Business As Unusual
A Conversation with Activist-Entrepreneur
Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop
and author of A Revolution in Kindness

By John Milton Fogg

An effective woman entrepreneur is a combination of a crazy person with a delinquent mind."..."Years ago, when I lectured at Harvard about social responsibility, it was like I had just walked off the moon. Now I have hundreds of letters saying, 'Tell us more about socially responsible companies'." -- Anita Roddick. "If you think you're too small to be effective, you've obviously never been in bed with a mosquito." -- Bette Reese

In the beginning, most people thought Anita Roddick was a hippie hold-over from the liberal '60s. Not now. The super-activist founder of a value-led, high-quality skin and body care retailer--now operating in 50 countries with over 1900 outlets spanning 25 languages and 12 time zones--has gone beyond proving her point. Roddick based her company on such "not-about-profit" ideas as: taking a stand against animal testing; supporting small-producer communities around the world; activating self esteem (in both employees and customers); defending human rights; and protecting our planet; and made them more than profitable. She made The Body Shop a global household name. Type-A entrepreneurs are quite common. But when that "A" also stands for Activist, the archetype is Anita Roddick. She showed the world that it works to wear your heart on the sleeve of your three-piece suit.
                                                            -- JMF

Body and Soul, Profits with Principles, Business as Unusual, and now A Revolution in Kindness. Where did all this begin?

I think everything starts with who you are as a child. I was born into an Italian immigrant family in Sussex, England. When you grow up as an outsider, it gives you the ability to look in with sharper perspective. It makes you braver, somehow; most immigrants have this trait.

My mother was extraordinary; she made my spirit very rebellious. I was born an activist--I came out of the womb outraged.

At the age of 20, I got a scholarship to study life on the kibbutz in Israel. This was my first lesson in community rooted to the land and how people can help each other. I went on to work at the United Nations in Geneva and at the International Herald Tribune in Paris; and I traveled--that was my university without walls. Everywhere I went, I lived with pre-industrial groups and farm communities; it was never the hippie trail or middle-class route. I learned about the body, about ritual, about what food is; I learned storytelling. I had an amazing education early on.

My husband Gordon and I had just sold the hotel/restaurant we ran together for a few years, and he decided he wanted to have an adventure: he was going to ride a horse from Buenos Aires to New York City. I knew I'd need to support myself for a few years while he did that, so I decided to open a natural, environmentally-conscious cosmetic store.

I never ever intended to run a "business"--and certainly not a big business. I needed a livelihood--that's the word we used back then--and I wanted to do something brave, a social experiment. I wanted to know if you could create something where you could keep the shareholders happy and fight for human rights. And the experiment grew.

Thank God, I was saved by never having gone to business school. Fortunately, I never understood economic theory: I never fell into the thinking that business was "financial science." To me, it was just taking a product and loving it, and about that great exchange that happens when people and buyers come together. It was never complicated to me.

 

Anita, one of the many things you're famous for saying is, "Never hire anybody who graduated from Harvard Business School." What's behind that?

I didn't want traditional, hierarchical thinking; any entrepreneur knows that hierarchy is death to creativity. Entrepreneurs are more like crazy people; they're obsessed with freedom, with pushing an idea to see how far it can go. The dark side of entrepreneurs is that they don't know how to manage. It doesn't interest them. They don't give a darn about bloody five-year plans--they don't care about one-year plans. Life isn't about plans.

I visited business schools and saw that they were dominated by the economic language of financial science. They weren't teaching creativity; they weren't teaching how to raise up an organization by the seat of its pants. They weren't teaching human relationships--and they definitely were not talking about bringing spiritual practice into the business world.

I didn't like the language of business. I hated the way words were being taken away from me. Words like "human being" were being translated as "consumer."

I've always been more excited about a curriculum vitae that says, "Hey, I've been five years in the Peace Corps." Wow--you're in my camp right away! That shows independence, an ability to have relationships and balance things, how to use your real intelligence rather than paperwork intelligence.

I remember somebody from Harvard saying, "Oh, she will never survive...." Well, we survived! We're considered one of the top brands in the world, and we've never put a decent penny into advertising. We found guerrilla tactics, ways of going at things in the opposite direction as everybody else.

 

What are some examples of these "guerrilla tactics"?

Any notion about leadership has to be about communication; that's the primary tool of leadership. You can communicate your values as well as your products and turn your workplace into a development of the human spirit.

We set up a process called the "Red Letter System." When you came into the company, you were given a sort of catalog of information, to help you understand what a Body Shop is all about. Inside that catalog was a red envelope; any time you were really upset about something the company was doing, you could directly write to me or the other board members about your concerns--and we had to see you within 24 hours.

