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Anita Roddick, the Queen of Green

5 minute read

Long before going green was an international pastime, when the only corporate responsibility was to the bottom line, a small store opened in Brighton, England, selling homemade moisturizers and hair-care products packaged in plastic urine-sample jars. The cosmetics were all-natural, the containers were reusable and the ethos — creating products that were as good for the earth as they were for your skin — was still considered radical, the kind of thing only hippies cared about. But when Anita Roddick opened The Body Shop in 1976, she wasn’t thinking about changing the world, just supporting her family while her husband followed his lifelong dream of trekking across the Americas on horseback. It was almost by accident that she started a revolution.

By the time she died of a brain hemorrhage on Sept. 10, at 64, Roddick and her husband Gordon had turned that first Body Shop into a global retailing phenomenon, the Starbucks of cosmetics with nearly 2,000 stores in 50 countries and revenue of $986 million in 2005. But more impressive than the numbers are the ideals behind them. In an industry that relies on people feeling bad about themselves to push products, Roddick made her millions helping people feel good and do good. To the Queen of Green, bath salts and foot lotion were just the hook, a way to get people into her stores — which she called “billboards” — to learn about the issues she loudly and tirelessly campaigned for, from the environment to fair trade to human rights.

From the beginning, The Body Shop was against animal testing and for Third World development, getting its materials from small communities in poorer countries like Guatemala (aloe vera) and Nambia (marula oil). Over the years, the scope of campaigns that Roddick had taken up — and that Body Shop has supported in its storefronts — grew and expanded. Now a tube of lip gloss can increase awareness about domestic abuse and a bottle of perfume is a weapon in the fight against HIV. “She made shopping a political act,” says her friend Josephine Fairley, co-founder of organic chocolate company Green & Black’s. “She was the first person to do that. She made cosmetics fun, sexy and affordable, and there was always a message. But instead of ‘Buy this mascara, it will change your life,’ her message was, ‘Buy this mascara, it could change someone else’s life.'”

Following The Body Shop’s lead, major corporations everywhere are now seeing green. “They were one of the first companies to have a values report,” says Fairley. “Back then, companies didn’t have values reports, they had balance sheets.” But the birth of ethical business was not an easy one. Roddick’s critics accused her ethics-over-profits stance of being nothing more than a marketing gimmick. And the one-time Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year had an uncomfortable relationship with the whole business of big business: she once referred to financiers as “dinosaurs in pin-stripes.”

Early on, she cast the body shop as the David to the beauty industry’s Goliath, an us vs. them attitude that she held throughout her life as a company head and an activist. Her very public criticism of the the same industry that had made her rich and famous, calling it in her 1991 autobiography Body and Soul a “monster selling unattainable dreams,” would come back to haunt her. Although Roddick stepped down as co-chair of The Body Shop in 2002 (while staying on as a consultant), she was still accused of selling out, both the company and her principles, when The Body Shop was sold to L’Oreal last year for $1.3 billion. But as far as Roddick was concerned, the sale was a chance to change the industry from the inside. “The real triumph isn’t the fantastic price that L’Oreal paid for Body Shop,” says Rory Stear, head of the Freeplay Energy, a company that develops environmentally responsible electronic products and has Gordon Roddick as one of its directors. “It’s that L’Oreal has now adopted into its core operating model plans to move the biggest cosmetics group in the world towards the ethical standards that Anita had championed.” The cosmetics giant has already said it plans to phase out its animal testing. “The triumph is that The Body Shop, which was a relatively small player in global business terms, now, after 30 years in existence, has the big players turning to it and saying, ‘You were right all along. We want to do that, too.’ Anita was clearly a visionary, way ahead of her time.”

Since the sale of The Body Shop, Roddick, whose sense of social injustice kicked into gear after she read a book on the Holocaust when she was 10, had been focusing on the charities and campaigns she held dear. Claiming that she didn’t want to “die rich,” she gave away around $6 million a year and planned to spend the rest of her time doling out grants and donations and lending her name to causes like stopping sweatshop labor and protesting the imprisonment of two of the “Angola 3” Black Panther members being held in a Louisiana state prison for a murder many say they didn’t commit. Writing on her website recently, Roddick said: “The most exciting part of my life is now — I believe the older you get, the more radical you become.” She had already transformed the cosmetics industry, awakened the world to social responsibility and proved there was money in caring — but Anita Roddick was just getting started.

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