From the top · 12 September 2017

The surprising legacy of The Body Shop founder Anita Roddick

Pedestrians on a typical street with restaurants in the city of Westminster, London, England
The Body Shop had established itself as a high street staple by the 1980s

While heralded as one of Britain’s most successful entrepreneurs, The Body Shop founder Anita Roddick created a movement that might just kill the company she founded.

From a single unit to over 3,000 stores in 66 different countries, The Body Shop founder Anita Roddick quickly became one of Britain’s first truly global entrepreneurs.

However, as other brands began to occupy the space opened by Roddick, the cosmetics brand has struggled to stand apart on the high street.

Following the foundation of The Body Shop in 1976, Roddick became as well known for ethical consumerism campaigning than business success. The brand pioneered the use of natural ingredients for its products, and spent several decades leading the UK high street’s environmentally-friendly beauty market.

An extract from one of Roddick’s part-autobiography and part-manifesto, Business as Unusual, best articulated the task The Body Shop founder set herself.

“In terms of power and influence, you can forget the church, forget politics. There is no more powerful institution in society than business, which is why I believe it is now more important than ever before for business to assume a moral leadership. The business of business should not be about money, it should be about responsibility. It should be about public good, not private greed.”

Brighton was home to the first Body Shop in 1976
Brighton was home to the first Body Shop in 1976

Roddick channelled this mindset into The Body Shop’s intelligent marketing campaigns. In 1993, the retailer responded to declining US sales with a print ad campaign of a plastic doll named Ruby. Roddick dubbed it a “self-esteem” campaign designed to subvert the industry’s traditional “Barbie doll” image.

“Ruby was a fun idea, but she carried a serious message,” Roddick wrote on her blog. “She was intended to challenge stereotypes of beauty and counter the pervasive influence of the cosmetics industry, of which we understood we were a part. Perhaps more than we had even hoped, Ruby kick-started a worldwide debate about body image and self-esteem.”

The campaign wasn’t without its critics, with Ms. Magazine in the US among those refusing to print the ad, but it gave The Body Shop the coverage it needed while sticking true to Roddick’s own values.

However, at the turn of the millennium, the high street began to catch up with The Body Shop’s natural message and sales started to fall. Then, in March 2006, when The Body Shop agreed a £652.3m takeover deal with French cosmetics firm L’Oreal, the brand’s strong ethical reputation came under scrutiny.

The deal represented good business for Roddick, who took home a personal cut of £130m, but eyebrows were raised across the campaigning world because of L’Oreal’s history of testing on animals and association with Nestle.

Amid the controversy, Roddick maintained the takeover gave her an inside influence over the company’s broader ethics.

“I’m not an apologist for them, I’m just excited that I can be like a Trojan Horse and go into that huge business and talk about how we can buy ingredients like cocoa butter from Ghana and sesame oil from Nicaraguan farmers and how we can do that in a kindly, joyful way and that is happening,” she told Lifescape magazine in 2006.

L’Oreal was never able to put The Body Shop back to the fore of environmentally-friendly cosmetics, and part of the identity Roddick established was compromised. In 2016, revenues reportedly fell by 4.8 per cent, and L’Oreal sold the chain to Brazilian cosmetics firm Natura Cosmeticos for £880m. 

The Body Shop in numbers

  • Founded, 1976
  • UK sales fall nine per cent, 2003
  • Bought by L’Oreal for £625m, 2006
  • Sales fall 2.6 per cent, 2010
  • Revenue falls 4.8 per cent , 2016
  • Natura Cosmeticos purchase The Body Shop for £880m, 2017

To identify exactly why The Body Shop has registered a steady decline in sales, a triple-threat of modern retail challenges are a helpful starting point – the high rental costs of bricks and mortar units, the loss of its unique market position and the rapid rise of online shopping.

A consequence of Roddick’s success in putting a conscience into the heart of retail is how far ethical, natural products have since been brought into the mainstream. Through its most successful era in the 1980s, The Body Shop’s natural message was distinctive. In the last three decades, the ethical demands of consumers have forced supermarkets and other large retailers to respond.

Hong Kong - May 6th, 2014: People waiting for public transportation in the streets of Causeway Bay by night.
The Body Shop set up in over 66 countries, including Hong Kong

Its strong opposition to animal testing was also a point of difference between The Body Shop and its rivals, but brands have ceased testing on animals since the EU banned the practice in 2013.

It has also struggled to maintain its status as an innovator, with younger rivals managing to deliver cutting-edge trends more consistently. One retail analyst told the BBC in February 2017 that The Body Shop was now known “most as a shop for gifting and low-value items, such as its body butters and body lotions”.

The Body Shop’s slow response to shifting consumer expectations is also reflected in its failure to establish a competitive online presence. The rise of ecommerce has diversified the shopping experience significantly and younger shoppers in particular have been proven to demonstrate loyalty to the customer experience over brand names. By keeping The Body Shop products exclusively in its own store, the brand has continued to forfeit a potentially strong revenue stream while loosening its grip on younger shoppers.

The struggle in capturing younger consumers has been exploited by newer brands such as Lush, which have been able to repackage familiar messages for the next generation. Lush’s own website even manages to pin down part of The Body Shop’s decline. Sustainable practices, it claims, “should not be regarded as ‘ethical’, but as normal business-as-usual”.

Roddick’s personal successes as an influential business leader are in the high street visibility of fair trade practices and the proof entrepreneurs can be role models for both ethics and enterprise. 

In 2003, Littlehampton Community School was granted specialist Business and Enterprise status, with Roddick contributing significant donations. The Roddick Enterprise Centre was built by in tribute to the local entrepreneur, who kept close ties with the school. Headteacher Jayne Wilson praised Roddick’s contribution and praised her legacy of “passion, aspiration and motivation”.

Upon her death in 2007, former prime minister Gordon Brown led tributes to Roddick’s achievements. “As one of this country’s most successful businesswomen she was an inspiration to women throughout the country striving to set up and grow their own companies.”

However, Roddick’s legacy also lies in the growing success of The Body Shop’s market competitors. Under the company’s new Brazilian ownership, the fight is on to re-assert its progressive leadership in a retail environment that has changed dramatically since she brought The Body Shop to Brighton in 1976.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Simon Caldwell is a reporter for Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and communications from the University of Liverpool, and previously worked as a content editor in the ecommerce industry.

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