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Maintaining her rage

Posted on November 6, 2000

At the age of 10, Anita Roddick stood agape in the doorway of her family’s home and watched her mother defy the church.

Her father had just died, and the local priest had come to visit their Littlehampton home on the south coast of England. He stood at the doorstep while Anita’s mother scrubbed the linoleum in the hallway. Her husband had lapsed from the Catholic faith, and, the priest declared, the family was lucky he was being given a Catholic burial.

Anita’s mother stood, picked up the bucket of dirty water and threw it over him. “I’ll never forget that.” Roddick says now. “Acts like that push you to the edge of bravery.”

It was a defining moment in the life of a woman who has built a global cosmetics company based on the high ideals of human rights, the environment and the sort of compassion the man of God lacked.

Her “formidable” mother, who also rubbed garlic on her children’s clothes before mass because she couldn’t stand the smell of incense and sent her daughters to the local Catholic school in trousers, inspired Roddick to challenge everything, and she has followed her teachings to the letter.

If activism is the rent we pay for being on the planet, as the slogan goes, then Anita Roddick pays a lot of rent. The 57-year-old beggars description — environmentalist, human rights activist, leftie, international celebrity, anthropologist, educator and entrepreneur. All fit. Even with all her hats on, she still has more dynamism, energy and passion to bring to her work and life. In the past decade, The Body Shop queen has skipped only one year without an award for her efforts in the arena of business, philanthropy, environment and development.

Now a grandmother, Roddick still treks to villages all over the world to put into practice her philosophy of “trade not aid” by commissioning the villagers to create products from the natural environment in a sustainable way. She still fights conglomerates seeking profits without principles and runs campaigns through her stores on everything from gun control, missing people and homelessness to indigenous rights, peace and animal testing.

A year out of the day-to-day running of her company, which grew from one frugal store to a stylish chain of 1730 in 49 markets, the self-confessed loud-mouthed agitator and scourge of big business shows no signs of slowing down.

In her latest book, Business as Unusual, she asks the obvious question: why does a shampoo company run a political campaign and not just stick to selling soap?

“The simple fact is that I’d rather promote human rights than a bubble bath,” she says . “The second reason: If not us, who else? The alternative (maybe worse), do nothing.”

On landing in Australia last week, Roddick was surprised to find journalists preoccupied with the seeming paradox of a cosmetics company boss criticising anti-ageing creams, something her company does not claim to sell.

“What I get when I come here is anti-ageing creams. Well, let me tell you on public television, no they don’t work so don’t waste your money,” she told the National Press Club. “But the obsession with something as irrelevant as an anti-ageing cream is actually more dire because it talks about a culture where the idiocies are more important than the realities.”

Roddick is in Australia to promote her book — a warts-and-all story of the past decade of David and Goliath battles with the company’s board; a slump in the share price prompted by allegations about the sincerity of its ethical stances; and a subsequent hard-won libel action.

To remaining doubters, Roddick points out that she has stood on the precipice of principle — once closing down the company for a day when the board refused to back her campaign against the Gulf War. She was, she says, prepared to abandon her company for good.

“I was saved by a couple of members of staff who had been to the Falklands and served in Northern Ireland,” she writes. “They explained what war was like, that war is never meant to save democracy, and I didn’t have to say anything.”

But even she was unable to defeat that other imperative of modern business — downsizing. Even under the pressure of the management gurus brought in to restructure the company, she bent over backwards to compensate for the need for internal redundancies. She organised generous packages, with training, entrepreneur’s clubs with interest-free loans and full use of company facilities nine months after departure. But the experience still stung after a history of creating rather than destroying jobs.

Roddick is also open about the mistakes of trying to trade directly with the indigenous Kayapo community in Brazil and the failure of the idealistic project to stop the destructive logging of their Amazon forest home. “It was probably naive to think that our trade in Brazil nut oil with two small villages could stop the pressure of the loggers,” she says. “But I’m glad we tried.”

The breathless critique moves quickly to the next successful community experiment: hand-made paper from Nepalese villagers. And in archetypal style, the 1960s hippie-turned-entrepreneurial-dynamo is already blazing new trails.

