The Corporate Madonna–M.S. Srinivasan.

[Published in FDI, http://fdi.sriaurobindosociety.org.in/cms/index.php, May 2011]

(A case-study on socially responsible entrepreneurship based on the autobiography of Anita Roddick, the founder of the Body Shop)

This woman is changing Business.

-Inc magazine on Anita Roddick

I have been part of a different, smaller business movement, one that has tried to put idealism back on the agenda.  We want a new paradigm, a whole new framework, for seeing and understanding that business can and must be a force for positive social change.

-Anita Roddick

Key-perspectives: The compassionate revolutionary; uplifting social and environmental vision; feminine touch; spiritual dimension; vision in action; value auditing.

The Compassionate Revolutionary

A mighty soft revolution is sweeping through the world, especially in the corporate world; it is the increasing invasion of woman into what is normally considered in the past as male domains like for example leadership and entrepreneurship.  Anita Roddick, the founder of Body Shop, is one of the leading representatives of this revolution.  She is the archetypal woman-entrepreneur who brought her feminine passion and a compassionate social conscience into business.  If Madonna (not the pop diva, but the virgin Mother of God in Michael Angelo’s famous sculpture, Pieta), represents passion and compassion, then Anita Roddick can be called as the Corporate Madonna.  She is not a saintly Madonna but a revolutionary one, who constantly went against the conventional corporate wisdom.  She once said, “I carefully watch the current trends in business and do the opposite.”  She is also a courageous Madonna who ventured into the forests of Sarvak to photograph illegal logging and into the Amazons to set up trading links with the Kayapoo tribes.  The last part of the intro. to her autobiography gives a glimpse of the character and temperament of the author and comes straight from her passionate heart.

“‘Be Kind’, Keitel writes on Kate Winslet’s forehead in the movie Holy Smoke. That’s what I wanted to do to the business world – nurture a revo­lution in kindness. But underlying that ambition has been the recur­ring theme of my role in the company I founded, now that it has grown into such a huge and complicated organization. So this book actually has another subject as well. It is the story of how I man­aged to maintain some intimate part of myself – the original core, if you like – in a business gone global. I have had to constantly rein­vent the role of the founder-entrepreneur. That’s tough when your natural tendency is towards a gleeful anarchy. There are no road­maps, no instruction manuals. Passion is your guide. Instinct tells you where to go when a challenge arises.”

The Uplifting Vision

“What’s Business is All about?” This is the title of the first chapter of Anita’s autobiography.  And the author is very clear and firm in her conviction that the purpose of business is “public good” and not “private greed” of the individual or the corporation.  But unfortunately, as Anita Roddick points out, “One of the key-problems of the business world is that greed has become culturally acceptable.” Anita is merciless in exposing the soulless hollowness of the hard-core capitalism promoted by WTO and other organizations:

“If you look at the way some businesses are behaving in many cor­ners of the world – the places most business leaders never visit, ­you can see them alienating humanity in so many ways. I have seen, and still see, corporate crimes in abundance. Industry after industry seems perfectly happy to use sweatshops and the globe is quickly becoming a playground for those who can move capital and projects quickly from place to place. When business can roam from country to country with few restrictions in its search for the lowest wages, the loosest environmental regulations and the most docile and desperate workers, then the destruction of livelihoods, cultures and environments can be enormous.  The new nomadic capital never sets down roots, never builds com­munities. It leaves behind toxic wastes, embittered workers and indigenous communities driven out of existence.”

There is a moral force and passion in Anita’s critic because they are not mere words of an intellectual critic barking at business from her mental ivory tower.  She was able to create a profitable business based on “public good” in a business environment driven by “corporate greed.”  The Body Shop was founded by Anita Roddick in Brighton, England in 1976 and grown into a leading cosmetic company trading in more than fifty countries.  Outwardly it is a company that makes and sells naturally inspired cosmetics and skin and hair product.  But inwardly it is a company with a soul, which is very different from that of the traditional business organization.

There is at present a growing recognition of the importance of ethics, corporate responsibility and sustainability among business leaders.  But, except in a few organizations, these new and higher values remain at the fringe and surface of business and the motives behind them are predominantly pragmatic with an eye on the bottom-line.  There are still a considerable number of conservative entrepreneurs who do not believe in the concept of social responsibility of business.  When Anita Roddick launched her firm in 1976 the corporate environment is still more unfavourable or luke warm to these higher values.  In this environment, Anita Roddick built a profitable business organization with ethics, social responsibility and environmental concerns as its very soul and integral part of its vision and strategy.  We can see this in the following vision-statement of body shop:

  • dedicate our business to the pursuit of social and environmen­tal change
  • creatively balance the financial and human needs of our stakeholders: employees, customers, franchisees, suppliers, and shareholders
  • courageously ensure that our business is ecologically sustain­able: meeting the needs of the present without compromising the future
  • meaningfully contribute to local, national and international communities in which we trade, by adopting a code of conduct which ensures care, honesty, fairness and respect
  • passionately campaign for the protection of the environ­ment, human and civil rights, and against animal testing within the cosmetics and toiletries industry
  • tirelessly work to narrow the gap between principle and practice, whilst making fun, passion and social care part of our daily lives.