We had a "love program" that gave money to all our employees; they were allowed to use that money for anything that they wanted, as long as it wasn't about building up their business capacity. They could take tightrope lessons, they could take anything.

We had 40 huge trucks going up and down the highways of England and Europe, delivering our products. I couldn't think of anything more boring than "Body Shop Skin and Hair Care" plastered on the side--so I used them as billboards. For example, one issued a challenge to our local Minister of Education with big words emblazoned on the side: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." On the back of the truck we put the Minister's phone number.

We allocated 12 of these trucks to a foundation we set up called "Missing Persons Helpline." We put pictures of missing children on these trucks--and 75 percent of those missing kids were found!

We turned our shops into action stations. Four million people came into our shops--and we changed the law on animal testing in England. Twelve million came into our shops to sign the human rights amendment. We campaigned on these issues. We had billboards all over our campus, with aphorisms, quotes from Gandhi, funny quotes, all sorts of things. We were told by the county, "You've got to take these down: you're not allowed any fixed posters." So we put wheels on them and moved them around.

I learned from my friends. I went to visit Ben & Jerry's in Vermont: Ben Cohen had created a tour with the most fantastic carnival spirit--it was the biggest tour in Vermont. So we put in a tour as well: 180,000 people a year would visit our plant and tour around in electric buses to see our staff making the products. It was wonderful!

We put in a child development center attached to the work center, with 50 babies up to the age of 5, to help protect the family. We did brave things. We challenged Shell Oil about their going into Nigeria. We allowed our staff to picket a managers' meeting and picket the Nigerian Embassy. We gave them a safe place for activism. We tell them what Alice Walker said: "Activism is the rent you pay for living on the planet." We didn't force anybody to do it--you know, you can't fire people for being boring. We just said, "Don't stop any one of us in this company who has a right to stand up and be heard." It was pretty heady.

 

And you took it all to the bank.

Oh, bloody right! We proved it. We were this company that had no map, had no marketing department for 15 years; we didn't know what that was. But we got loads of marketing awards--because we knew how to love the product. And we knew how to use guerrilla tactics, to communicate.

 

Is that what made it work so well?

I'll tell you what it was: first and foremost, we challenged the conventions. We went in the opposite direction from the cosmetic industry. We love to use parody and wit, along with graphics and illustration, in a way that is both funny and persuasive.

One Mother's Day, we found a Jewish quote that read, "God couldn't be everywhere, so He created mothers." We took out the "He" and plopped in a "She," so it read, "God couldn't be everywhere, so She created mothers," and put these up in the malls. In New Hampshire they told us, "Take it down, this is irreverent!" We said, "No! We don't know that God is a man. Nobody told us that."

We have edge. We're a skin and hair company with attitude--and we put our money where our mouth is. We had the best human rights campaign: working with non-governmental organizations, we set up a huge human rights award. We were incredibly proud of the work we did.

If you're looking for spirituality in the workplace, it's about looking after the weak and the frail. We allowed our staff time off once a week to go out and work in the community--and paid them to do it. Thousands of them have gone to the Balkan states, to Romania, Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia, working with children, building a mental hospital, rebuilding schools...and they come back charged with an enthusiasm that comes directly from the heart--a kind you just can't stop. It makes them so excited to work with a company that isn't just about the bottom line--an irreverent, in-your-face, challenging-the-system company. They love being part of a social experiment.

 

And now, a "revolution in kindness."

Yes. I wanted to make this wishy-washy concept that some see as weak and irrelevant into something fierce and tenacious, and not just platitudes, like "practice random acts of kindness." I spent a lot of time in Angola prison in Louisiana, talking with the men there about what "kindness in the prison" means. What does "kindness in the music industry" mean? What would it be like if religions were kind? I wanted to develop a really different viewpoint on kindness.

 

In looking through your book, from Annie Lennox to Purcell to David Orr, what I don't see is your definition of kindness.

I got my definition of kindness in education. Education should be about social justice, about human rights, about wonderment and awe. It shouldn't be about simply preparing our children for the next step in their lives. We should be suffusing them with the joy of knowledge. We shouldn't be shaping them into automatons that just shoot down a conveyor belt, garnering the ability to memorize facts and vomit them out at the end. We shouldn't be training them to be passive employees--we should be developing their creativity.