The company has begun its move into publishing and ecotourism with a host of skin and hair care, art and aromatherapy books to be released next year and the first swag of Swedish tourists has already checked in at an ecotour lodge owned by the Kayapo and sponsored by Roddick.

But, still, Roddick hasn’t explained exactly what drives her. Hard to believe, but she says it is fear of boredom. Flitting between her latest projects, including the rebuilding of Kosovo schools and impending visits to Nicaraguan sweatshops, it is incredible to imagine she knows the meaning of the word.

And, she says, there was her feisty mother, who Roddick credits with ingraining hard work, love, curiosity and a rebellious spirit into her daughter. Perhaps luckily, she adds, her determination comes from never having been “squashed” by anybody.

Even her teachers deserve some credit, encouraging her as a 13-year-old to take part in Freedom Against Hunger campaigns and marches for nuclear disarmament. “Nobody said, ‘Oh don’t be stupid, you should be playing with your Barbie dolls.’ I thought everything was possible”.

As the quintessential child of the ’60s, she took off to Paris, working in the library of the International Herald Tribune and later for the International Labor Organisation in Geneva. When she returned to Littlehampton in Britain and married, reality set in. The need for money drove a bare-bones cosmetics operation — but with early Roddick touches like selling creams in urine sample bottles and using quirky tricks like spraying perfume on the footpath to entice customers in to her first store.

While her mantra is to challenge social conditioning, she’s quick to point out that she is not a risk taker, having never been on the edge of poverty herself.

But Roddick’s version of throwing dirty water has led her to some fearless confrontations.

When she addressed the International Chamber of Commerce in 1993, she tackled the tobacco companies’ use of pesticides that had caused mutated babies of farm workers in Mexico. Her talk included slides of the babies, some who had been born without genitalia, because she knew the representatives of the responsible tobacco companies were in the audience.

But even years of campaigning and exposure could not have prepared her for their chilling response: “There was absolutely none — no embarrassment, no sense of outrage, just a collegiate sense of good manners.”

However, this has not deterred the red-headed radical who delights in a personal description of being ballsy, truth-telling, free-thinking, heart-bleeding, myth-debunking and non-conforming.

Despite a concerted attack by someone she calls the “corporate stalker” — a journalist hell-bent on portraying the company as the “most evil in the world” — and claims that her activism is merely slick marketing, Roddick has the runs on the board.

The bottom line of the company — with a turnover of more than $1 billion — has never been seriously jeopardised by its social and environmental causes despite some of the bizarre ways they have been promoted.

That includes making their creams from Brazilian nuts; defying conservative propaganda to promote hemp as a sustainable material for textiles, oil and food; painting AIDS information on elephants; sending employees to Romanian orphanages instead of corporate adventure weekends; and providing condoms to Third World prostitutes just as they’re about to have sex.

In fact, she points out, ethical business is increasingly being seen, or at least presented, as good business, even by some of the world’s most powerful multi-nationals.

A two-decade campaign for companies to espouse values other than the bottom line appears to have paid off — at least at the level of rhetoric. “Everyone fears a consumer revolt,” she says.

She says the myth that business should not be concerned with anything above or below the bottom line will lead to social disaster. “I think we are paying for this pervasive myth because it has shifted us from the idea of business as an honorable exchange to one where cost-effectiveness has somehow to be balanced against justice.

“In a global world there are no value-free or political disentangled actions. The very act of organising on a global basis is political because of culture, geography and differing value systems.”

For Roddick, the fight is about maintaining the rage against growing apathy. Why, she asks, are people not outraged that despite the long economic boom, a fifth of the human race still does not have access to proper food or clean water? Why are we not jumping up and down about the fact that three billion live on less than $2 a day while the wealthy have $8 trillion stashed away in tax havens? “They certainly don’t seem to be picking up the tab on world poverty.”

So she remains, throwing dirty water on their bad habits.

Copyright © 2000, The Age Company Ltd. All rights reserved.