Dame Anita Roddick was almost gleeful. She had just sold off her baby, The Body Shop, to L’Oreal, for £652m of cold cash. Yes, that’s an awful lot. But, if the founder of the iconic shop was to go by, it was certainly a great way to celebrate its 30th anniversary.
I met the 5’2” diminutive woman, with a head full of tousled brown curls, in the year 2006 when she came to India to launch The Body Shop in the country. I was working with The Telegraph’s bureau in Delhi at the time and I never really forgot the encounter. It took her two decades to set up The Body Shop in the country, but Roddick’s association with India went back to 1987 when she started community trading with Teddy Exports in Tamil Nadu. The trade programme helped more than 300 disadvantaged and marginalized families of Tamil Nadu, even as Teddy Exports supplied wooden massage products to The Body Shop.
The dame was quite the unconventional English woman. Swear words tumbled out by the minute, albeit in an inoffensive way, as she tackled queries regarding her entrepreneurial venture — a sell-out that had tongues wagging furiously. In the past, Roddick had called the very French cosmetic giant not-so-enviable names such as ‘bloodsucking dinosaur’ and ‘monster’.
Her take on the debate: “Even enemies can be supporters. The only link between L’Oreal and The Body Shop will be that of community trading. The Body Shop’s character is not going to be touched in anyway. In fact, it will probably end up changing L’Oreal.”
She added: “I am getting old. It is the best way I could have protected the business for the sake of the staff the world over who have taken the company where it is today.”
The Body Shop started as a one-woman show in 1976. Roddick had been working with the women’s department in the United Nations and hence been travelling extensively — during the course of which she spent time in farming and fishing communities and was exposed to beauty rituals of women all over.
“For instance, I learnt in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), that you don’t throw away the skin of pineapples, but use it for exfoliation. In Morocco, they massage piles of mud and water into the hair to prevent hair fall. And in Japan, they collect the droppings of nightingales that have the whitening quality of limestone. They grind and mix the droppings with water to smear on their skin,” she recounted.
So when her husband Gordon wanted to go on a jaunt across the States for a year, she decided to exploit her strength and look for livelihood in the form of a shop that would sell natural skin and hair care products. A bank loan though was the obstacle.
“Let me warn you, bank managers are deeply dour individuals. When you go to one, dressed in a Bob Dylan T-shirt, with two screaming kids hanging on to you, you can imagine the favourable reaction I got,” laughed Roddick. It was her husband who finally came to her rescue with a loan for the shop.
The shop with its now distinguishing green facade (the only colour that its owner could find at the time to cover the damp, moldy patches on its walls) came up in the town of Brighton. There was considerable resistance to the name with which Roddick christened it. “Coffins would pass by the shop. So the name, The Body Shop, was deemed as disrespectful to the dead. However, I held on to it,” she recalled.
Starting with just 20 products from a small corner in England, the store soon started selling over 1,200 products worldwide. So was scripted a story that saw success even though its founder started small. To that effect, Roddick mouthed her favourite quotation by writer Philip Elmer-Dewitt: “If you think you are too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito.” She even used the quote as a display on The Body Shop trucks that served as a great way of low-cost campaigning.
“We had no money so we resorted to clever ways of reaching out. We mostly used the windows of the shop to talk about social issues and our products. And then we started displaying posters on 40 trucks that traversed the roads of England,” noted Roddick.
Sample some of her most successful campaigns: “Turn your arm pits into charm pits,” (for Body Shop’s first deodorant) or “We are against testing on animals” (with illustrations of four despots of the like of Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein).
If she had tried guerrilla tactics in advertising and tried to be altruistic with her various social campaigns, the 64-year-old, knighted by the Queen in 2003, also dabbled in publishing. “In fact, I want to get full time into writing and editing,” said the woman who had already edited paperbacks on subjects such as numbers, water, spiritual activists and globalization and maintained a blog which she updated regularly.
What added to Roddick’s appeal was a vivacious disposition. The key to which, she insisted was her Italian genes. “I eat a lot of tomatoes which contains serotonin. They make you pathologically optimistic,” she remarked with a twinkle in her eye. Yes, there was no-looking-down-the-nose act with her.
Anita Roddick was a woman who believed in living life to the hilt. “I eliminate all the negativity in life. Life is not a dress rehearsal. You have to live it. I learn the lesson of life every day from my 92-year-old mother.” At the time, all she was trying to do was figure a way to fulfil her mother’s Hunter Thompson-ish wish — that her ashes be put into a firework and exploded into the sky.