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Review: Corporate crusader

"Business as Unusual"
By Anita Roddick
Thorson/HarperCollins Publishers, 287 pages, January 2001

graphic

In this story:

Cause and effect

Walking the walk

Better reading

RELATED STORIES, SITES icon



(CNN) -- "I am not interested in business as usual. It is business as unusual that excites me."

Part social-activist manifesto, part business primer, "Business as Unusual" -- being published in January by Thorson/Harper Collins -- is Anita Roddick's account of how she and her husband turned a small cosmetics shop into a hugely successful international chain.

In September, Roddick announced her plan to leave the daily leadership of the company she'd founded in 1976 to focus on activism, telling CNN.com readers in an online chat that she wants to "smash the WTO (World Trade Organization), blow up the armaments of industry and do some real populist campaigning." Patrick Gornay now is listed in the company's materials as CEO -- Roddick and her husband Gordon are co-chairmen of the company.

  QUICK VOTE
graphic Have Anita Roddick and The Body Shop had much impact on corporate culture at large?

Yes, the stances she takes have affected how business is done in many quarters.
Time will tell. There's plenty of anecdotal evidence, but longer-term effects aren't clear yet.
No. The activism of Roddick and her company have moved few people who weren't already in agreement.
View Results

To be sure, Roddick's development of a multinational concern of 1,700 stores operating in 49 countries and 24 languages isn't your typical story of woman-makes-good in the business world. Before starting The Body Shop, Roddick was a teacher, worked with the United Nations in Geneva and traveled the world for two years "on the hippie trail."

She met Gordon in her native England, moved in with him four days later, had a baby and was married in Reno, Nevada.

The couple first opened a residential hotel, then a restaurant before striking it rich with bath oils, fragrances and soaps, none of them tested on animals.

"Over the past decade," Roddick writes, "while many businesses have pursued what I call 'business as usual,' I have been part of a different, smaller business movement, one that tried to put idealism back on the agenda."

Cause and effect

With its campaigns for and against various causes -- for protecting rainforests and supporting indigenous peoples; against domestic violence and Myanmar's military government -- the publicly-held company won't be confused with many others.

And Roddick, 57 and a recipient of the Order of the British Empire, does have an interesting story to tell. It's just that she just doesn't do it in a very entertaining way. One reason is that there's little humor in her book. She comes across as one of those earnest types you met in college, so serious about saving the world that her idea of a good time was getting busted at a demonstration.

Roddick could have used a few more anecdotes like the one she includes about her testimony in a libel suit she and her husband filed against England's Channel 4. The network had aired a critical piece of The Body Shop.

"We need business that encourages countries to educate their children, heal their sick, value the work of women and respect human rights."
— Anita Roddick, "Business as Unusual"

"In the witness box," she writes, "I fiddled unconsciously with the buttons to my blouse, and I heard later that friends watching -- not to mention our lawyers -- were willing me not to undo the next button down and unexpectedly reveal myself."

The overall tone of "Business as Unusual" is, however, didactic and self-righteous at times, especially in the early going. To wit:

•   " ... a life without fighting for anything has a hint of death about it, so I do what I can to keep striving, traveling and fighting."

•   "A bare minimum for corporate responsibility means saying no to dealing with torturers and despots."

•   "We need business that encourages countries to educate their children, heal their sick, value the work of women and respect human rights."

Walking the walk

The first part of "Business as Unusual" also includes several pages from Roddick's "Seattle diary" observations of what occurred in the streets of that city last year when the World Trade Organization convened there. It reads like a screed from an underground newspaper during the 1960s.

At times, Roddick lapses into martyrdom rhetoric, especially when describing the news media. In addition to the libel suit (which was decided in her favor), Roddick devotes several pages to an American journalist she identifies only as the "Corporate Stalker." Whoever he is, Roddick says he unfairly tried and failed to sell a negative -- and she contends, inaccurate -- story on her business.

  MESSAGE BOARD
graphic When chatting with CNN.com readers in September, Anita Roddick -- whose personal fortune is estimated at some $150 million -- was asked how she'd like to be remembered. She answered: "I hope it will be that I tried to change the language of business. That I did my best to muster up a revolution in kindness, within the business context. That I tried to redefine work as a spiritual endeavor, not just a job, not just a Monday to Friday sort of death. That I just 'stood up,' took it personally and tried to change things." Do you think Roddick has succeeded and will be remembered this way?
 

Likewise, when Gournay, 52, was appointed to the board in July 1998 as CEO -- he'd been with Groupe Danone for 26 years -- the media put a spin on it that Roddick disliked. And when the company laid off 300 employees, "We got a kicking in the media, as usual," she writes.

Undoubtedly, many flattering stories have been written about Roddick and The Body Shop in her 24 years at the helm. These, however, didn't seem to have made as lasting an impression. Certainly one of them might point out that she's famous for putting her money where her mouth is and following through on her convictions.

Another weakness in Roddick's book is her occasional use of statistics without citing a source. "It would take one Haitian worker producing Disney clothes and dolls 166 years to earn as much as Disney president Michael Eisner earns in one day," she writes. And, "By the age of 7, the average American child will be seeing 20,000 advertisements per year on television."

These are dramatic figures. It would be helpful to know that they come from reputable, unbiased sources.

Better reading

Roddick's book fares better when she discusses the founding of The Body Shop -- where it's been and where it's headed.

This is a woman, after all, who opened the first branch of The Body Shop as a means of making ends meet -- she had two children -- while her husband prepared for a two-year adventure riding horseback from Buenos Aires to New York.

And this is the same woman who in 1976 showed up at a bank seeking a loan with which to open the first Body Shop -- wearing jeans and a Bob Dylan T-shirt, accompanied by her children.

She didn't get the loan, and today The Body Shop has a strict dress code -- "no nose studs, no tattoos, no sweat-stained T-shirts, no bad breath and absolutely no smoking," Roddick writes.

This is a woman who spent four days with members of a forest tribe in Brazil, joining them in a river every morning, sleeping at night in a hammock -- all because she was interested in The Body Shop buying Brazil nuts from the tribe.

Given her politics and values, it's interesting to read how Roddick has tried to cope with her empire growing while working to avoid becoming just another corporation. She writes about a disastrous experience in which The Body Shop spent 18 months and $2 million on a corporate consultant a few years ago.

"A bare minimum for corporate responsibility means saying no to dealing with torturers and despots."
— Anita Roddick, "Business as Unusual"

"We all knew we had made a mistake trying to fit a business with a distinct social agenda into the straitjacket of the standard disciplines of management, marketing, finance and operations," she writes.

When Roddick writes about laying off those 300 workers two years ago, it's easy to believe that it caused her great anguish. And she writes that she thinks the company was more humane than most in the way this was done.

She's candid about The Body Shop's flagging revenues of recent years, and about causes of the trend. She writes that she sees the company extending its brand to new areas -- vitamins, health foods and publishing.

She also seems enthusiastic about e-commerce as a way to reach new customers. "The Body Shop Digital will also act as a portal for our campaigns and environmental issues and a launch pad for new products," she writes.

Roddick writes that The Body Shop has been successful with home-selling its products, à la Tupperware. Among those she says have attended Body Shop parties are prisoners, transvestites and oil rig workers.

Now that's something we'd like to have seen.

graphic

 

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RELATED SITES:
The Body Shop
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)
U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition


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