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Anita Roddick: outsider rules

About the author
John Elkington is founder and chief entrepreneur at SustainAbility. He blogs at www.johnelkington.com.

The death of Anita Roddick on 10 September 2007 produced reams of celebratory obituaries. Much was familiar in the life of the pioneering businesswoman and green activist, though I did discover at least one thing I didn't know: that she had kept her mother's ashes while waiting for a clear night so she could (as her mother wished) launch them from Brighton beach into the heavens in a dazzling fireworks display. If the Times snippet is true, at least some of the Roddick phenomenon was in the genes.

Anita Roddick (1942-2007) was the founder of The Body Shop and for many years was a prominent activist for environmentally-conscious consumerism and corporate responsibility.

Her website is here

Anita Roddick wrote one article for openDemocracy:"If shirts could speak and 'we the people' would listen" (8 April 2004)

After two contributions to the instant appreciations of her achievement (see here and here), openDemocracy asked me to assess how Anita furthered the business community's understanding of social and environmental issues.

To crack the genetic code of the business phenomenon that was Anita Roddick is a bold undertaking. Her uniqueness resists it, yet no business leader was more in and of the world and therefore is more worthy of study. Here then is an effort to distil her business style into ten rules of what might be called "outsider capitalism".

01 Be an outsider

This one was easy for her. Anita's parents were Italian immigrants. "I was a natural outsider", she recalled, "and I was drawn to other outsiders and rebels. James Dean was my schoolgirl idol." Anita was a woman at a time when women were a rarity in business, let alone its upper echelons. It's not, however, just a matter of origin or gender - but of attitude, of being on the edge of things.

02 Be outraged - and outrageous

In terms of awakenings, she had a fair few. One came at age 10, when she read a book on the holocaust that helped develop her "sense of moral outrage". She later worked on a kibbutz in Israel and took a working trip around the world. Such experiences and daring can be a route to transformation. As Anita put it: "I had spent time in farming and fishing communities with pre-industrial peoples, and been exposed to the body rituals of women from all over the world". From the Quakers, she learned that "you can organise your workplace as an expression of the way you conduct your life, treating all people as equals - employees, customers, business associates - and adhering strictly to the truth".

03 Be radical

Also about Anita Roddick in openDemocracy:

David Boyle, "Anita, and the future of business" (12 September 2007)

Anita's goal, as expressed in the title of one of her books, was Business As Unusual. She once replied to a question about how her activism fitted in by saying: "Activism is our rent for being on the planet. The new entrepreneur is a social-change agent more than a businessperson: making a difference is more important than making a fortune."

She was widely known for her vocal, committed stance on political issues worldwide. These included open criticism of others' business practices: Shell's role in Nigeria, ExxonMobil's position on climate change, and (after participating in the birth of the global-justice movement, the "battle of Seattle" in 1999) the World Trade Organisation's policy on just about everything.

Anita promoted the campaigns of groups like Greenpeace and Amnesty International in the Body Shop's windows, and was involved in a host of campaigning organisations: from Human Rights Watch and the Ruckus Society to Business for Social Responsibility and Women Incorporated.

Perhaps surprisingly, I see the sale of the Body Shop to L'Oréal (in which Nestlé had a stake) as consistent with this picture - a radical solution to a problem that many pioneering companies face, namely how to scale to compete in global markets. Her critics may have had a field day, but she saw the potential to subvert and change a key competitor. More importantly, perhaps, she underscored the importance of experimenting with and exploiting the widest range of capitalist tools and techniques - including mergers and acquisitions - to drive market transformation.

04 Be early

Anita certainly was way ahead of the curve in terms of what Julia Hailes and I called "green consumerism" (in our 1988 best-seller The Green Consumer Guide, for which Anita provided the foreword). We were here building on what Anita and her husband Gordon was already doing at the Body Shop - as well as what groups like Friends of the Earth was doing in areas like tropical timber products and CFCs.

