Huw Spanner
Thoughts into words,
ideas into action
Curriculum Vitae



Body Politics

I interviewed the late Anita Roddick, then the lived-in face of the Body Shop (and subsequently a dame), for Third Way on the 5th January 1996.

There had been allegations that her business practice fell a little short of her rhetoric, and the word was that they were true. Whether I managed to convey any such doubts I don't know, but I was a bit disconcerted when she subsequently had the interview reprinted and circulated to all the Body Shop’s employees worldwide.

How do you account for the phenomenal success of the Body Shop? Can anyone do it, or did you identify and exploit a unique market?

That’s a great term for somebody who’s been to business school. I never have. We didn’t even know about the word ‘market’, couldn’t even spell it.

The original Body Shop was a series of brilliant accidents. It had a great smell, it had a funky name. It was positioned between two funeral parlours – that always caused controversy. It was incredibly sensuous. It was 1976, the year of the heatwave, so there was a lot of flesh around. We knew about storytelling then, so all the products had stories. We recycled everything, not because we were environmentally friendly but because we didn’t have enough bottles.

It was a good idea. What was unique about it, with no intent at all, no marketing nous, was that it translated across cultures, across geographical barriers and social structures. It wasn’t a sophisticated plan, it just happened like that.

But do you think that anybody who put your business values into practice, in whatever market, could see the same kind of success?

I think that most people who found companies are a different breed: they’re outsiders. Entrepreneurs have often had a diminished childhood: they often have been forced into adulthood by the loss of a parent or whatever. They have absolutely no interest in money, none whatsoever. It’s just the cheekiness of an idea, and the extension of your personality.

The company that you found yourself has your thumbprint on it: it’s an extension of yourself. And you have to shape it the way you want. Maybe that is part of it. It’s my life, an alter ego.

Even people who admire your values are surprised that you chose to apply them to the cosmetics industry. If you want to change the world, why start with something essentially frivolous?

What would be the right thing to have applied them to? Armaments? The petrochemical industry? The drug industry? You know, these are the multinationals that control the world. I think you start where people have a sense of their own worth.

Cosmetics isn’t about changing an identity, it’s about celebrating who you are. Every tribe that I’ve visited has a ritual of the body, whether it’s a ritual of cleaning or covering or whatever. The ritualising of your body isn’t part of Western culture.

I think the criticism comes from a very paternalistic male viewpoint. This industry that I’m in – forget the fact that it’s now very much controlled by men – at its simplest level is about gardening, about preparing the body, about storytelling.

This is a totally useless industry if you talk about the products as if they were the body and blood of Jesus Christ. They’re not. If you look at what the industry does to denigrate women, where women’s flesh is seen as gross, where the bodies of people my age are not seen as either sexual or sensuous because we’re supposed to be beyond childbearing, then bloody right it’s a frivolous industry. No, it’s a dangerous industry, because it cultivates no self-worth and no joy. But if it’s about caring and using the body as play, it’s wonderful.

The conventional cosmetics industry promotes as beauty a kind of spurious glamour, and promotes as health a kind of illusory youth. How do you define true beauty and health?

I don’t think they ever promote health. The transnational corporations promote a very Caucasian, very young view of perfection. There is no celebration of cultural diversity, only the Western notion.

It’s only in the last two centuries that we’ve defined beauty as the appearance. To my mind, it is a dimension of action, of vivaciousness, of courage. It’s about energy, it’s about compassion, it’s about all the things that women should be celebrated for. It’s not passive, not a combination of high cheekbones and full lips. The notion that beauty is only a physical combination of features is ludicrous.

If it’s vivaciousness and energy, what’s that got to do with skin care? You can be vivacious and energetic and have skin like a rhinoceros.

That’s why I never define beauty, and you don’t see photographic images of flawless people in the Body Shop. We don’t sell the product as sex and glamour. We’re so puritan in how we describe things, we only say the products will cleanse, polish or protect the skin or hair, end of story. Nothing else.

I think it makes for a very shallow society if all we do is look at what the fashion industry or the beauty industry shape as a model of beauty, ‘and these are the products to make you look like that,’ rather than celebrating what women have done.

There’s such a poverty of praise in our society, towards women anyway. Women aren’t taught how remarkable they are. We have so much denigration of women. Go back to the Inquisition: three million women burnt at the stake because they were herbalists, or midwives or something like that. It’s a cultural history which the cosmetic industry is doing nothing to change.

