Toward a Revolutionary Kindness: An Interview with the Body Shop Founder Anita Roddick
Batstone, David, Sojourners Magazine
ANITA RODDICK was the founder and chief executive officer of The Body Shop, which sells environmentally and socially sensitive skin care products. Now free from management responsibilities--though she remains a major shareholder and board director--Roddick devotes her time to social change. This spring she published two books, A Revolution in Kindness (as editor) and Brave Hearts, Rebel Spirits: A Spiritual Activists Handbook (with Brooke Shelby Biggs). Sojourners executive editor David Batstone interviewed Roddick in San Francisco.
David Batstone: The message from your new books is not what expect to hear from the CEO of a major retail corporation.
Anita Roddick: Once I separated myself from The Body Shop, I wanted to get some ideas out. It's very hard in business to be listened to when you talk about revolutionary ideas; it's even more difficult to do so as a woman. The market found it hard to believe us, for example, when we claimed that business has to move beyond an obsession with the bottom line.
Batstone: Was that just rhetoric at The Body Shop?
Roddick: Absolutely not. I was never interested in how big our company could grow, but how brave we could be. The investment bankers talked about profits, but we talked about principles. It all comes down to where you put your material resources and energy.
Batstone: What lessons did you learn while building The Body Shop that are relevant to social activism?
Roddick: I learned that when enthusiasm comes from the heart, it is unstoppable. After the fall of the dictator in Romania in the 1980s [Nicolae Ceausescu], our company set up a project to help the country's appalling orphanages. Romanian women had been forced to have three or four children that would be raised to serve as soldiers or workers for the state. Over the next 10 years, thousands of our staff went to volunteer there; some would pay their own money to go, others won awards. These workers came back transformed, because experiences of real kindness will change a person's values. It's really hard to bring spirituality into work. But it can happen when we view spirituality as service to the weak and the frail.
Batstone: The Body Shop at times was criticized for not living up to its ideals. Why did that happen?
Roddick: Nearly all of the accusations could be traced to a corporate stalker. For nearly five years this individual tracked me. He made his money by fighting everybody in the social responsibility movement--Ben & Jerry's, Odwalla, Working Assets. He was very clever. He would exploit any mistake or oversight that I made. He also would manufacture falsehoods--like when he said we were doing animal testing--and the media would print these accusations. For a while, England [where The Body Shop began] was ready to topple me off the pedestal. Looking back, I can see that we were really ripe for that. …