"Don't just grin and bear it", she encouraged readers. "As consumers, we have real power to effect change. We can ask questions about supply and manufacture. We can request new or different products. And we can use our ultimate power, voting with our feet and wallets - either buying a product somewhere else or not buying it at all".

Her early business adventures were largely driven by necessity. With no training or experience in business, she experimented with approaches that probably would not have occurred to most business people. The idea of refillable containers for cosmetic products, for example, came from her mother's enforced frugality during the war years. And the green paint used in the first store - which then spread to the chain as a whole - was simply the best colour to cover the damp, mouldy walls, but later chimed in well with the growing "green" consciousness.

John Elkington is founder and chief entrepreneur at SustainAbility. He blogs at johnelkington.com

Also by John Elkington in openDemocracy:

"Why I'm going to Davos"(16 January 2003)

"Biotechnology: the case for sustainability"(20 August 2003)

"It's the system, stupid!"(5 February 2004)

"Globalisation's reality check" (7 September 2004)

"After Stern: let's get technical"(2 November 2006)

"Climate change's right and wrong fixes" (2 February 2007) - with Geoff Lye

"Brundtland and sustainability: history's balance-sheet" (12 April 2007)

"India's third liberation" (21 August 2007)

05 Be principled

The Body Shop's DNA was unusual from the outset. It was summarised in the mission statement: "To dedicate our business to the pursuit of social and environmental change". When the company's principles were challenged by critics, she responded in 1996 with a massive publication, The Values Report. This headed SustainAbility's "engaging stakeholders" benchmark survey of the same year, and helped bring a much stronger social dimension into the emerging field of corporate-sustainability reporting (or what might now be called non- or extra-financial reporting).

06 Be personal

Many CEOs remain cocooned in their limousines, helicopters and skyscrapers. Anita was a different type (as the title of another of her books, Take It Personally, made clear. Other business people may have been uncomfortable with the way she wore her heart on her corporate sleeve, but this was also a model that opened the way towards new understandings of how engaged businesses can help change the world.

The personal input meant in practice boldness and imagination. Many years ago Anita gave me copies of the vast posters on display in Body Shop premises around the world - blazing forth environmental messages such as ONCE IS NOT ENOUGH (advocating "Refill, Repair, Reuse, Recycle, Revamp, Recreate and Renew") and STOP THE BURNING (opposing tropical deforestation).

07 Be accessible

Anita's daughter Justine says: "Our family home had a never-ending revolving door through which came people from all walks of life - people who Mum has encountered and connected with". She helped build the business ecosystem which incubated not just her own business but a bunch of other ventures, including our own SustainAbility.

08 Be ubiquitous

Anita's other daughter Sam says "My Mum was like a weather system - she reached every horizon and every corner of the world". The business was just one part of this. By the early 2000s, the Body Shop was (in Anita's proud words) "a multi-local business with 1,980 stores serving over 77 million customers in fifty different markets in twenty-five different languages and across twelve time zones". (Typically she added: "I haven't a clue how we got there!")

So wide were her interests and ambitions that she needed many different vehicles to pursue them. She helped found a considerable number of institutions designed to help evolve future generations of social entrepreneurs and responsible business people, among them the New Academy of Business.

And she found time to blog.

09 Be funny

Oh, she could be. "I Asked the Elderly For Advice on Getting Old", ran the title of one of her blog postings. "They Said Emigrate." The missionary position can so easily irritate, turning off as many people as it switches on. She knew how to leaven the aggro with humour.

10 Be unruly

Anita, like all successful entrepreneurs, knew that rules are there to be broken. And break them she did. She exemplified what a forthcoming book calls "the power of unreasonable people". If we asked her shade to come up with ten rules, it would come up with none - or 1,001. Her daughter Justine sums it up when she describes her late mother as a "hell-raiser".

A favourite saying of hers was: "If you think you're too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito in the room." Anita Roddick believed that people - consumers, citizens, activists (and, yes, business leaders) - really could change the world. A key part of her legacy will flower over time, as those she influenced put her principles (not rules) into practice. And so, finally, farewell to this unruly, inspirational soul!


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