Compassion And Business
an interview with Anita Roddick by Carl Frankel
posted Mar 31, 1998CARL: It's been 20 years since you opened your first shop as an aspiring small entrepreneur. Now you're running a $900 million company. You are a well-known and controversial person in the world of socially responsible business. How has your view of business evolved over that time?
ANITA: It's less that my idea of business has changed than that I better understand how the whole economic system works now. Twenty-one years ago, I had an incredibly simplistic notion of business. I didn't know about the huge role that business plays: that it is more powerful than governments, that it is faster, quicker, richer than any other social organization – and more creative. I didn't know the powers of the military complex or the language of transnational corporations.
Now, 21 years later, I see a sort of map of huge powerplays, where the biggest disasters are poverty and an absolute belief in a new quasi-religion of unfettered free trade.
That sounds ominous. Being Italian, however, I'm incredibly optimistic. Maybe when I look back in 20 years' time, I'll say that the stage we're in now is about defining a new language of business that is less about private greed and more about public good.
CARL: If in fact there is such a culture of greed and acquisition, aren't you fighting a terribly difficult uphill battle?
ANITA: It's not a question of us acting alone. The Body Shop is part of the social responsibility movement, which came out of the '60s, out of the activist movement and business practices in Scandinavian countries. In Britain, it goes back to the Quakers and Robert Owen and the early cooperative movement, and in the US, to the Amish, the Shakers, and scores of other communities. Now it is re-emerging in the corporate consciousness.
So yes, I am optimistic, because the alternative is so frigging horrific! I think that when you get two things happening simultaneously – the vigilante consumers demanding a corporate code of responsibility and government legislation from above insisting that you clean up your own bloody mess – now that would move things.
The problem is that last bit's not happening at all.
CARL: The legislation?
ANITA: Right, that's not happening. But you are getting a really vital, robust, new vigilante consumer, and I think this is the first time it's ever happened. Vigilantes were always challenging governments but never focused on corporations. Now you've got this unholy, or holy, alliance between the human rights groups, environmental groups, consumers, and churches, that are buying shares in corporations so they can challenge a company's behavior, as they're doing with Shell on their treatment of the Ogoni people in Nigeria. There's a pattern there that is making me feel a wee bit more optimistic.
CARL: One of the contradictions in what you do at The Body Shop is that you sell cosmetics ...
ANITA: That question's a constant, and you're right, there's no real value in cosmetics. They don't save lives, and they don't make you healthier.
So how do you bring values to a product line that is essentially non-valuable? The challenge we've posed for ourselves is to trade in a way that keeps communities and cultures together so that there isn't this burgeoning into the cities. We're always looking for ways to trade directly for harvestable products, to pay people a good price, and to have a real relationship with them. When we think about how many families or communities we've helped sustain, that gives us a little more glow than just looking at the question of how to make 51 million pounds profit rather than 47 million pounds.
Also, I use the shops as arenas for campaigning for social justice issues.
CARL: If you're in business, there are always trade-offs. I don't think there's any escaping that this is a product of dubious utility.
ANITA: I don't think something you put on your body that gives you a sense of self-worth is a dubious thing. The question is: Does the product makes you socially responsible, or is it the way you relate to the communities that you work in – the respect for the employees, the transparency of information, the child development centers attached to the workplace. It's too simplistic to say this is or isn't a socially responsible service or product.
The biggest trade-off for us is that the bigger we grow, the less intimacy we have with our employees. We've never fully taken in the huge amount of dialoguing, the need for compassion and honoring, the anguish that comes in a company that grows like ours. It's like management-by-falling-apart-at-the-seams! We're certainly socially responsible, but we were not always reflective and responsive to the behavior of ourselves and our employees.
CARL: What I hear you saying is that you were so attuned to external issues that the internal issues got lost.
ANITA: Oh yes, and worse! We've got the only child development center in the UK attached to the workplace, and we thought it was so good until our social audit showed us that our company culture wasn't working because people were staying at work too long!
We had a culture in our company of heroes and villains. “This person's amazing! They stayed all night to work on the Ogoni campaign.” What it wasn't doing was supporting the needs of parents who go home to their kids at 5 pm. There was sort of a “white knight” thing going on; loneliness was apparent.
CARL: What have you done about this and what role did the social audit play?
ANITA: The social audit was powerful! Of our 5000 employees, we got 75-85 percent saying “Where is the learning?” “Where is the development of the human spirit?”
It was horrid. Horrid! I read some amazing things, too. But, we're giving ourselves targets to improve, and we promised that every three months we would report to employees on what we're doing and check that we're getting it right.
And then we've had another audit that showed some things getting much better, like the training and development. Other areas are still not good, but we've now got a process for measuring our progress.
CARL: Do these audits involve the employees or the franchisers?
ANITA: Everyone. Seven years ago, we set up the first independently verified environmental auditing program for a skin and hair care retailer, and two years ago we set up the very first social auditing program, which dealt with all our stakeholders and how we live up to our mission as a business for social and environmental responsibility.
It's done with independent verifiers so the public hears it and sees it; it's not something we can just do and hide.
The Labor government is very interested in this stakeholder concept and also the transparency. Many of the bigger companies – British Telecom, some of the banks – are looking at it and replicating it. I think that in two or three years, what we've done will be mainstream.
