to the name the Body Shop. But of course it gave me such [publicity] to talk to the newspaper about it.

I understand you’ve established a graduate degree at a business school in England?
I’ve set up a marketing degree in business and responsibility—the New Academy of Business, attached to Bath University. It’s accredited and for people who have [mostly worked in] the NGO and not-for-profit movements, promoting socially responsible new businesses—social businesses. It’s a two-year course geared towards issues not taught in business school: human rights and international trade; mass unemployment. It’s a very popular program. People talk about [human rights] in America but [I don’t know if] they’re actually learning [about it].

What were some of the guiding principles when you started the Body Shop?
People assume that we were campaigning, that we were environmentalists. We couldn’t have spelled the word environment in those days. We were social activists. In America you had the anti-war movement. In England, we had mostly the student union movement and the anti-atomic bomb movement. The guiding principles, I think, were never to tell lies, never cheat. We were learning so much from the Quakers—they’re great businesspeople. And the cooperative movement, Scandinavian business practices, the Amish. Those were the good practices we were looking for, our founding principles—go back to the community and protect the workers.

But mostly we wanted to find the human spirit in the workplace as [much] as we wanted to develop products. And that was really well achieved, because we were so nonhierarchical, it was a very cooperative group of people.

The other principles were that no product, no ingredient was ever animal tested. That was a major building block. The other was very much human rights. We dedicated the Articles of Association and Memoranda, which in England is the legal definition of the purpose of your company, to human rights advocacy and social and environmental change. So everything the company did had that as its canopy. We used our ideas to corral millions of customers into the shop to change the world [with respect to] animal testing or to help human rights activists or prisoners of conscience. You could have 2,000 shops fighting against certain issues. I mean we did the most amazing campaigns. On political prisoners around the world—30 political prisoners, 17 were released. I think that was the single most courageous thing we did. We turned our shops into little [activist] stations, where the guiding principle was that we had to clean up our own mess.

When you talk about cleaning up your own mess—how?
We made our own boxes, and recycled them. We have our own compost system which was copied from Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry’s, where all the water from our cleaning processes went into and was recycled into the products. And we invested 40 percent of our energy in a wind power station in Wales.

Also we were looking at community initiatives, so that if you make skin and haircare products, it’s not a matter of life and death. We found we could balance these by defining trade; by having conversations with farmers or growers or cooperatives around the world, asking them, “You grow this, harvest it, we will buy from you.” We call it community trade, and we have some projects around the world, supporting thousands of families. It’s a very honorable exchange. We see the results: in schools and latrines that are built; cooperatives; HIV/AIDS workshops; livestock.

We have a wonderful project in Nicaragua where we work with sesame farmers. For five years I’ve been trying to get Avon, who is huge, to purchase some of their sesame oil, which is wonderful on the skin. To this day I have not managed to get any cosmetic house to [do this.]

Well that comes to my next question. As the pioneer behind the Body Shop, how do you see the relationship between sustainability and a successful business, or consumerism, really? Can they co-exist?
That’s a difficult question. I think there’s a myth that says to grow is the way to go. I don’t think you need to grow that way to be successful. You can honor [the idea] of a livelihood and run an honorable enterprise. I keep saying now to young entrepreneurs, “Don’t take up the traditional business model. Look at the work. Even if it’s a small version of a large company, you’re still going to have the thinking of a large company.”

One of the biggest mistakes I made was to go public and on the stock market. If I had had the knowledge then, and the patience, I would not have. It’s such a sickness when you’re successful, to keep growing and growing—and it’s bullshit. But you don’t know that, you’re just so excited. Going public is really a way of saying that your financial bottom line is your motivator, and how you treat the community doesn’t matter. That’s never part of a business measure—it should be, but it isn’t. It’s always about maximizing profits, and we were always being contrary to that—doing things that the financial journalists were very wary of; acting like a nonprofit group and putting part of the profit back into the community.

But you’re right—unless you can have a model in terms of sustainability, [where you’re] increasingly aware of what you take out and put back in/on the planet… The biggest dilemma for me is water because in cosmetics you use so much. So we came out with a line about five years ago, which at minimum has less than five percent water in it. And I thought it was the most innovative product we ever did, but nobody bought it. Maybe it was the wrong time, maybe the Body Shop should take it up now. It’s always a [matter] of the right time.

