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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 July, 2003, 07:20 GMT 08:20 UK
Dame Anita's radical approach
By Laura Cummings
BBC News Online business reporter

Dame Anita Roddick, the self-styled hell-raiser of the business world and one of the UK's favourite entrepreneurs, reveals why retirement from the Body Shop has made her even more radical.

The Body Shop name may conjure up images of cocoa butter moisturiser and tea-tree facial oil - but its founder says the company was always about challenging business ethics.

"There is no more powerful institution in society than business," says Dame Anita in her book 'Business as Unusual'.

Anita Roddick
Getting more radical with age
"I believe it is now more important than ever before for business to assume a moral leadership."

Such idealism didn't always sit well with her counterparts in the City.

As the Body Shop became a global brand and more preoccupied with commercial realities, Dame Anita's radicalism was seen by insiders as more of a liability than an asset.

Last year she stepped down as the co-chair of the Body Shop and decided to take a backseat at the company she set up more than 25 years ago.

Not just about vitamin E cream...

Entrepreneurs are obsessed with freedom and also have an enormous work ethic
Dame Anita Roddick

Stepping down hasn't diminished her need to shake up convention - ethically, socially and environmentally.

Her activism is palpable the minute we meet - she is smaller than anticipated but with an intense energy, leaving you feeling that anything is possible.

The Body Shop, she insists, was always about communicating issues and campaigns - even if the cocoa-butter buying customers didn't always realise it.

"The politicism of the Body Shop has always been its DNA - the shops became our billboards.

Never doubt that a group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, indeed it's the only thing that ever does
Margaret Mead, American anthropologist

"I don't give a damn if we were made successful by Mrs Rosie Brown who loved her vitamin E cream. Behind us there was a tacit acceptance of what we were doing."

Campaigns included a nationwide petition against animal testing that helped change the law after four million people signed it.

The Body Shop also had the first childcare centre attached to a workplace in England.

Since giving up her role as co-chair, her activism has blossomed. "I'm getting more radical," she says.

Entrepreneurship

The Body Shop was started when her husband Gordon Roddick was riding horseback from Argentina to New York (after the style of Swiss explorer Aimé Tschiffley) while she had two small children to support.

Dame Anita describes the founding of the company as an act of survival.

She says her enterprising streak - the Body Shop followed an attempt to run a picture-framing shop, a hotel and a restaurant - was born of her sense of "difference", coming from an Italian family in a small Sussex town.

"Entrepreneurs are obsessed with freedom... and have an enormous work ethic," she says.

But she concedes: "We couldn't organise ourselves out of a paper bag!"

Dangerous wealth

There is, of course, an inherent irony in a company that tries to challenge conventional business methods and then becomes incredibly profitable.

"I didn't want to be like any other chief executive," says Dame Anita as she explains the reasoning behind her more unusual business trips, including spending a week with a "vagabond".

Yet the Body Shop has been making profits of about £25m since the mid-1990s, even with a recent slump in sales.

"Being wealthy can corrode human spirit but it also allows you to be generous."

Our naivety was our strength - we didn't realise we couldn't bring our hearts to the workplace
Dame Anita Roddick
Nonetheless, the group has received its fair share of flak for what critics claim was a gap between its ethical image and its products.

Dame Anita insists "frugality was always there".

Profits were ploughed not into private jets and lavish offices, but into funding in-house campaigns for human rights, a community care department and an environmental projects team.

Dame Anita also insists their "green" approach to business served them well.

"Our naivety was our strength - we didn't realise we couldn't bring our hearts to the workplace."

Her timing was also immaculate - the Body Shop's heyday in the early 1990s coincided with greater public awareness of the environment.

Hypocritical?

There was, however, the unavoidable moral dilemma - what to do if your board doesn't support the political stance you are passionate about?

Now they have declared 'kindness' the enemy. How revealing is that?
Dame Anita Roddick

Dame Anita says she "walked to the brink" during the first Gulf crisis, threatening to walk out when directors expressed scepticism about the Body Shop's anti-war protests.

She was "saved" by two truck drivers who had seen the reality of war and spoke out at a company meeting.

The potential discord didn't end there.

City analysts have suggested her "anti-City" attitude was ill-grounded for a company that raised funds by listing on the London Stock Exchange.

"It's massively hypocritical," retail analyst Richard Ratner told BBC News Online.

"If making money from the City, you've got a nerve criticising the very people you're taking money from."

Running scared

One of Dame Anita's biggest gripes with business is that "people are too timid".

"We are living our comfort off the back of slaves," she says.

Her latest book, "A Revolution in Kindness", she describes as an attempt to look at "what our world would look like if we valued basic human kindness above all other ideals, such as wealth and power".

She sent a copy to a member of the Angola 3 - one of three prisoners she has been campaigning to free from Angola Prison in Louisiana, believing they were wrongfully imprisoned for murder 30 years ago.

The book was banned from the prison. "They fail to see the irony," she says. "Now they have declared 'kindness' the enemy. How revealing is that?"

It was last month, in the "belly" of her Louisiana jail, that she received the news she had been made a dame in the Queen's Birthday Honours List.

Inevitably, she saw her accolade, awarded for services to business, as yet another spur for her activism.

"I hope it will push me to be even more radical," she responded at the time.

BBC News Online will publish its next set of answers from our panel of small business experts on Tuesday, 22 July.


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