CARL: I recall something you once said about a more feminine style of management. It sounds as though it is the feminine piece, relations with employees, where The Body Shop is insufficient. That's where your heart is going out the most.
ANITA: What I'm missing is almost painful to me; I'm missing the intimacy we used to have in the early days like I'm missing my child. I believe Ben Cohen [cofounder of Ben and Jerry's] feels like this also – because what we've got now is nothing that we invented. It's BIG! And entrepreneurs don't want bigness. We want to polish, control, and shape something constantly.
And when we've shaped it, developed it and passed it on, it's great, yet we often lose our place in it.
CARL: Is that loneliness a function of your being the boss?
ANITA: I think it's a function of the bigness. There's so few people that I know now; 20 years ago, I knew everybody. Also, I'm more radical than most of the people I employ who are 20 or 30 years younger than me. I think Ben is the same.
And I think both of us are totally unemployable in our own companies because we're too fast thinking and we can't manage anything! We can motivate anybody to the moon and back, but actual management of a process is not part of our DNA. We're devilish at using guerilla tactics – we're dysfunctional in our own companies because we demand to be heard, and we're too fast, and people just can't grasp it.
CARL: What do you think would happen to The Body Shop if you decided to leave? And what would happen to Anita?
ANITA: The Anita one is easy. I would feel bereft, and I would feel I have absolutely no value. That's ludicrous I know, but I would be lost.
What would happen to the company if I left? It would be different, of course. But there are extraordinary people who shape the company far better than me.
CARL: Let's talk for a moment about the US; clearly, you're stressed in the US. Do you have a diagnosis?
ANITA: There are two reasons. We've never, as Europeans, understood how America trades. We never really touched the malls until we'd been here three or four years. We really didn't understand those monuments to mediocrity; we didn't understand that they're not free, open spaces. We had huge negative responses to the voter registration campaigns, to celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Day. We were lambasted because we had a Mother's Day poster that said, “God couldn't be everywhere, so she created mothers.” And our visual images were full of parody and wit, much more sensuous and erotic.
We needed a mind map to find our way around in American “intellectual” thinking. That was one problem.
Number two: we'd never had a sale in our life and didn't know what a sale was! And we didn't have these gift-with-purchase packs nor the other things that entice the consumer but which are not about the product.
On top of that, we just didn't know how fast our competitors were. We can't just go to a contract manufacturer and say, “Here's a bottle, fill it with rosemary fragrance and put in the detergents and bubbles, and let's add that color.” There are many ingredients we can't use because they're tested on animals. We're constantly searching for sustainable ingredients; we have hundreds of self-imposed standards for making products, so our timeline is about a year more than this very fickle mentality that wants it now and then has forgotten about it.
So, the answer for us is to look for Main Streets, because that's where we trade well, and we're looking for new forms of distribution – it might be like Tupperware parties in the home.
CARL: I understand you've been doing some direct research of your own on America.
ANITA: For two or three weeks, I traveled with a vagabond I met in Atlanta. I trucked with him all the way to New Orleans living in shacks. He was a Danish guy; for 20 years he's been recording environments like the Albany, Georgia, prison and the community that was built nearby. Through our travels, I was able to see firsthand the structured racism, the economy of drugs, crack, and rock, and what happens to agricultural communities when capital takes flight.
I also took a trip this year in the mining communities of Appalachia to see if there was a way we could set up small trading initiatives.
That type of trip is an antidote to the human indifference created by wealth. I'm wealthy, and wealth corrodes the spirit, because it chips away at your ability to understand disadvantage. Spending time out gives me a reality check, and if I can create jobs, then I've done something a little bit better.
CARL: What have you done to spread your ideas beyond The Body Shop?
ANITA: In the UK, we've set up the New Academy of Business, that offers a Master's Degree in Business Responsibility, with a curriculum that includes the issues business schools won't talk about – international trade agreements, human rights, the nature of poverty, and the social alienation that comes with unemployment. That is a highly popular program.
We also have executive courses on social and ethical auditing and on human rights. We have the Better Practice Network, so socially responsible companies can get together and share best practices. Next, we're hoping to bring it into America.
CARL: If you were to put together a blueprint for achieving the goals of the socially responsible business community, what would your priorities be?
ANITA: First of all, we have to build strategic alliances.
Secondly, to waste less time, we've got to see which businesses conduct the best practices and replicate those.
Thirdly, we have to understand how government and the economic system work. Fourth, I think we have to look for ways of creating jobs. We cannot be part of a “jobless-growth” economy. That's not an alternative.
Finally, what's needed is a new attitude; a new language that encompasses the idea that trading is one of the oldest human exchanges, but if it doesn't come with moral responsibility and compassion, God help us all.
Franklin Roosevelt once said, “Goods produced under conditions which do not meet a rudimentary standard of decency should be regarded as contraband and ought not to be allowed into the public commerce of interstate trade.” That's brilliant!
YES! Magazine encourages you to make free use of this article by taking these easy steps., YES! Magazine. All Rights Reserved
You won’t see any commercial ads in YES!, in print or on this website.
That means, we rely on support from our readers.
That means, we rely on support from our readers.
Independent. Nonprofit. Subscriber-supported.