Dame Anita Lucia Roddick founded The Body Shop out of a desire to make ends meet in 1976. Her husband had left for the Americas for two years to ride a horse from Buenos Aires to New York. You can still find some interviews she’s given online.
Listening to her talk, she sounds like a sort of Dame MacGyver, someone who can use the tools she has at her disposal to make things happen. She could take you from traveling for work to starting the franchise to the rise of the World Fair Trade Organization in six and a half minutes.
Roddick started with 25 products, but of five sizes to fill this small shop located in between funeral parlors in Brighton. As she tells the story:
The original Body Shop was a series of brilliant accidents. It had a great smell, it had a funky name. It was positioned between two funeral parlours—that always caused controversy. It was incredibly sensuous.
It was 1976, the year of the heatwave, so there was a lot of flesh around. We knew about storytelling then, so all the products had stories. We recycled everything, not because we were environmentally friendly, but because we didn't have enough bottles. It was a good idea.
What was unique about it, with no intent at all, no marketing nous, was that it translated across cultures, across geographical barriers and social structures. It wasn't a sophisticated plan, it just happened like that.
The undertakers didn’t like their caskets to pass by “The Body Shop” sign. But she’d paid for the sign and didn’t want to back down. So she placed an anonymous phone call to the local newspaper saying she was being intimidated by mafia undertakers.
“I knew how to talk to people,” she said. “But we had stories. Every product had a story.” And this is the meaningful bit: She explained the mistakes she made, how it got made, and so on.
At first, friends bought the products. Roddick opened a second store. But then started thinking about franchise: a way to self-fund.
They were interviewing people like teachers and activists to figure out who they wanted. They asked questions like “what color do you like?” but also “what car do you have?” and “what car do you want?” If you’d want to jump from a VW to a BMW, well, that was a telltale sign you were not right.
It was a heady time. The first overseas franchise was in Brussels in 1978. Ruby was The Body Shop's most successful campaign: A size 16 doll, who had a passing resemblance to Barbie. The image of the naked red-haired doll, hands behind her head and wind in her hair became the embodiment of the campaign. Steve Perry was the photographer.
By 1996 the business had expanded to over 1,300 shops in 45 countries. In 1990, prompted by visits to Romanian orphanages, she founded Children on the Edge, a charitable organization that helps disadvantaged children in Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia.
What was brilliant about the beginnings was the community: they were building and learning from each other. They were very excited about the development of the human spirit in the workplace, not just the product. Which made them a very strong communications company.
As she tells the story, at 150 shops they made the biggest mistake: They went into the stock market. It was 1984. “Don’t ever do it,” that’s how strongly Roddick felt about it. But they did it because they wanted to control the manufacturing and have the money to build a manufacturing plant and their recycling. Vertical integration was good.
However, suddenly, “you were measured not for how many jobs you were creating, which was our heartbeat. We created 100 jobs this year. But it was about how much you were worth. And that changed everything.” So they instituted obstacles like community service, which the company paid for.
“one very unimaginative bottom-line profit and loss” the fascism of the city.
Because “it doesn’t include human rights or social justice,
or environmental protection.”
The language of business, which The Body Shop started doing early in the ‘90s was phenomenal, but it didn’t stay because the system changed. The company was sharing best practices with Ben & Jerry and Patagonia, but they weren’t keeping an eye on who controls the system.
And the system has been making it harder to uphold values in business.
Born Anita Lucia Perilli, Roddick was an immigrant, from an Italian family. They had a restaurant and a work ethic. Responsibility was pushed on her from an early age. Her first venture was a bed and breakfast and a small restaurant called Paddington’s. Being an outsider, an immigrant, is something many entrepreneurs have in common.
I think that most people who found companies are a different breed: they’re outsiders. Entrepreneurs have often had a diminished childhood: they often have been forced into adulthood by the loss of a parent or whatever. They have absolutely no interest in money, none whatsoever. It’s just the cheekiness of an idea, and the extension of your personality.
She felt that you start where people have a sense of their own worth. To her, the cosmetics industry was ripe for a change. Because it's about celebrating who you are, not trying to cover it up. From her travels around the world, she learned to appreciate the ritualizing of your own body. Which is not part of Western culture.
In an industry controlled by men, she wanted to bring forward the idea of gardening and cultivation of the body. Though the green color of the early shop was to cover up the patches, it stuck. With The Body Shop, Roddick saw the opportunity to re-inject play and storytelling in an industry that pushed too hard on appearance.
She pushed back on the cultural history that denigrated women. As I wrote in Fast Company to commemorate her death in 2007, value-based customer service is not lip service. She anticipated the values of her customers, super served them and never wavered. Her success followed naturally.
“How can I bring values into an industry that is certainly not values-laden?” That is the question she posed in her biography. She inspired many to do something. Her business transparency in the sourcing of the products’ ingredients was a smart move and her insight as to corporations needing to open their doors to consumer power voluntarily were both ahead of the times.
When she went to Harvard to talk about social responsiveness and social responsibility, the notion of business as a community, the notion of spirituality in the workplace, she was like an alien. In Body and Soul (Ebury Press, 1991), she wrote, “By the year 2000, any company that does not operate like The Body Shop will have a hard time operating at all.”
Body Shop International had a Values and Vision Department – 40 people in public affairs, human rights and international trade.
Where we are now
But she had not foreseen the power of transnational corporations. Shareholder profit was already changing the dynamics between business and employees. She saw it a few years after listing the company. However, she also seen how public consciousness was rising. How shopping was becoming a moral choice.
unless there is a revolution where consumers are more vigilante, more demanding to know about the practices of these large, faceless organisations. Otherwise, I think the large corporations are just going to have their way and will in fact control the world, because economics at this stage overrides everything.
But, also, no company seems to have a moral agenda.
It's a stark contrast. However, she was optimistic: you can have a profitable company and a happy workforce that doesn't leave you. She was fond of saying: you hire employees, but it's people who come to work for you. They have aspirations, dreams, and values. You have to deal with nervous breakdowns on a human level.
Roddick also foresaw the frugality movement. In 2003, Queen Elizabeth II appointed Roddick a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Roddick saw through a society that had fear of intimacy and communication. You cannot listen to Anita Roddick talking about all this halfheartedly.
A full-hearted experience is how you find the meaning in the work. And this is how Roddick went about it.
Here's a late 80's interview of Gifford Pinchot III with Richard Branson and Anita Roddick. It was recorded by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Maufactures, and Commerce. The content is still super relevant.
Venture capitalist Richard Onians of Baring Brothers, Hambrecht & Quist starts off by saying they look for human qualities: Entrepreneurs who also tend to surround themselves with a team. These people who think of themselves as 'immigrants,' however, better have an idea that will bring growth to a business.
Here are the characteristics Dame Roddick associates to the grassroots entrepreneur.