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'I believe they are honourable and the work they do is honourable'
Many ethical consumers were shocked by the £652m sale of the Body Shop to French cosmetics giant L'Oréal. Founder and green pioneer Anita Roddick tells Claudia Cahalane why selling up didn't mean selling out - and what she plans to do with her millions
Friday November 3, 2006
Anita Roddick has long been a hero for shoppers with a social conscience. Back in the 1970s, when she was in her early 30s with two young children and a husband away travelling, she set up the Body Shop - the UK's first natural beauty company.
Thirty years later, in March 2006, many Body Shop fans were shocked to learn that she had agreed to a £652m takeover by French cosmetics giant L'Oréal. Prior to the sale, Ethical Consumer magazine had given L'Oréal its lowest rating because of the company's record on animal testing, something which seemed to jar strongly with the intense campaigning done by the Body Shop against animal testing.
When I meet her at her office in Chichester I find that it's not because her views have changed. She tells me: "The beauty industry hasn't improved much. You still have models that look glum - the 'glum cow disease'. You're still thrown on the trash heap of life if you have wrinkles on your skin or dimples on your bum ... and models have got much, much, younger too."
Rather, she sees herself as a kind of "trojan horse" who by selling her business to a huge firm will be able to influence the decisions it makes. Suppliers who had formerly worked with the Body Shop will in future have contracts with L'Oréal, and working with the company 25 days a year Roddick will be able to have an input into decisions.
There are lots of questions any ethical business needs to answer, says Roddick. "Can you look at harvesting ingredients that are grown naturally? You need purchasing programmes and to have a dialogue in the most honourable way with the most fragile and poorest communities you are working with. You have to ask them if you can purchase from them and under what conditions and how much you would have to pay as a social premium."
She adds: "This has always been the language of The Body Shop and this is the bit that makes me want to sing with joy - this is also what L'Oréal wants to embrace.
"I'm not an apologist for them, I'm just excited that I can be like a trojan horse and go into that huge business and talk about how we can buy ingredients like cocoa butter from Ghana and sesame oil from Nicaraguan farmers and how we can do that in a kindly, joyful way and that is happening."
Roddick says Body Shop customers should not be put off by the change of ownership and that she trusts the company completely. "I spent yesterday with L'Oréal and I meet up with them a lot as a consultant as part of my mission and vision for the beauty industry," she says. "I believe they are honourable and the work they do is honourable. Especially the work they do on sourcing ingredients. I've spent lots of time with their sourcing guys."
But what about the company's position on animal testing? "Watch this space with L'Oréal," she says. "It has bought a big company to look at alternative testing methods and they're developing it. It uses in-vitro testing and culture testing. It's very, very, interesting and they know (because of the changes in European law) that everything they do has got to be aligned to that. They've already started the process."
She does, however, think the subject of animal testing has fallen off the radar. "The bigger issue here is, 'is this subject sexy any more?'" she asks. "Do people care? Because my gut feeling is the number of people who care is dropping."
While she is still connected to these issues, she has moved on and is focusing much of her time, energy and money in to her trust, the Anita Roddick Foundation. It was set up using her share of the money from the sale of the Body Shop and she seems to suggest that it was one of the main reasons for the sale. That, and the fact that she had become less hands-on with the company as it got bigger.
"After 30 years of leading the company I had other avenues to pursue ... I wanted to do something useful with the money I had while I am still able to," she says. But while she is nearing 65 years old, Roddick shows no sign of slowing down. "A woman advancing old age is unstoppable," she laughs. "I think it's an obscenity dying rich and I don't want to be defined by business; after all, we're only remembered for what we do in civil society."
· A full version of this interview appears in the December issue of Lifescape magazine
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