I usually hate what-if questions, but do you think if you hadn’t gone public, you would’ve been as successful?
Oh absolutely. The only thing is it would’ve taken longer—but then, it wouldn’t have mattered. If I could’ve jumped 10 or 15 years in the future and saw ‘this is how it would be, and this is how it could be,’ Gordon and I [would’ve stayed] the same. I think there’s a fascism attached to financial institutions, which only look at a very unimaginative bottom line. It doesn’t look at human rights, social justice, trade justice, or the community. Profit is the nature—the law—of business. That has to [be] considered but not at the expense of human rights, environmental standards, community, not at their expense. I think if you put in that extra [code of] laws, business can change in a nanosecond. It just doesn’t have the political will to do it because the maximizing of profit is the modus operandi.

How do you envision a globalized economy system without that problem coming up?
Well number one, we’ve got two systems. I think economic globalization or corporate globalization as I prefer to call it, is genius, because it’s so divisive and so greedy. It’s causing so much conflict. What you’re having now is this incredible rebirth of democracy coming out mostly from the South, but [also] coming onto the streets of the North, where people are just saying, this is not the right way to go. You have events like the [World] Social Forums, which are [exploding] with creative ideas, where people are realizing that freedom is not just about the right to vote five or ten times in their lifetime, but it is the freedom to make decisions, freedom to be in control of your life. Wherever you look, you see it from places you least expect it. The Zapatistas in Mexico, some of them couldn’t even speak Spanish and yet they were probably the most profound poetic moral protesters against NAFTA. You had the first real outrage at globalization [internationally] in 1999 [at the WTO meeting in Seattle], and everywhere around the world [since], [where] the G8 meet and at WTO conferences, you’re finding a true metamorphosis happening. Three or four big countries who’ve got such [power], and poorer countries getting together saying this is not right, we will not be controlled by these multinationals.

And you have Lula in Brazil, who says he won’t put long-term interest into security—buying missiles, etc.—he puts it into poverty eradication. And no matter how much the American administration hates Venezuela—Hugo Chavez—Central America is saying no longer do you come in and interfere with our democratic rights—we don’t want what you did in Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, or other countries. The social movements are really exciting, [it’s just] they’re not on the radar screen—the slow food movement in Italy, the slow city movement. These are all courageous antidotes to this fat corporate greed. I’m pretty optimistic.

People really don’t know the truth behind what they’re buying. They don’t know that Monsanto at this moment is trying to buy all the seed stock from Indian farmers so they have no alternative but to buy genetically modified seeds. People in the U.S. don’t know about the abuses of Coca-Cola in India, taking all the well water [from] the farmers.

I suppose it’s a question of do they want to know.
I don’t know about you, but I want to know. I want to choose what I buy. You wouldn’t get Coca-Cola in my bloody house to save your life; you wouldn’t get Evian, any bottled water. And certainly anybody who chooses to shop in Wal-Mart—the conditions and slave economies in countries [where cheap products are made, in] Bangladesh and Saipan, Honduras and Nicaragua. I remember a woman in Nicaragua, I walked five miles back to her cottage with her, she said, ‘Just tell people anywhere you go, that all we want to do is move from slavery to poverty.’ To tell this story, I’ve got to be in there, talking, seeing: in the slums in Bangladesh, watching the women filter the cholera from the water with their saris; they can’t drink from the wells because they’re filled with arsenic. That’s the job of magazines like yours, to [reach] whoever’s suppressed by indifference, by apathy, and by design by the big media.

We’re trying! But to get back to the Body Shop—do you think the social responsibility aspect of the company is still genuine, even though you’re more distant from the control?
The Body Shop is sterling with their involvement with community trade. If that just stays protected, I’m going to die happy, because that is about poverty eradication. They’re never going to be as radical as me.

I emailed every shop around the world saying you’ve got to stand up and protest against the world war in Iraq. Australia held a great event—Australian Body Shops were against the war and had ‘Give peace a chance’ postcards, and thousands and thousands of customers came and cheered them. But it didn’t go anywhere else.

So I’m more radical. As women get older, they get more radical. But what the Body Shop has done, which I think is intelligent, is stayed with one campaign, the Violence Against Women campaign, which is very appropriate and has been extraordinarily effective. So I think they’re doing the best they can. And they’re doing a phenomenal job on the products.

What’s your relationship to the company now?
I sit on the board [and am a major shareholder], and I do about 80 days a year of consulting. And I’m thrilled with this new business, the direct selling, which I think is most vital. It brings me back—in the old days of the Body Shop what I was so thrilled with was job creation, jobs that I thought created freedom. Now, in just a year and a half, thousands of women are choosing to balance their lives as mothers, going back to work, and [operating] Body Shops out of their homes. It’s so successful because it’s dealing with loneliness. And it’s also women being able to choose. People are making a great amount of money that they ought to be helping and supporting other women—and it’s just brilliant.

