Anita, and the future of business

David Boyle
12 September 2007

A few historic and political figures acquire the privilege of being known to everybody by their first names. Many are revered (Winston, Nelson), some reviled (Adolf, Joe), others both (Maggie, Tony, Hugo) - but all were or are politicians whom people register via the alchemy by which the exalted become familiar and personal.

In the same way, there are huge numbers of people (most in Britain, but in many other parts of the world too) for whom a reference to "Anita" engendered instant recognition, and a response of pleasure - as towards someone you instinctively trust and admire.

These great swathes of British and international society touched by Anita Roddick's unique presence are now devastated by her sudden death on 10 September 2007. Perhaps the area where the loss will hit hardest will be the green, development and human-rights movements. If those of us who work in one or more of these fields heard, as we often did, that "Anita" was tackling something or going somewhere, we knew what it meant: that her extraordinary energy, wit and determination would be shifted like a searchlight onto another dark, fetid corner of the world.

David Boyle is a fellow of the new economics foundation (nef) and the author of The Tyranny of Numbers (HarperCollins/ Flamingo, 2001-02) and Authenticity (HarperPerennial, 2003-04). His website is here.

Also by David Boyle in openDemocracy:
"Strip-mining communities" (27 June 2006)

The fact that the word "Anita" stood for so much is a testament to those qualities, and to her fun, warmth and fascination with people. But, because we have become so used to it, we have forgotten quite how extraordinary it should be that the founder and CEO of one of the biggest retailers in the world (nearly 2,000 stores worldwide) should fill this radical role.

I first met Anita when I was helping her with a speech for the various rallies that set up around the World Trade Organisation summit in Seattlein 1999. When it was written, it was printed on hemp paper - the reintroduction of industrial hemp was one of her many causes - and sent ahead.

The boxes were duly impounded by United States customs where, presumably, they still are. But I had the privilege of knowing and working with Anita ever since, and experiencing for myself a little of what having that benevolent hurricane around your life was like. I learned from her and owe her so much: in ideas and passion but also in friendship and shared enjoyment of life.

In fact, the Seattle events were to be a turning-point for Anita as well. She found herself, rather unexpectedly (and in the company of the business writer Paul Hawken) the focus of a large contingent of riot police with tear gas.

Again, it is hard to imagine any other CEO in the western world who would find herself fighting for breath, desperately searching for water to cool her burning eyes, after being on the "wrong" side of the police cordons. She was always a radical, but Seattle made that radicalism the most important thing in her career.

Since then she has had an enormous impact on the movement, not least with her ideas and support for us at the new economics foundation (nef). She had the ability to see things differently (she believed that was the definition of being an entrepreneur) and she was an unparalleled collector of bizarre and interesting people.

A hurricane for good

But her real genius, I believe, was her ability to look at anything - from a business problem to a piece of packaging - and be able to know what needed to be done about it. Many of her other qualities, and those of her husband Gordon, went into making the Body Shop the giant that it became. But it was this genius that gave it the extraordinary edge that it cultivated in the 1980s and 1990s.

This largely intuitive quality is what made her a new economics pioneer (and, after all, the great economist John Maynard Keynes said that all his ideas and theories began intuitively). Anita seemed to feel her way from a sense that something was wrong to an increasing conviction about the best way forward. This pioneering instinct took her way ahead of the rest of business. She understood early the power of social auditing, and set up her own unit inside the Body Shop; she remained way ahead in grasping its drawbacks, especially the danger of handing over the ethics of the company to number-crunchers and accountants - and so she sold the unit to KPMG. Way ahead of the pack, she could see the massive failings of stick-on "corporate social responsibility".

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)

She was fearless too. In a speech in 1987 accepting the "company of the year" title from Britain's leading employers' organisation, the Confederation of British Industry, she took on the old guard head on - describing them as "dinosaurs in pinstripes". It was a moment of clarity for the business world - a glimpse into a future it has yet to reach. It was not just a defining moment but a symbolic one; for as she said it, she looked up, and guess who she saw storming out in protest? Robert Maxwell, the very embodiment of gross corruption in the old way of doing business.

Anita went her own way, and forced the business world to follow. Her pioneering development of community trade - making direct and beneficial links with the poorest communities in the global south - was pursued with unrelenting commitment. It included surreal nights in sweat-lodges, strange weeks in hammocks with indigenous groups in the Amazon basin - and it is now being extended throughout l'Oréal, which eventually bought her company.

Here is a clue to where Anita's real significance and lasting influence may lie: in a revolutionary approach to business that blurred all the traditional boundaries. "Establishment" businesses, and their many cheerleaders in the media, never understood or appreciated what she was doing - but they have changed despite themselves.

They still have far to go to catch up with her. But still the old, adolescent justification of business - uniquely immune from responsibility for people, planet or society - has gone, and gone for good. Nobody sane now espouses it, though the "race to the bottom" that goes with it still hurtling as recklessly as ever. To the extent that the business world is changing, it is very largely because of Anita Roddick and her passion-fuelled success. Because of that, I believe, she will come to be regarded as one of the key figures of the past century.

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