Anita Roddick: Staunch campaigner sees life
after The Body Shop

April 13, 2006

M. Taufiqurrahman, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

What do cosmetics have to do with political activism? Little, if anything, in reality.

But for close to three decades, Anita Roddick, the founder of cosmetics company The Body Shop, has taken pains to show that the two disparate elements could somehow be connected and made a perfect match to produce social and political change.

Ever since the establishment of the cosmetics company in 1976, which later became a world-renowned brand, Roddick has used it as a springboard from which to launch numerous politically tinged campaigns.

She has denounced everything that was "wrong" with the modern world, including the growth of nuclear power, corporate greed, environmental destruction, whale poaching, the invasion of Kuwait and Iraq by the U.S., and -- most celebrated --her campaign for women's empowerment.

So intense has been the campaign that the Body Shop, a company that seems to have spent hardly anything on advertising its products, is now known as the embodiment of what the corporate world should be, a socially-responsible capitalist entity.

The Body Shop has been viewed as a corporation at the forefront of cause-related marketing, a term coined to describe what companies do to promote issues that were left over from the 1960s social movement -- the environment, opposition to war, feminism and human-rights activism -- blended with a healthy dose of narcissism. (One Body Shop brochure says "If Anita Can Whip Up an Empire, You Can, Too").

One of the hallmarks of a Body Shop environmentally friendly campaign is to offer customers discounts for bringing in their own bottles instead of buying new ones from the store.

Apart from using natural ingredients for their products, the Body Shop has also stood against animal-testing of the type adopted by other cosmetics giants such as French-based L'Oreal.

The Body Shop has for decades used its shops, employees, cosmetics containers, brochures and flyers as a medium through which Roddick, and her campaign team, could relay their political message.

In Indonesia, The Body Shop has, for the last couple of years, worked in cooperation with the National Commission for Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) in fighting against domestic violence.

Roddick said that her campaign here has yielded tangible results, with the adoption of legislation that outlaws violence against women, and the burgeoning network of women activists.

"Our campaign has managed to get the law changed, and a fantastic network of outspoken, smart, progressive activists who lead these issues," Roddick told The Jakarta Post during her recent three-day tour to Indonesia.

Roddick said that social activism had become the foundation of The Body Shop from day one of its existence. "The legal foundation on which our company exists states that the purpose of this company is environmental and social change, and human rights advocacy," she said.

Kicking off a politically-leaning campaign in the corporate world does, of course, carry grave risks.

There was a time when a government attempted to bring down The Body Shop and Anita Roddick for its political stance.

Roddick risked losing control over the company she founded in 1991 when she ordered The Body Shop as a corporate entity to launch a full-blown campaign against the American invasion of Iraq in the first Gulf War.

Her stance against the war was opposed by company executives who thought that it could damage the company's marketability and image.

Roddick threatened to leave the company, but had second thoughts. "I gave birth to it, shaped it all those years and still hadn't finished with all the things that I'd wanted to do with it," she said of the company.

A similar thing happened when Roddick stated her opposition to the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

At a moment's notice, America's rightist media, spearheaded by the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post, launched a campaign to boycott Body Shop products.

The Body Shop's cause-related marketing has also given birth to a legion of detractors who have criticized it as no more than a ploy to exploit consumers' newfound interests with anything that is socially and environmentally friendly, when in fact the company runs the business the way thousands of others in the world do.

New York-based ethical business journalist Jon Entine, in his most celebrated piece Shattered Image, for instance, said that while The Body Shop has championed the use of natural ingredients, it used extensively ingredients commonly used by other cosmetics companies, such as artificial colorings.

The media-savvy Roddick has taken all the criticism in her stride.

"My biggest critics are financial journalists who are very unimaginative, who use a one-dimensional form of measurement, namely profit. They just don't like the language I use, the language of responsibility and human rights," she said.

Some of those financial journalists may just be cheering now that Roddick is in the process of selling her company to a cosmetics company she had long detested, L'Oreal.

On March 17, the Body Shop agreed to a 652 million (about US$1.14 million) takeover offer by L'Oreal, the French cosmetics giant.

Speaking about the deal, Roddick said that she let go of The Body Shop simply because she was not the kind of person that could fit in well with the corporate world.

"Producing, distributing, stock control were never my forte, nor interest," she said candidly.

Roddick also said that The Body Shop had grown to become a huge corporate entity that she did not control anymore.

In spite of her departure from The Body Shop, the 64-year-old native of Brighton, England, will still work for the company for 50 days per year, during which she hopes to assist the new management in opening up new markets and reminding employees about what The Body Shop has stood for.

L'Oreal executives have said that they will maintain the image of The Body Shop, nurtured by Roddick for years.

When asked about how she would continue her campaign without The Body Shop on her side, Roddick said that she would use the media with which she has been acquainted for so long -- computer blogs, books and videos.

"I already have well-structured support for my campaign now," she said.

The fact that she is no longer young has merely added to her determination to fight the good fight.

"When you get older you get more radical: You are no longer worried about what people may think you look like, nor worried about being fired, and you can be both more honest and more eccentric," she observed, laconically.