Environmental awareness brings business success British woman runs body-care company

December 25, 1990|By Cilla Duff Kent | Cilla Duff Kent,The Christian Science Monitor

LONDON -- Anita Roddick, a passionate environmentalist and an entrepreneur, broke every rule to emerge -- in a scant 14 years -- as one of Britain's great success stories.

The market value of her worldwide chain of Body Shop franchises selling natural body-care products is estimated at $626 million. The Sunday Times Magazine in London recently listed Mrs. Roddick as one of the five wealthiest women in the United Kingdom.

The goals and values of her company -- rooted in her concern for the Earth's future -- are far more important than either profits or the products she sells, she says.

"We run in the opposite direction to the rest of the cosmetics industry," she says in an interview at Body Shop headquarters in London. "They train for a sale. We train for knowledge."

The same week that Ms. Roddick announced profits for the year had jumped nearly 30 percent, to $26 million, she took delivery of 300 bicycles to replace the cars many of her middle managers drove.

"I got my directors together and said, 'We're no longer going to be giving cars to people who don't need them. We're front-runners in environmental education, and yet we're hanging to our cars?

"I said, 'Three of the Jags will have to go, and make sure whatever's left is running on an unleaded catalytic converter.' " Executives bristled, "but they're coming around," she says.

Since starting the Body Shop at her kitchen table in 1976 to survive hard financial times, Ms. Roddick has been talking a language which, until the recently popular swing to conservation issues, had been an anomaly in the business community.

Her argot is that of the '60s: "love" and "education" and "empowerment" and "patent rights."

"My message to big business is, 'You're a global citizen, now. You have to measure your greatness by how you treat the weakest,' " she says .

David Gee, director of Friends of the Earth, England, says that "as far as one can support consumerism, the Body Shop comes from the more responsible end. One can only hope that other outlets will follow Anita Roddick's lead."

PTC "Our responsibility is purely social and environmental," says Ms. Roddick. Posters in her shop windows give information on recycling or the plight of the rain forests, rather than what miracles a moisturizer might work.

Body Shop delivery trucks have phone numbers and campaign messages printed on them, so anyone stuck behind one can learn how to join Amnesty International or Friends of the Earth.

Anita Lucia Perella was born in Littlehampton, Sussex, in 1942. The daughter of Italian immigrants (her father had been raised in America), Anita helped run the family cafe.

She was the requisite '60s teen-ager: a student teacher of history and English, a feminist and a political activist. At 20, she joined the United Nations in Geneva, working for the International Labor Organizations. Disillusioned by the bureaucracy, she left to travel. (Ironically, MS. Roddick's numerous honors include the 1989 United Nations' "Global 500" environmental award.)

Her first stop was a Polynesian island, where she lived with a family for several months before moving on to the New Hebrides, New Caledonia, Australia, Reunion, Madagascar, South Africa, and Zambia.

"You change your values when you change your behavior," she explains, "and you change your behavior through education. So when you've lived six months with a group that is rubbing their bodies with cocoa butter, and those bodies are magnificent; or you wash your hair with mud, and it works, you go on to break all sorts of conventions, from personal ethics to body care.

"Then, if you're me, you develop this stunning love for anthropology."

Stunning though this love for anthropology was, a tired and homesick Anita returned to England, where she met and married Gordon Roddick. They went into the restaurant business and started raising two daughters, Justine and Samantha. "A few years in the food business teaches you a lot," she observes wryly. "But it's exhausting. Gordon and I wanted out."

Ms. Roddick, in an effort to keep the family afloat, came up with the idea of a shop, "bottling and selling all the wonderful natural ingredients I'd learned about on my travels." With 4,000 pounds sterling borrowed from the bank, she opened a store on a side street in the seaside town of Brighton, England. She had 15 products for sale in refillable, reusable containers. The labels were hand-written by Anita: pineapple face scrub, peppermint-oil foot lotion, goat's-milk bath powder, floral shampoos, and fruity soaps, among others.

There is not one image in any Body Shop, anywhere, of what is perceived as female beauty (there are products for men, too).

"I started shopping there because the ideology appealed to me, and the prices were good," says Laura Allan, a free-lance TV editor who has been using Body Shop products for a few years. Not every product works well, she says, "But I wouldn't be without the Banana Hair Conditioner or the Hair Salad."

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