Creativity is so squashed in our society. I've been to schools in New Hampshire where they literally ban the word "imagination"--I'm not exaggerating, I repeat, they ban the word--because it's deep, it's too dangerous a concept. The schools are being appropriated by religious fundamentalists; it's daft! Imagination is more important than knowledge! My book [A Revolution in Kindness] is a plea to make education human again, and not to bring "business standards" into the schools.

I've got a 5-year-old grandson and an 8-year-old granddaughter; they spend a lot of time alone doing nothing but looking at the sky, figuring things out in their heads, or looking at a miniscule beetle scullying along. That's what I think education should be to them. It should embody kindness, helping each other, not bullying and being abrasive. Violent language is shaping our identity today, in this country and elsewhere.

 

Anita, this particular issue of Networking Times is devoted to learning. What is it that you would love us to learn from the Body Shop and from you?

In any form of leadership, the most essential tool is communication. If you can't communicate, you might as well not be there. You've got to communicate with passion; the bigger the organization, the more intimate your communications have to be. It has to be almost belly to belly.

The bigger you get, the more hierarchy tends to creep in--and when that happens, your creativity is throttled. In business, therefore, there's nothing more important than developing human spirit and community in the workplace.

I've learned that young people see their dream in different ways. They dream in terms of the possibilities, of being part of a social experiment, in terms of music and ideas; if you can channel that energy and enthusiasm, it's unstoppable.

The biggest waste of money I've ever seen in my life is spending it on marketing consultants. They invariably make things worse: they superimpose their knowledge on everything and make it complicated.

In business, profit is like breathing: breathing is essential, but if you spend your entire life thinking about breathing, you're going to live a flawed life. The financial bottom line is the most unimaginative measurement I can think of. A valuable measurement has to include human rights, social justice and environmental standards.

In 26 years of traveling, being where no CEO ever wants to be--traveling with a vagabond for three weeks through the "black belt," working with black family farmers, being in all sorts of conditions and situations--in all this time, here's what I've learned: the biggest catastrophe we face is poverty.

There's economic poverty everywhere I look in this country: huge divides, with gated community right next to ghetto. There is poverty of imagination: we're not giving people the tools to get out of their poverty--and television should be one of these tools, instead of the endless, dull, pabulum of celebrities and entertainers that it is. There is spiritual poverty: we are no longer absolutely outraged that in most of the world's population, people live on less than a dollar a day.

At the same time, I believe we are living in the most heady, exciting time. We are seeing the emergence of enormous protest marches everywhere around the world. Companies everywhere now have to be very cognizant of the "vigilante consumer," who's acting as an ethical watchdog and looking closely at what's behind the product he or she buys. Consumers want to feel sympathy with the product, but they have also made this huge leap: they also want to feel sympathy with the manufacturer--and they're asking hard questions.

This vigilante consumer movement is very exciting, and they're joining forces with a rise of non-governmental organizations, whether it's Amnesty International or Greenpeace or the organizing local community. This is producing a force of millions of people that will have a significant effect. People don't trust businesses any more; they don't trust politicians.

And the communities are organizing. Everybody wants to go back to the local level. In every country around the world, I'm experiencing this global insurgence. You've got exciting new language coming to the fore: "reclaiming our common space," "economics is a people matter." Wonderful social experiments are going on.

In Italy there's the rise of the "slow food movement," where they're protecting their natural food and the traditional way of cooking and eating. In India, farmers saved Basmati rice from Cargill and mustard oil from Monsanto to feed India's poorest populations. Two years ago, 150,000 peasants arrived in one small state, Kamatonka: for 24 hours, they simply laughed at the local government. As a result, the government was forced to leave office. What a brilliant tactic!

All around the world, I'm seeing this sort of post-modern revolution. I saw it last month in Brazil when I was working there, with [Brazilian president Luiz Inacio] Lula [da Silva]--what a president! He's not putting one penny into military; instead, he said, it's going to "poverty eradication." Wouldn't it be brilliant if the Catholic church paid all the gold it stole back to central America for poverty eradication?

The Zapatistas in Mexico call it, "the rebirth of democracy." In England we call it, "reclaiming the local." Whatever words you use, something is amassing, even though it's not yet on the media radar screens here in the States. It's something bigger than most of us have realized. It's looking like a real global revolution--not in the old sense of a series of power grabs, but a revolution that's turning the existing power structure on its head: it started in the poor world, and now it's coming here. Everywhere, people are saying, "Political freedom without economic freedom is meaningless."

It's wonderful, it's exciting, it's everywhere--and it's a terrific opportunity, because it isn't ideological: it isn't weighed down with one big idea. It isn't about violence. It's about creative thinking.