Marketing Causes and Cosmetics Body Shops use profits to right global wrongs

October 25, 1991|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

A line of customers curls through The Body Shop in Georgetown, waiting to get an autographed book from, or share a word with, Anita Roddick, the animated 48-year-old founder of this phenomenally successful chain of cosmetics shops.

No one asks her whether the Rhassoul Mud Shampoo or the Banana Hair Putty is best for hard-to-manage hair. Or how the Jojoba Oil Cleanser works on combination skin. There's not a mention of the Peppermint Foot Lotion or the Japanese Washing Grains.

Instead, there is talk about Brazilian rain forests and Romanian orphanages and animals that need protecting and bays that need preserving.

"We'd like you to come out to one of the preserves in Central America," says a director of the Nature Conservancy. Behind him in line are two women from the U.S. Humane Society, a representative from the Animal Welfare Institute, Friends of the NationalZoo . . .

Can you get a bottle of moisturizer at this place or what?

In this age of political, environmental and social correctness, you can hardly get more correct than The Body Shop, a 15-year-old British company that doesn't test on animals, doesn't advertise, doesn't do marketing research, doesn't use the word "beauty" or "luxurious" -- but does make a bundle of money.

Starting as a five-shelf shop in Brighton, England, which Ms. Roddick founded to support herself and her two young daughters when her husband decided to fulfill his life's dream of riding horseback from South America to New York, The Body Shop has grown to an international, multimillion-dollar company.

Today, there are 620 shops in 39 countries -- in Baltimore there are franchised shops at Harborplace and White Marsh Mall -- with 1990 sales of $378 million.

Ms. Roddick, in Washington recently as part of a U.S. tour to promote her new book about her business, "Body and Soul" (printed on recycled paper, of course), believes the down-to-earth nature of her products is appealing to customers. That, and campaigns launched through the shops to save the whales, stop the destruction of Amazon rain forests, fight animal-testing procedures for cosmetic purposes, educate customers about human rights violations and support Romanian orphanages.

Inc. magazine, in a story on Ms. Roddick last year, said she "has changed business forever." A more cynical British newspaper called her "a brilliant businesswoman," but one who "likes to underplay her financial skills, going instead for an image concocted from some ancient Samoan recipe: one part up-market Avon Lady, two parts Mother Teresa . . ."

Whether Earth Mother or marketing whiz (or both), the feisty entrepreneur has clearly stumbled onto something. In the United States, where there are now 66 stores and plans for aggressive expansion, companies like The Limited and Estee Lauder, which is pushing its minimally packaged "Origins Natural Resources" line, are joining her on the no-frills bandwagon.

And however global or charitable her goals, Ms. Roddick doesn't take competition lightly: Earlier this year, Body Shop executives sued The Limited because its new "Bath and Body Works" shops too closely resembled the British-born boutiques both in appearance and pitch. The two companies settled out of court, with The Limited agreeing to make changes in its shops. But the Ohio-based company still plans for major expansion, and retail analysts believe such efforts could bite into The Body Shops' profits and growth in the United States

Ms. Roddick insists that, for her part, profits translate into social activism rather than limousines or designer clothes. She says she and her husband, Gordon, who eventually came home from his horseback ride to become chairman of The Body Shop, have always been very " '60s" in their thinking.

"We were extreme human rights activists before we could spell the word," says the executive who looks as if she dresses for comfort not success, in her flat shoes and casual skirt set.

When the company went public in 1984, and the price of a share doubled on the first day of trading, the couple drove home that night wondering, "Who are we now? Is this all that we're going to be measured by?" recalls Ms. Roddick.

They decided at that point, to "fly a flag of social change," she says. From then on they vowed to "put the profits in other things like opening up a soap factory in probably the worst housing area in England and only employing the unemployed . . .

"The shareholders won't challenge that. The financial community challenges that, but we say, 'Stuff it.' "

Ms. Roddick traces her political activism to her childhood, growing up the daughter of Italian immigrants in Sussex, England. In fact, she traces it to a specific week. In the same week that her father died, 10-year-old Anita read a book about the atrocities of the Holocaust.

"You put those two together and you can't not have an empathy for the human condition," she says. "It becomes a cell that stays in you."

And from then on, says the Catholic Italian, "all I ever wanted to do was become Jewish."

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