Anita Roddick: prophet of Green Capitalism

The founder of The Body Shop has died – but not before helping to move exhausted industrial capitalism towards a new life as ‘capitalism without growth’.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

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‘Mostly, I tell stories’, Anita Roddick once said. ‘I just sell some stuff on the side to make some money.’ Roddick opened the first of a chain of cosmetic and toiletry outlets, The Body Shop, in Brighton in 1976. Last year, she and her husband Gordon sold the global chain of 1,407 shops to French cosmetics giant L’Oreal for £256million.

Roddick, who died yesterday, was once a civil servants union shop steward: she was from the left, not the right, but ended up pioneering the green capitalism that dominates today. She had an instinct for the way that the culture was changing in the 1980s. The Body Shop appealed to a customer who was more focused on personal life, and wanted to ‘spoil herself’ with bath oils and scented soaps, seeking a bit of refuge from an uglier world of competition.

But Roddick’s winning formula was to tie the inward focus to broad ethical propositions. The Body Shop’s cosmetics were the first to be marketed as ‘not tested on animals’ – summoning up a picture of L’Oreal shampoo being drip-fed into some prostrate beagle’s eye. This was the birth of ‘ethical shopping’ – the idea that, even if you did not feel like getting involved with a big campaign, you could still do something useful just by buying the right things. (Ethical shopping drew on the popularity of shopping boycotts against South Africa and Israel.)

Later, Roddick had success selling goods sourced from the underdeveloped world. Crinkly handmade Nepalese writing paper was a lot more costly, but its flaws gave it an authentic feel that shoppers alienated by mass-produced goods felt put them back in touch with what was real. This was what Roddick meant when she said she told stories. It is an essential part of brand-management today to create a back-story to your goods, but it was Roddick who first put on labels describing the indigenous village where your cocoa butter was made. The branding premium that Roddick realised was what made her shops so successful.

Roddick’s ethical capitalism started as a hippy shop in the Seventies, but by the Nineties it was the model that helped save the market system. Big business up until then had been about industrial innovation and growth – the basis of our creature comforts today. But growth provoked conflict, between rival firms, and more challengingly between workers and bosses, over the share of the output. By 1976 capitalists were recoiling in horror at the Frankenstein of mass society that they had conjured up. Few remember, but it was the industrialists’ ‘Club of Rome’ that first tried to redirect people’s attention from the struggle over resources to a putative environmental collapse.

In the 1980s, big business made its profits by downsizing. Corporate raiders like the late James Goldsmith broke up ailing businesses, selling off their assets and raiding the pension funds. Making better stuff was infra dig for the new capitalism, which preferred to make money out of thin air. Anita Roddick’s Body Shop sold itself as a protest against inhumane Thatcherism. But, in fact, Roddick developed a new style of Green Capitalism that is learning to make profits without growth.

What Roddick sold was ideas more than goods. The Fair Trade element of the Body Shop’s business was always relatively small – a loss-leader to interest customers who would leave with a small over-priced pot of avocado cream. Innovative in its branding, the Body Shop was also part of a more commonplace shift from manufacturing to retail in the economy. Instead of creating new products, the Body Shop represented a shift back in time to the mercantilist vision of bringing exotic goods to distant customers, the archaic business model of profit upon alienation.

The ethical audit that Roddick commissioned from the New Economics Foundation in 1995 is much more common today. Sky Broadcasting is a Carbon Neutral Company, and BP is going Beyond Petroleum. This is all part of a shift towards a Green Capitalism for a post-growth society. Instead of making money by making better goods, capitalists are becoming adept at finding new ways to tap future value stream without material innovation. The kind of rent-seeking behaviour that neo-classical economic textbooks warned against is increasingly the norm. Entrepreneurs are finding ways of ringing additional profits out of intellectual property rights, or as consultants to costly public ‘enterprises’. It is a shift so devoid of moral worth that its claims to ethical capitalism are all the more insistent.

Raising expectations of ethical business practice opened Roddick up to challenges. Critics alleged that the Mexican Indian natives used to illustrate the Body Shop’s American Express Campaign were exploited; or that local producers in the Solomon Islands and the Brazilian Kayapo Indians were left in the lurch; in 1996 the Body Shop pulled the plug on a deal to buy shea butter from a town in Ghana, leaving the local economy, all geared up to meet the order, in tatters; foot massagers were made in the Boys Town orphanage in sweat shop conditions while gang leader Joe Homan sexually molested the children (‘Joe’s work in Boys Town is ceaseless; he cares for the boys and girls and they really appreciate what he is doing for them’, said the label); campaigners objected that selling up to L’Oreal was a travesty – given that that was the very company the Body Shop was setting itself against when it offered products not tested on animals.

But those critics who thought that Anita Roddick was inconsistent in her ethical capitalism are missing the point. Roddick engineered the business model that sold ideals rather than goods. Product development in the past meant economising on costs with new technology. She was one of those who taught retailers to raise costs by enhancing the brand-added value. Anita Roddick has died, but she helped to move industrial capitalism towards a new life beyond the grave as Green Capitalism: capitalism without growth.

James Heartfield is a writer based in London. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons questioned whether ethical consumerism really has gone mainstream. Nathalie Rothschild argued that Fair Trade might reduce Western guilt but it does little to reduce Third World poverty. Emily Hill said ‘being ethical’ has become a fashion statement. Josie Appleton urged: Stop living ethically, and start living. Ethan Greenhart writes a weekly guide to eco-living in the 21st century. Or read more at spiked issue Ethical living.


The Queen of Bubble Bath, John Entine, Brazzil, December 1996

‘Branding Over the Cracks’, James Heartfield, Critique 35, 2006

Business as Unusual – My Entrepreneurial Journey: Profits with Principles, Anita Roddick, 2005

Topics Politics


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