Judi Bevan

Moral superiority in cheap plastic bottles

As the train trundled down to Littlehampton one warm summer afternoon in 1988, I was filled with excitement at the thought of meeting Anita Roddick.

Moral superiority in cheap plastic bottles
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As the train trundled down to Littlehampton one warm summer afternoon in 1988, I was filled with excitement at the thought of meeting Anita Roddick. I had arranged to interview her for a book called The New Tycoons, which I was writing with my Sunday Times colleague John Jay, now my husband. Roddick was already a household name even though the Body Shop had only been in existence for 12 years. When its shares were floated on the Unlisted Securities Market in 1984 they nearly doubled from 95p to 160p on the first day — and she became Britain’s fourth richest woman. Her shops, painted dark green and selling intriguing plastic bottles of unguents purporting to be made from natural ingredients, had hit the spot with women who were bored witless by the staid, overpriced offerings of Boots and the department stores.

Since the first shop opened in 1976, the tousle-haired mistress of the contentious soundbite had made herself better known among the general public than any of the other ten subjects of the book. These included George Davies, who had just been ejected from Next; Martin Sorrell of WPP, who had the year before bought the US advertising firm J. Walter Thompson; and Gerald Ratner — yet to make his unfortunate remark about the jewellery he sold being ‘crap’.

My disappointment at meeting her is evident in the resulting chapter. ‘As a teenager, Anita Roddick wanted to be an actress. Today her business, which sells lotions, potions and soaps from Dubai to New York, provides the perfect stage for the non-stop Anita Roddick show,’ I wrote. Sourly, I went on to remark that Body Shop had received ‘more than its fair share of accolades and awards’.

When I arrived I was ushered in by a reverential assistant to await my audience. Roddick finally appeared looking bemused and making it clear she had no clue as to who I was. When I asked the first question, she gave a big sigh and a weary smile, and launched into what I came to recognise over the years as her stock interview — peppered with scathing remarks about her rivals, the cosmetics industry and global capitalism.

Then, as she wound up, I asked her to show me around the plant, as had been agreed when the interview was set up. Again she looked nonplussed but she rallied quickly, bluffing her way through various departments with which she was obviously unfamiliar. ‘Hasn’t it all changed?’ she kept saying to passing staffers as we whirled through. I realised that while Anita was the creative and marketing powerhouse of the Body Shop, the business was actually run by her husband Gordon and his highly professional team.

Off her own script, she floundered at unfamiliar questions. When I asked if she was a vegetarian her eyes went a little fuzzy. Then in a low, pseudo-confidential voice she said, ‘Well I don’t eat red meat but I love chicken and fish.’ Later I asked if her clothes were man-made or natural fibre. Again I got the fuzzy-eyed treatment. ‘Actually I don’t know,’ she snapped. ‘I couldn’t give a stuff.’

Like Princess Diana, her manipulation of the non-financial press bordered on genius — and began early. After pinching the name Body Shop from an American retailer she had spotted during her ‘hippie phase’, she opened her first premises in a Brighton side street between two undertakers — who felt the name was the height of bad taste. When they put pressure on her to change it she rang the local paper, a cloth over the mouthpiece to disguise her voice. ‘I told them these mafia-style funeral operators were threatening a poor little housewife who was struggling to set up her first shop.’ The resulting public-ity brought customers in droves. ‘I realised you didn’t need to advertise, you just had to do your own PR,’ she told me gleefully. ‘You get far more column inches that way.’

From then on her publicity-seeking knew no bounds as she positioned herself as a morally righteous David against multiple Goliaths. On receiving an award from the CBI, presented by the gentlemanly Robin Leigh Pemberton, she announced that she had never met a captain of industry ‘who makes my blood sing’, completely missing the point that the job of a captain of industry is to make money for shareholders. No matter, the newspapers lapped it up.

They also lapped up her criticism of the big cosmetics companies, including L’Oréal, for testing their products on animals. ‘How can you kill an animal or cause it pain for something as trivial as a moisture cream?’ she asked, turning a blind eye to the fact that some ingredients in Body Shop products had indeed been tested on animals.

She accused the cosmetics industry of selling dreams and exploiting women’s insecurity, yet she peddled her own dreams. Hers were not of eternal youth and wrinkle-free skin but of moral superiority in using what are essentially low-cost, low-tech products in cheap plastic bottles dressed up to seem fun, exciting and guilt-free. As Martin Vander Weyer wrote here last week, she was the pioneer of ‘pamper-yourself-and-feel-righteous ethical consumerism’.

She also regularly bit the hand that fed her, disparaging City analysts and castigating the rich — which rang strangely from a woman whose personal wealth came from her global company with nearly 2,000 outlets in 49 countries. I struggled then, as I do now, to understand the schism within her. Was she just a hypocrite, as many in the City believed, or merely muddle-headed? Why be so holier-than-thou about business when, as any of its suppliers or franchisees can testify, the Body Shop ran a notably tight ship?

Her talent for publicity meant that the company had a far higher profile than it merited. After the shares peaked in 1990, valuing Body Shop at £800 million, a disastrous US foray brought the party to an abrupt halt. The shares plunged and underperformed the market for many years afterwards. In 1996 plans for the Roddicks to take the company private failed because of its high borrowings; hundreds of staff had to be culled from the Littlehampton plant as sourcing went overseas.

The Roddicks did survive, though, unlike other Eighties stars. Among the other subjects in our book, Sophie Mirman’s Sock Shop and John Ashcroft’s Coloroll both went spectacularly bust. But neither did the Roddicks build a truly substantial business, in the way that Sir Martin Sorrell did at WPP.

When they sold the company to L’Oréal for £657 million, netting Anita and Gordon £117 million, she declared that she would give most of the money away. To the last she struggled with her love of business and her apparent unease with its consequences. At least that struggle is over now.