The Body Shop

I once asked the late Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, how she made the business case for ethical business. She replied: “I don’t. I just ask: do you want to do business in a way that abuses people and the environment, or don’t you?’’

The demise of The Body Shop is the latest sign of the growing retrenchment of direct ethical practice based on strong values and the wellbeing of people.

‘Sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ labels are now supported by a plethora of technocratic measures that make it easier for centralised, global corporations to appear like they are doing the right thing, whilst absorbing and disarming real pioneering ethical businesses. This is not to say there aren’t people working for large corporates that don’t hold ethical concerns. However, the systems are largely designed to employ ethics as a marketing ploy, rather than to deliver real change.

Anita, Gordon Roddick and The Body Shop team were focused on the people all the way along their supply chains, from the small producers and their communities to those buying their products. They invested in their people, from women producers in the Amazon to cocoa farmers in Ghana, supporting them to develop their capacities to produce and supply The Body Shop and, in turn, earn good incomes.

They supported the development of our emerging ethical businesses, the likes of Divine Chocolate, Liberation Food and Cafédirect, through their foundation, incredible advice and business.

The Body Shop developed a revolutionary franchise system with people who wanted to run small ethical businesses, managing their branches and providing offers to their local communities. They saw their ethics as contributing to a whole landscape of change.

They had their own internal reasons for the original sale of the franchise. After being bought by a global rival business, The Body Shop became more centralised and we heard very little of the strong value messages it was originally famous for: no animal testing, no body shaming of women, trading with communities and especially women. It became a ‘respectable’ and ‘normal’ commercial player.

After being sold on two more times, the business is, sadly, apparently no longer profitable or viable. It is now being sold by an anonymous private equity company, leaving many small-scale producers in a precarious position. This story reflects the same challenge of centralisation gripping our food systems.

The Body Shop helped many communities and businesses to create value and wealth more ethically. They did not rely on certifications, other than ensuring traceability in their supply chains and building close relationships to those they traded with.

There are now more and more global commodities certification schemes that disadvantage local communities and producers, as well as small and medium-sized ethical or values-based businesses. Small farmers rarely have the necessary access to expensive technologies, nor the bureaucratic skills necessary to participate in certification schemes.

Globally, we are failing to tangibly shift away from the real environmental damage and social inequities that exist in major food and commodities chains, and in how we do business.

We face huge challenges. Primarily, we must organise supply chains so that local producers and the people buying their products can benefit and afford to make ethical choices. We must ensure that, within global supply chains, small producers and SMEs can continue to innovate ethical ways of doing business.

The big players need to effectively care for those who supply them, whilst ensuring that those who buy from them are not beggaring thy neighbours. We need to reinvest in local people and the environment, rather than extract vast profits.

For pioneer brands such as ours, the warning is clear.