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Anita Roddick Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Anita Roddick
Photo by Brian Moody

Anita Roddick

An interview with Anita Roddick

Anita Roddick shares about the birth and evolution of The Body Shop, and how it's used to communicate human rights and environmental issues.

I started The Body Shop in 1976 simply to create a livelihood for myself and my two daughters, while my husband, Gordon, was trekking across the Americas. I had no training or experience and my only business acumen was Gordon's advice to take sales of £300 a week. Nobody talks of entrepreneurship as survival, but that's exactly what it is and what nurtures creative thinking. Running that first shop taught me business is not financial science, it's about trading: buying and selling. It's about creating a product or service so good that people will pay for it. Now 28 years on The Body Shop is a multi local business with 1,980 stores serving over 77 million customers in 50 different markets in 25 different languages and across 12 time zones. And I haven't a clue how we got here!

I was born in Littlehampton in 1942. As the child of an Italian immigrant couple in an English seaside town, I was a natural outsider, and I was drawn to other outsiders and rebels. James Dean was my schoolgirl idol. I also had a strong sense of moral outrage, which was awakened when I found a book about the Holocaust at the age of ten. I trained as a teacher but an educational opportunity on a kibbutz in Israel eventually turned into an extended working trip around the world. Soon after I got back to England, my mother introduced me to a young Scotsman named Gordon Roddick. Our bond was instant. Together we opened first a restaurant, and then a hotel in Littlehampton. We married in 1970, me with a baby on my back and another in my belly.

It wasn't only economic necessity that inspired the birth of The Body Shop. My early travels had given me a wealth of experience. I had spent time in farming and fishing communities with pre-industrial peoples, and been exposed to body rituals of women from all over the world. Also the frugality that my mother exercised during the war years made me question retail conventions. Why waste a container when you can refill it? And why buy more of something than you can use? We behaved as she did in the Second World War, we reused everything, we refilled everything and we recycled all we could. The foundation of The Body Shop's environmental activism was born out of ideas like these.

I am aware that success is more than a good idea. It is timing too. The Body Shop arrived just as Europe was going 'green'. The Body Shop has always been recognizable by its green color, the only color that we could find to cover the damp, moldy walls of my first shop. I opened a second shop within six months, by which time Gordon was back in England. He came up with the idea for 'self-financing' more new stores, which sparked the growth of the franchise network through which The Body Shop spread across the world. The company went public in 1984. Since then, I have been given a whole host of awards, (which are outlined below) some I understand, some I don't and a couple I think I deserve.

Businesses have the power to do good. That's why The Body Shop's Mission Statement opens with the overriding commitment, 'To dedicate our business to the pursuit of social and environmental change.' We use our stores and our products to help communicate human rights and environmental issues. In 1993 I met a delegation of Ogoni people from Nigeria. They were seeking justice and reparations against the giant oil multinational Shell that was ravaging their lands through oil exploration and production. Working with other NGOs, we turned their campaign into an international cause celebre. Tragically, the Ogoni's key spokesperson, Ken Saro-Wiwa and 8 other Ogoni, were executed in 1995 by the Nigerian Government. But our campaign continued and eventually 19 other imprisoned Ogoni were released. In 1997, after 4 years of unrelenting pressure, Shell issued a revised operating charter committing the company to human rights and sustainable development. A year later, they launched their 'Profits and Principles' advertising campaign declaring their recognition of the interests of ' a much wider group of stakeholders in our business'. I like to think we had a hand in getting Shell to think about what it really means to be a corporate citizen.

In September 2001 I joined forces with The Body Shop and Greenpeace, and many thousands of other organizations and individual consumers in an international campaign against Exxon-Mobil (Esso), the world's largest oil and gas company, and 'No 1 Global Warming Villain'. This is the company that refuses to accept a direct link between the burning of fossil fuels and global warming, and that has turned its back on investing even a single penny on renewable alternatives, such as wind and solar.

