Body Shop founder pushes her ideal approach to profit

Grande dame of the socially responsible business set says firms can still do more.

When Anita Roddick spoke at Harvard University in 1988, her appeal for social responsibility in the business world wasn't mainstream.

"It was like I had just walked off the moon," says Ms. Roddick, founder of cosmetic giant The Body Shop and longtime human rights advocate.

Thirteen years later, Roddick's message hasn't changed. She still calls for corporate philanthropy and environmental stewardship. But the number of her disciples has grown. The seminal 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle brought Roddick's 20-year campaign to a world audience. According to a 1999 Cone/Roper report, 95 percent of Americans believe corporations should sacrifice some profit to better the lives of their workers and communities.

Her new book, "Business As Unusual" (Thorsons), is a guide for those wishing to inject a little idealism into their business. According to Roddick, it's an important goal, as corporations' influence looms larger each year.

"Business is more powerful than ever before," says Roddick. "This is the first time in human history when economic value has superseded every other human value. You see it in language. In words like 'investment.' 'How much time have I invested in my relationships?' "

Roddick opened the first Body Shop in Brighton, England, in 1976, selling environmentally friendly beauty products - free from animal testing and with ingredients found in nature.

The company has grown to 1,700 stores in 49 countries. From the beginning, Roddick has used them to promote human rights initiatives. She has partnered with scores of indigenous groups in third-world countries, paying them Western wages for their work in developing new products.

Progressive initiatives like these, she says, are increasingly influential in a world where business, not politics, is the primary battleground for social change. It's one reason she's calling on idealists to enter the corporate world.

"Business is not found in nature. It's made by you and me, and therefore can be changed," she says. "Its so darn simple. It's as easy as saying, 'I want a financial bottom line that includes human rights and social justice.' "

That doesn't mean it's easy to execute. The Body Shop began trading its stock publicly in 1984. But Roddick feared the company had gotten too impersonal, and wanted to direct profits to nonprofit work. A later effort to buy back the company from shareholders failed.

With a glut of new competitors like Bath & Body Works clogging the market, The Body Shop has become far more product focused. And notwithstanding certain victories - like Roddick's successful campaign to ban animal testing for cosmetics in Britain - human rights efforts sometimes threatened the bottom line.

"People are not so altruistic that they'd buy a 'guilt purchase.' There would always be a slight dip in sales when we put posters for a human rights campaign in our windows," she says.

Roddick stepped down as chief executive in 1998. (She and her husband, Gordon, remain corporate co-chairs.) She now devotes much of her time to help strengthen dissent against globalization. The prosperity reaped in the West from global trade, she insists, hasn't translated into a higher quality of life in developing countries. "There isn't one country ... where the common working man has ever been bettered. But it has been hugely popular for the corporations."

Part of her mission is to persuade multinational firms that ethics and profits are not mutually exclusive.

"There's a myth that the function of business is to maximize profit for its financial shareholders," she says. "That's really a new thing."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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