People seem to be rejecting their bodies increasingly, only now not because they are ‘gross’ and ‘carnal’ but because they are not as perfect as machines. The papers are full of cyber sex, and men are catching up with women on both cosmetic surgery and anorexia. Do you think we are becoming an anti-body culture?

I think we are, definitely. Historically, the notion of beauty has been one of discord: things that don’t always look the same are astonishing. A sunset that isn’t the same as every other sunset takes your breath away. But the notion of discord, of imbalance, in the body, is now seen as eccentric.

We are assaulted by 30,000 ads a day, women more than men. Every newspaper, every magazine, every billboard, when it’s geared towards women, it’s about control. If you can control the shape of women, you can control their thinking as well. On every level, the cosmetic industry is about perfection – but the subliminal message is, ‘We can control what you look like.’ Every nose job, every facelift looks the same: there’s almost this need for homogeneity. It is so anti-life, anti-celebration.

It’s not only anti-body. We are such a cynical society, controlled by the media, and the media want to sell whatever there is to sell. It’s not about honest information, it’s about creating fashions and needs – now. And we are a society assailed by fears: a fear of sex, because of Aids: a fear of intimacy, because that’s seen as too sexual: a fear of communication.

And yet whenever you try and stop that communication, people will find their way through it – hence the internet. That’s got to be one of the most bizarre phenomena of our time, the search for that community.

In [your book] Body and Soul, you wrote, ‘By the year 2000, any company that does not operate like the Body Shop will have a hard time operating at all.’ Do you still think that’s true?

I don’t think by the year 2000 we will be seen as as marginalised as we were. Five years ago, when I went to Harvard to talk about social responsiveness and social responsibility, the notion of business as a community, the notion of spirituality in the workplace, I was like an alien. Now, I get invited to talk on those subjects.

What I didn’t know when I wrote the book was the power of the transnational corporations. By the end of the century, there could be less than 50 controlling 90 per cent of the world’s trade. I had no idea. And that’s where I don’t think what I said five years ago will necessarily be accurate, unless there is a revolution where consumers are more vigilante, more demanding to know about the practices of these large, faceless organisations. Otherwise, I think the large corporations are just going to have their way and will in fact control the world, because economics at this stage overrides everything.

But, also, no company seems to have a moral agenda. The bigger the company the more it divorces itself from the sort of redress of grievances that you would get from me if I injured you. There’s still no compensation for the thousands of victims of Union Carbide in Bhopal. There is no compensation for the Ogoni in Nigeria. And it all seems to be acceptable: the Sunday Times says Shell is the best company for realising its shareholders’ profits as if that is the most important thing.

Are you saying you are now pessimistic?

I believe that the revolution of changing the nature of business is going to be mainstream. I think it’s going to be in the establishment way of thinking, in the business schools. But I do believe the transnational corporations are surviving in spite of this, and so I think I am pessimistic.

In 1993, you told the Congress of the International Chamber of Commerce that business ‘must not only avoid hideous evil, it must actively do good’. But why should it? Surely, transnationals dominate the world because they are successful?

But there’s a public consciousness rising. Shopping is now a moral choice. People are not buying Nike because they know Nike shoes are made in Thailand by young kids in sweatshops. Unfortunately, the media don’t deal with that information, because that means assaulting their major advertisers. So, you need the alternative magazines – the New Statesman, the Multinational Monitor, whatever. That’s where I think some real information is coming through.

But I think change in people’s perceptions isn’t instant, it’s gradual. In this country, a lot of business leaders are very establishment-thinking, very patriarchal. They don’t talk about feelings, they don’t see the necessity of social responsiveness. Now, how does that change? By companies showing that you can still be profitable and have a workforce that is celebrative, happy, doesn’t want to leave you. And you have more fun. Look at the Fortune 500. Who in the hell would ever want to follow any of those?

How do you instil public spirit into private enterprise?

You hire employees, but people come instead, and they come with their own aspirations and they do not want to leave their values at the workplace door. They want to be able to work within their own beliefs, within a community of the workplace. So, the politics of consciousness has very strongly been part of the way we do business, bringing in radical ideas in terms of how far a business can go when it acts like a non-profit organisation and campaigns for human rights – unheard of in business.

But your workforce may be public-spirited, but it is self-selecting, isn’t it?

