“I would have shot myself if you'd told me in the sixties that I would be known as a successful businessperson. I'm an activist. I'm an agitator,” she says.
One of her biggest accomplishments—and she is by no means finished—is establishing 36 purchasing programs with impoverished farmers in 23 countries, including Brazil, Nicaragua, Zambia, Pakistan and India. Through them, the Body Shop buys herbs, nuts, almond oil, sesame seed oil and other ingredients for its moisturizers, creams and shampoos. In total, the company has business relationships with more than 5,000 families, but the economic spin-offs are felt by thousands more with schooling, training, HIV/AIDS awareness, health clinics and fresh water.
“By themselves, these initiatives will not transform the global economy but they do transform the Body Shop’s thinking about our responsibility as a business," says Roddick. "And I would rather we be measured by how we treat the weaker and frailer communities we trade with than only by how great are our profits."
The idea to source ingredients from faraway places stems from Roddick’s worldly travels in the sixties. Her “university without walls” included living in fishing communities in Madagascar, working on Native American reservations and studying in Israel. Along the way she earned a Ph.D. in world poverty.
“You remember rituals, like births, marriages and death, and everything that happens to the body during those times. When I was in Madagascar, the women were giving birth while hanging from ropes in a makeshift hut with the rope tied around their wrist, around a rock and then around the husband’s testicles—so every time she felt pain, he felt it, too—you remember that,” she says.
“You remember how they put yogurt on their bodies to stop pain,” she continues. “Those were some of the ideas for the original products.”
Roddick admits sourcing her ingredients in such a way is more complicated than using a domestic producer—and it’s certainly not going to lead to the same economies of scale—but as foreign as it might seem to some, maximizing profits isn’t the answer in this case.
“The Body Shop has a proven track record that you can make a profit and you can make a positive contribution to the community. You can trade on a global scale and you can stick your neck out with campaigns for human rights. You can open up shops on more high streets and speak out about the social problems in that community,” she says.
Roddick, who in 2003 was knighted a Dame Commander of the British Empire, says there is no shortage of lessons learned in her 30 years in international commerce. First, in terms of power and influence, business trumps both church and politics.
“There is no more powerful institution in society than business, which is why I believe it’s more important than ever before for business to assume a moral leadership,” she says.
Roddick adds that the more a company grows, the less intimate it becomes. As a result, firms have to fashion communications into a style that feels “as intimate as being belly to belly.”
“The bigger you grow, the more likely hierarchy will sneak up on you and that’s when rules and regulations snuff out creativity,” she says.
Roddick’s newest form of communications is her website, which includes postings on human rights abuses—including the story of a 14-year-old Iranian girl being hanged—corporate greed, children, aging and activism.
The site also has a running ticker on the cost of the war in Iraq and a link to the switchboard at the White House, complete with a picture of a smiling George W. Bush talking on the phone.
This isn't the first time that Roddick has encouraged the public to contact their elected representatives. Posting messages on the firm's delivery trucks in England is a prime example of the Body Shop's guerilla marketing. One memorable communication read, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Listed below was the home telephone number of the country’s Minister of Education.
Roddick sold the Body Shop to cosmetic giant L'Oréal in a blockbuster deal worth more than 1 billion US dollars (£652 million) earlier this year. The Body Shop continues to run as a standalone operation under the French company’s umbrella, with Roddick as a consultant. One of her duties is to continue to search out Third World purchasing programs.
For all its commercial success, she sees the Body Shop as a branding icon for social activism. “It’s not just having the money now from L’Oreal, it’s what can you do to give it away? For me, it’s taking £2 million ($3.8M) a year and giving it away to these groups I care passionately about, whether it’s Amnesty International, People & Planet or Trade Justice Coalition. I’ve got the intelligence and the bloody money and resources to do some really good stuff with it,” she says.
“I don’t want to die worrying about owning the Body Shop. I wanted to do something with the money I made, trying to influence like a Trojan horse and going into the belly of the beast and working with them. I can’t think of anything better. I’m a diehard purist: I say, ‘Up your bum, this is how things get changed.’ ”