What’s your favorite product?
My favorite are the body butters. I bloody love them.

Back to your current work. How did you get started on these particular projects?
When I left the Body Shop, I decided that what made me feel so alive was the campaigning and social justice work. So I opened a small office in San Francisco and said any way that I can find a means of communication—if people are informed, really well informed, and in commotion, then they can move to action. Everything is about moving to action, and one of the best ways is information, whether it’s books, websites, supporting documentaries, whatever.

The first two books I came [out with were] Brave Hearts, Rebel Spirits, which was a celebration of spiritual activists. I wasn’t interested in people who just went to church and prayed; I wanted people with an energy about them. I looked around the world and found that so many of the spiritual activists were liberation theologians that came out of America. It was a real education. Then I did A Revolution in Kindness, [looking at] kindness and institutions: what would the military look like if it was kinder, what would education look like and [different] industries if they were kinder? One of the most powerful books was Take it Personally, which [looked at] global economics and was very graphic. The other thing is [resources]—if you get really outraged about sweatshop labor, these are the actions you can do, the magazines you can buy, the groups you can belong to. I then decided that was a good template for issues like water.

Why a book on numbers?

Because I hate them; everything’s about stats. And it’s ironic that kids in England just don’t want to do math, they hate it. But they get out of the classroom and you get your pin numbers, your telephone numbers, your insurance numbers, whatever numbers you’ve got—research numbers about how many women buy meat on a Tuesday at sunset. And then you’ve got lies, numbers by omission. We know how many soldiers died in Iraq, we don’t know how many people were killed as a result. And my numbers are selective. I wanted not just these crazy, wonderful, wild and sometimes impossible numbers. I wanted to know why, I wanted the stories embedded in the narrative.

What are some of the more shocking things that you’ve learned?
Indifference in humans. Human frailty. I went to give a major speech at an international chamber of commerce, and I’d been in Mexico and seen children born with no genitalia because of pesticides in the tobacco fields, and I was sharing this with the people who could do something about it, these heads of huge corporations, [who were] absolutely [indifferent]. That shocked me to the core. And suffering of kids: when you see kids or young people working 20 hours a day—20 hours a day—being beaten, being forced to take contraceptives, forced to take an abortion pill if they’re pregnant—just to get a cheap product out the door. That completely outrages me. Because in this new millennia, still we can’t dialogue. We don’t put a penny towards peace initiatives; why can’t we bloody sit down and dialogue? The whole role of the armaments industry shocks me. And the commodification of water—of life-giving beings.

Can you talk about what it’s like to be a woman ‘leader’?
I think it’s very interesting, but the area I’m more interested in is my age group. I think women in their early 60s have a moral canopy over their lives and they have wisdom—and they’re not heard. And women my age really want to be heard. Number two, women have no place in history and they don’t know history. When you get to be my age group, you’re raised to believe that your job is to be selfless. And women as they get older, get more radical. I think the sadness for me is that women have no voice—little voice. Or their voice is constructed by the fashion and beauty industry.

And [with advertising,] they have the strategy that they know works: if you control a woman’s body, you control her mind and if you control her mind, you control her money. That’s why women are so unsexy now, in terms of the fashion and beauty industry, they have no sensation of their bodies, they have no worth, they have no mischievousness. It’s all about fashion and what you look like, how more like a male you are—being androgynous is the answer in that industry. And I think it’s the power that’s frightening. There’s always been a fear of women’s power—women can give birth, women have the secret, they can create life. And then you’ve got religious fundamentalists—whether it’s Jewish or Christian or Islamic—it’s [about] control. It’s a tough one because I think we’re distracted. Our purpose is to consume, to buy, to choose between one shirt and another—and that’s the dilemma.

What do you say to combat indifference in people, do you engage in discussion?
By the time I was 40, I learned I just haven’t got the time for that. And now, it always comes out as cynicism, doesn’t it? I think that one of the best [responses] is to ask the questions to them—what do you mean by this, what do you mean by that? And it takes time, it’s a process. But most of the time, I just don’t want to be in their company, I want to be in the company of people who inspire the hell out of me, you know like Vandana Shiva; people like Ralph Nader and Noam Chomsky.

And naturally, there are also people who don’t have a voice; like the women in India in the Chipko movement—they’ve never heard of Friends of the Earth, never heard the word environment, but they hold hands to [prevent] their trees from being cut down. And they’re one of the biggest environmental groups in India. That’s really inspiration. [Most people have] never heard of them. It’s just amazing how ideas have wings.

To learn more, visit www.anitaroddick.com.

 


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