I would think so. The majority of people here are under 30. A lot of them are female, whose ethics are about care.

But most politicians and businesspeople seem to regard the average person as self-centred. Aren’t they?

They may be, but what’s offered to them? Where’s the inspiration in education? I’ve had a look at the business curriculum and it’s useless. There’s nothing about human relationships; nothing about the development of the human spirit – which is what the best business leaders should be doing, and are doing. There’s nothing about community, nothing about creativity in the workplace.

It’s not just finance and strategy. When a head franchisee has a nervous breakdown, we know how to deal with it. You can’t go to business school for that, you deal with it on a human level.

We have a whole Values and Vision Department here – 40 people whose jobs are public affairs, human rights and international trade.

At the ICC, you advocated a corporate code of conduct. How would that work? Surely, the people who cheat are always going to do better?

But it’s happening, but in a very untraditional way. Who would have thought, five years ago, that there would be public outrage about the Brent Spar, or about the Ogoni?

I don’t think any other established company has ever challenged another company in the history of business (outside of the ice-cream wars or whatever) as the Body Shop did Shell. It’s almost an unwritten law – ‘There but for the grace of God…’ My company has broken the rules. Hopefully, somebody else will. When you deplete the world’s resources as large transnational corporations do, without replenishing, without sustainability, there’s going to be a crisis.

Another thing: I don’t think customers yet know the power that they have within their pocket. I think there is a new movement coming, a frugality movement. People are not as wealthy as they were; they are more careful about their money, and they don’t want to spend it on crap. They’re looking for the story behind the product. This is all seriously new stuff, and it’s usually a decade before it comes into public consciousness.

Given that other high-street retailers now sell herbal shampoos which are minimally packaged and not tested on animals, and are cheaper, why should a conscientious consumer still buy at the Body Shop?

I think it’s – why not? I mean, if I was a conscientious consumer I would be thrilled that the money that we have is spent on issues like human rights, changing the nature of international trade, celebration of women, working with setting up initiatives like The Big Issue, supporting groups like the Missing Persons’ Helpline. I would be thrilled to know that a company isn’t just quoting ‘not tested on animals’ but is actually changing the law on this almost single-handed. I would be thrilled that the employees spend sabbatical time working in Romanian orphanages or Albanian mental institutions. That’s why.

Some hard-headed people might say, ‘OK, buy your deodorant at Superdrug because it’s cheaper and give the difference directly to Survival International.’

As long as they do that, fine. But I also think there’s something fantastic about the creation of livelihoods that we’ve done with the franchise system. I don’t know, people have the choice.

Why should they want to buy from us? I think it’s because we’re counterculture: we don’t do things the normal way, we have a huge sense of thoughtfulness about how we manufacture, and why. I’m astounded that any products ever get on our shelves with the amount of tests we do. We should be putting up a flag every time we get a product out, the quality of our social agenda, how we manufacture and how we source, is so profound.

How do you draw the line between using your business to promote ethical concerns and using ethical concerns to promote your business?

Well, I’d rather promote bloody human rights than a bubble bath. Maybe I shouldn’t be running this company.

For example, with regard to the Ogoni, the cynics might say, ‘The Body Shop is jumping on the bandwagon because it’s good for the Body Shop.’

Well, cynics I can’t deal with, because they create a web of assumption, then they fucking do nothing. We don’t jump on bandwagons. My travel is like a university without walls: I go and live with indigenous groups and I come back with issues that I think we can help them with.

We are eminently brilliant at publicising issues – we have thousands of shops around the world, we can leverage millions of people. When we worked with Amnesty, for example, we leveraged so many letters about the 30 prisoners of conscience we were allocated that 17 were released. That’s brilliant!

Does it ever create a sale? The unfortunate thing is, it doesn’t. When people come in to sign a petition, they don’t then say, ‘Oh, by the way, I want a moisture cream.’ People’s time is so limited. That is why companies don’t do it – they do more chequebook charity. Bringing activism within the store confuses many people.

The positive side is that the sense of pride the employees have when they do this sort of work, when they go and stand up for the Ogoni outside Shell, is equal to anything in the world. So, the Body Shop brand is activism, as it’s been for 20 years.

You like to quote Wendell Berry: ‘The health of a community depends absolutely on trust.’ How do you create that trust?

I think it’s about openness, it’s about transparency. It’s about doing the social audit that we’ve just done for the first time.