For me, campaigning and good business is also about putting forward solutions, not just opposing destructive practices or human rights abuses. One key area where my business and personal interests naturally combine is through The Body Shop community trade initiatives. It all started in 1989 when I attended the gathering at Altamira of Amazonian Indian tribes protesting against a hydro-electric project which would have flooded thousands of acres of rainforest, submerging native lands. There had to be something practical I could do to help these people preserve their environment and culture. Nuts? Specifically brazil nuts, which the Indians gathered sustainably from the forest and which when crushed produce a brilliant oil for moisturizing and conditioning. This first trading relationship with forest people, unused to any real commercial activity, was fraught with pitfalls and dangers. But 13 years on we're still trading with them and have even set up a Green Pharmacy project producing remedies based on traditional knowledge of forest plants Ð reducing dependency on inappropriate and expensive modern pharmaceuticals. Every year I travel to a number of our projects. In November 1999 I visited our long-term partners Teddy Exports in southern India and GPI in Nepal and our new partners, the Chepang indigenous people who grow herbs for our Ayurvedic range. In January 2001 I visited the 130 sesame seed oil farmers in Nicaragua who receive a fair and stable price for their seed. As a result the farmers have built up a sustainable business that as well as offering marketing clout, runs a subsidized store, a credit union, and employs a Cuban agronomist specializing in organic methods. The deal with The Body Shop isn't going to make the farmers financially rich, but it does enable them to maintain their chosen way of life and through co-operation achieve autonomy. I'm immensely proud of our efforts to make fair or community trade relationships more mainstream. The Body Shop now has 42 such projects in 26 countries and we aim to develop more.

The Body Shop and I have always been closely identified in the public mind. Today, it is impossible to separate the company values from the issues that I care passionately about Ð social responsibility, respect for human rights, the environment and animal protection, and an absolute belief in Community Trade. But The Body Shop is not a one-woman-show Ð it's a global operation with thousands of people working towards common goals and sharing common values. That's what gives The Body Shop its campaigning and commercial strength and continues to set it apart from mainstream business.

Though I no longer sit on executive committees, I spend most of my time on The Body Shop business. I source new products during travels abroad, work as part of the creative team and spearhead campaigns, such as the current Positive Energy Campaign with Greenpeace. And I constantly question myself: how can I bring values into an industry that is certainly not values-laden? The only way I can do it, is to perhaps bring back an idea for a trading initiative with an economically impoverished community in Mexico or Africa, or find inspiration for a new company commitment, just as my 1990 trip to Romania spurred the Romanian Relief Drive (now called Children on the Edge) and a visit to Glasgow led to our partnerships with Soapworks a local factory that produces our soaps. I also hold great hopes for The New Academy of Business, a masters degree course at Bath University, which I helped to launch in 1997 with the aim of reforming business education for the new century.

The most exciting part of my life is now - I believe the older you get, the more radical you become. There's a Dorothy Sayers quote I love, "A woman in advancing old age is unstoppable by any earthly force." In November 1999, I flew to Seattle to speak out against the role of the World Trade Organization and witnessed the 'Battle of Seattle'. I'm fascinated by the publishing industry: in 2000 I published my autobiography Business and Unusual and in 2001 I edited Take it Personally, a collection of provoking thought pieces to challenge the myths of globalization and the power of the WTO.

The excitement and success of these endeavors has prompted me to start my own communications company, Anita Roddick Publications. I like to say we manufacture "weapons of mass instruction." We are experimenting with various forms and mediums to celebrate and advance the same things I've always cared about: human rights, the environment, and creative dissent. Our first two books were published in 2003: "Brave Hearts, Rebel Spirits: A Spiritual Activists Handbook" and "A Revolution in Kindness."

I launched my own website in 2001 and I am overwhelmed by the potential of the web to link like-minded people and move them to mass-action. We are excited to experiment in other media too -- perhaps subversive billboards, or a television program, or other print projects. As someone once said, we are only limited by our imaginations.

Two of my greatest passions now are the campaigns we've undertaken as part of Anita Roddick Publications. One focuses on sweatshop labor by multinational corporations. We've joined forces with the National Labor Committee on this and helped foster creative resistance that has made some noticeable inroads. And we've joined with a group of human-rights activists to free the American political prisoners known as the Angola Three. These three men, who were black political activists in the 1970s, have served over 31 years in solitary confinement in Angola prison for crimes they did not commit. It is my intention to do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to see that their story is told and they are set free.

With The Body Shop and Anita Roddick Publications, I will continue fighting for human-rights and against economic initiatives and structures that abuse and ignore them. That's a tall enough order to keep me busy for the next 30 years.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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