View From The Top: 'I'm an activist. I'm too old to bullshit'

Anita Roddick talks to Adam Hill about ethics, wealth and surviving The Body Shop's PR rollercoaster ride.

Dame Anita Roddick once called actor John Malkovich a 'vomitous worm'. She cannot remember why, but she is still proud of using 'vomitous'.

'It's not a word,' she says happily.

Strong words - either giving or receiving them - are echoes that have followed Roddick ever since she launched The Body Shop in 1976. With the exception of the early 1980s - when she was adored by the press as the founder of ethical business - she has seen herself go through a PR transformation, some of which has been of her own making. In 2000 she hit the news when she described as 'complete pap' claims that anti-wrinkle creams slowed the ageing process, and that she would disown The Body Shop CEO Patrick Gournay if he ever introduced them.

The comments came a month after she announced she would step down from The Body Shop board to concentrate on environmental issues, and were seen to embarrass the company from which she made her £150m fortune. The Daily Telegraph immediately rubbished some of the benefits The Body Shop's own products were said to offer, another journalist described her as a 'volcano of fatuous self-promotion', and ever since, speculation has continued as to the strength of the PR relationship between the company and its creator.

She remains a major shareholder of The Body Shop, is back on the board, did 80 days' consultancy last year and will do about 50 this year, but there is a tangible sense of distance between them. 'I'm still linked with Body Shop - no doubt about it,' she says, not looking entirely pleased about the fact.

Shift in emphasis

'I was never asked to leave,' she says evenly. 'But things have changed.

Then, we were a communications company. Now we're a product-led company.' The sort of communicating she is interested in - on human rights abuse, sweatshops, slavery, the environment - does not seem to sit with The Body Shop as comfortably as it once did. She believes the chain is less irreverent, less witty in its sloganising.

But there is no lack of slogans in the space she occupies now, based as she is at Anita Roddick Publications in Chichester. Signs round the room tell visitors to 'Get Informed', 'Get Outraged' and 'Expose the Truth' in an anti-Orwellian but still slightly oppressive way. One reads: 'Show me someone with a deep loathing for all mankind and I'll show you someone who works in retail.' Her websites, anitaroddick.com and takeitpersonally.com, are also full of blunt calls to arms. 'I get my truth on weblogs,' she explains. A section on one, called 'brilliant', is about things Roddick likes; another, headed 'frigging daft', is about things she does not.

So how has the story changed? Was PR integral to The Body Shop's success?

'We built a major brand solely on PR,' she replies. 'To do what we did without PR would have been impossible. We were interesting. We had stories.'

Despite this, she claims never to have found the media game easy. 'I was wealthy but a socialist and they could never marry that. You had to be in a box: right wing, indifferent to empathising with the human condition.'

These days Roddick spends much of her time abroad, most recently in Jordan and Russia, visiting people and speaking at various organisations on issues such as leadership and entrepreneurship. At October's ICCO Summit in Prague she will give PROs a 50-minute talk on building an ethical global brand.

'There are some brilliant PROs,' she says. 'I'm just not interested in ones that whitewash things like the armament industry.' She doesn't seem keen on corporate social responsibility practitioners either. 'CSR is now a hollow PR add-on,' she declares firmly.

Having said that, there is no doubt she remains a good self-publicist.

'Oh yeah,' she agrees instantly. 'I'm available, generous and passionate about the issues I care about. I'm too old to bullshit.'

Over the past few years her publishing company has put out several books, including A Revolution in Kindness and Brave Hearts Rebel Spirits. Some have a globalisation theme, all could be described as manifestos. There is even Anita! The Woman Behind The Body Shop, which is 'the authorised biography for kids'. 'I'm an activist,' she says simply. 'I take the skills and the money I have and put them into what I believe in: books, websites, Amnesty International. I have never seen myself as a business person; I didn't want to be like the pinstriped dinosaurs.'

Even so, she made pinstriped-dinosaur-type money - more than most, in fact. What does she do with all that loot? 'Easy: give it away - a million to Amnesty, a million to Greenpeace, all in shares. I don't think having loads of money is a dilemma,' Roddick muses. 'Greed is the dilemma.'

Which might explain why the lure of the limelight is still there for Roddick. If a TV company could tailor a programme like The Apprentice for her, she says she would be interested 'if it was something on ethical business, but it's got to be sexy. It worked with Alan Sugar because it was confrontational'.

In crafting her answer though, she pauses, perhaps aware of the inherent problems. 'Ethical business,' she repeats. 'Before you finish saying it, you're yawning.'

Being boring has never been a PR problem for Roddick. It was inevitable that a business founded on ethical trading would eventually attract negative press. Unlike, say, Shell, the only way The Body Shop's reputation could go was down. Sara Tye, founder and MD of Redhead PR, was Roddick's spokesperson for two years when Tye was at The Body Shop. 'Some of the fair-trade projects she developed were difficult because the concept was brand new,' Tye says. 'There was always going to be a debate about whether something was right or wrong and it is very complicated in the middle. Sometimes you walk into unknown territory and you're learning as you go along.'

Roddick, perhaps because she was the one making the mistakes, is more forthcoming. There were, she admits, 'elements of truth' in criticisms of the chain's dealings. In the second volume of her memoirs, Business As Unusual, she says The Body Shop's trading with indigenous tribes, for example, was 'spontaneous'. It is not hard to see how this could be perceived by some charities as 'meddling', especially when a healthy profit was made.

The biggest attack on Roddick's sincerity came in 1992, when a Channel 4 Dispatches programme suggested some of The Body Shop's ethical initiatives were a sham, driven by PR and marketing. The company sued for libel and won. 'It's about reputation, reputation, reputation,' says Roddick. 'We were so damn strong on this. When you put your whole company up on its reputation, that's what's destroyed if it goes wrong.'

But that being the case, why Roddick threatened her own 'brand' when she did a TV ad for American Express is anyone's guess. She says she was 'surprised' at the outrage of her friends. Given her anti-corporate background, it is hard to see how. Yet it is obvious the brickbats she received hurt.

'I'm thankful for any praise,' she says without irony.

Consumer of ideas

Whether this is PR naivety can't easily be answered. Mark Griffiths, now director of branding agency Ideal Word, was a trusted lieutenant at The Body Shop. He says: 'She was a voracious consumer of other people's ideas. We'd often find ourselves being swamped with new people, the darlings of the moment. If someone else came along with a brighter idea, she'd move on to them.'

In other words, she likes ideas and stimulation, and if you don't provide them then don't be surprised if she looks elsewhere. As Griffiths, who clearly adores her, says: 'People would gravitate towards her and try to hold on. But she was no guide.'

She certainly had no reputation qualms about accepting her OBE and damehood ('It's a geriatric thing,' she says airily). On receiving the latter, and in reply to a question about Roddick's hectic schedule, she said to Her Majesty that she'd rather wear out than rust to death. 'Not a flicker,' Roddick laughs.

Roddick sits at a curved table which is funky but slightly unstable - words she would perhaps like as a description of her approach to business.

As she shares her lunchtime fruit salad, it is hard not to be impressed by a person who has, at the very least, redefined our image of the successful entrepreneur.

1976: Opens The Body Shop in Brighton, Sussex

1985: The Body Shop launches campaign with Greenpeace to prevent dumping

of toxic waste into the North Sea

1987: Publishes first 'green' diary with Friends of the Earth

1990: The Body Shop Foundation set up

2000: Launches The Body Shop Human Rights Award

2003: Awarded a DBE - Dame Commander of the British Empire

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