I don’t think any other company’s done it in the way that we’ve done it. We had 5,000 stakeholders, from our suppliers to our staff to our employees to our shareholders to the community in which we’re working to people who’ve received money from our foundation, all telling us what they think of us. It’s more than a staff survey – it’s an assessment of our ethical behaviour.

Do you think the wider community trusts you?

They trust that the products are safe and are made with care. They trust the environmental audit and the social audit – that we make sure that we clean up our own mess. (We have our own windfarm, to put the energy we use back into the National Grid.)

They trust us to campaign, to continue to get the law changed on animal testing. They trust us not to overhype the products. They trust us not to sell the products through fear. They trust us to work in the community – and give back to the community in terms of honesty.

You say that the Body Shop is ‘about total honesty’. Isn’t that a hostage to fortune?

But we say we’re striving to be the most honest. Of course you’re going to get a flurry from the press saying, ‘Five per cent of your suppliers think you’re corrupt’ or whatever.

Are you surprised by the number of hostile voices?

No, I am not surprised at all. If you wear a bullseye on your back saying ‘I’m doing things in a different way,’ you’re going to get shot at. We’re too interesting a company not to take pot shots at.

You have said, ‘The new corporate responsibility is as simple as just saying ‘no’ to dealing with torturers and despots.’ Now, no one can say, ‘We’re not going to trade with any country that Amnesty has a case against,’ because you’d end up not trading with anyone. How does this work out in practice?

Well, first of all, you don’t trade with governments, you trade with people, right? You can’t talk openly about human-rights violations in Kuwait, and so that’s why you don’t go in. But our franchisees in the Middle East are interested in how they treat their employees, so it’s never black and white: there are things you can do. There’s this way of changing from within, this lovely notion of a Trojan horse.

Are you happy to be trading with China?

No, I’m not. I don’t want the Body Shop to be in China at the moment, because I don’t feel that you can change anything there, and the Body Shop is not just about selling skin and hair care, it’s about campaigning. We’re doing very little trading in China now, but every project that we have there our Fair Trade Department has audited.

Your slogan ‘Extinct is forever’ is terribly effective. What is it, do you think, that gives it its impact?

I think it’s the shock value. Our Christian belief has made us feel that we’re in control of everything, and I think that’s a very dangerous belief. When we destroy other species willy-nilly and we have no notion of what that is doing to us, I think it’s the work of the bloody Devil. We have no notion of reverence.

Why should you have any reverence?

Why should you not?

Some people might say, ‘These things are just things – come to that, we’re just things as well.’

But we’re not. We’re part of this planet – which is not infinite. And I think this lack of respect and care is so much part of the culture of need and ‘I want it now’ – and ‘it’ is always something that is beyond yourself and your own spirit. It’s this or this or this that will make me happy. A change has to happen.

Do you believe in a Creator?

I believe in creation. I believe in a sort of cosmological energy. I believe in the Spirit – maybe it’s the Spirit of creation. I believe in the notion of respect. I’m in awe.

I don’t know how to define God, and maybe I don’t want to define it, because it’s not the god of control. But when you look at that amazing photograph of that new star being created, you cannot but think that there is some force or energy somewhere.

What the Christian religion doesn’t do for me is give me a sense of awe and wonderment. When I spend time with tribal groups, I am in tune with a part of my nature that has taught me about awe and reverence and wonderment at the fact of being alive. That’s a celebration I don’t get from the ritual in the Catholic Church, which was how I was brought up.

How do you form your spiritual ideas?

It doesn’t come to me by reading any book, like the Catechism or the Bible. It’s experience as a human being, as who I am, the experience of the planet.

It’s also about interaction. I’ve just had my first grandchild and the notion of birth is still a miracle. The notion of love, people finding each other, is not a miracle but it is a joy. The notion of thanks, you know, is a joy. Just the notion of bloody being alive.

You talk a lot about doing good. Why should people do good?

‘Why should they not do good?’ is a better question. I mean, what’s the alternative? Doing bad, or doing nothing (but doing nothing often is doing bad).

I enjoy myself doing good. Why should they do good? Because it makes them, I think, feel healthier, feel better. I think it’s all about themselves; it’s not about what you do, it’s about how good you can feel yourself. Humans are communicative animals. When you do good in a community, the benefits get back to you. I can’t believe that anybody would want to do the opposite.

© Third Way 1996

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