 For Anita Roddick, profits and products are secondary results and not part of her vision.  She wanted her company to be judged not by its profits and products but by its impact on society:

“One of our greatest frustrations at the Body Shop is that we’re still judged by the media and the city by our profits and the amount of product we sell whereas, we want and have always wanted to be judged by our actions in the larger world by the positive difference we make.  The shaping force for us from the start has not been our products, but our principles.”

The other important part of Body Shop values is the feminine touch.  The women and feminist values like care, instinct, community and compassion are given greater prominence than masculine values like reason, hierarchy, individualism and authority:

“I think the Body Shop worked brilliantly because its very, very much female.  A lot of feminine principle is endemic with it, like gut feeling, instincts.  Interms of ethics, you know, the male is very justice, proprietary behaviour; for woman, its care.  We have so many females in the organization that care becomes a natural vocabulary.”

The Spiritual Dimension

The most unique and special feature of Anita’s vision of business is its spiritual orientation.  Anita’s vision of ethical and responsible business is based neither on “enlightened self-interest” nor entirely on ethical notions; it is based on a clear perception of the spiritual unity of all life.  Here are some interesting perceptions of Anita Roddick on her spiritual beliefs:

“There is a spiritual dimension to life that, for me, is the real bottom line. It underpins everything.”

“Spirituality, to me, is a very simple attitude that has nothing to do with organized religion. It means that life is sacred and awe ­inspiring. In my travels around the world, I have been grounded – as millions also have – in the most fundamental of insights: that all life is an expression of a single spiritual unity. We are not, as humans, above everything, contrary to what Christianity tells us; instead we are part of everything. This interconnection has to be sacred, reverent and respectful of different ways of knowing and being.”

“We should be evolving into a new age of business with a worldview that maintains one simple proposition: that all of nature – humans, animals, the Earth itself – is interconnected and interdependent. We are all in this together and we are at a crossroads. We have the power to preserve or destroy the sacred interconnections of life on this planet.”

“As already mentioned, I believe all life is an expression of a single spiritual unity. We can no longer afford false divisions between work and community, between ethics and economics.”

In her introduction to a book by John E. Renesch, Anita made the following remarks, which shows that she believed in a spiritual destiny waiting humanity and earth in the future.

“—the choice we now face as a species, a choice that may determine whether we become an endangered species or rise to a higher consciousness and accept a destiny we’ve never even dreamed of.”

The Vision in Action

Anita Roddick is not an armchair visionary but who has translated her vision into action and results.  Here is brief overview of some of the strategic initiatives by which Body Shop Vision was translated into action.

  • Each Body Shop store has a community project that employees do on company time.
  • The company has a Third World trade department that goes into the areas of the Third World, creating trade in an ethical way, paying First World prices, making sure the environment and the social fabric is protected.  They raise large amount of money for protecting rain forest.
  • The Body Shop ethos is embodied in one of its companies, Soapworks. The company sells nearly 30 million bars of soap each year, which used to be purchased from a German supplier. The Body Shop decided to build their own soap factory in Easter house, on the outskirts of Glasgow, Scot­land, an area of high unemployment, urban decay, and demoralization.  Soapworks started with a handful of employees. In building Soapworks, Anita Roddick made a moral decision first and a commercial decision second. “I would rather employ the unemployable than the already employed. The soaps are up to 30 percent more expensive, and we will be putting 25 percent of the net profits back into the community. But it is bet­ter for my company. It is an example of what keeps the soul of the com­pany alive.”
  • Increasing emphasis on renewable resources for raw materials and infinitely recyclable components for machinery, driving towards “zero-emission” of pollutants, not only within the company, but also for suppliers
  • The Body Shop started in Canada in 1980 and by 1992, the Home Office, production, distribution, and training facilities had grown into four separate buildings. From the start, the vision for the new headquar­ters was of a soul space. First, in keeping with the company’s commitment to recycling, a decision was made to recycle an entire building. Instead of demolishing an existing building or constructing a new one, the firm pur­chased and recycled a thirty-five-year-old printing warehouse in an indus­trial zone of Toronto.
  • The company never uses animals for testing cosmetics and campaigns against it.
  • The company actively campaigns for human right causes like violence against woman.  The store windows of Body Shop are used extensively for such social and political campaigns
  • Honesty and transparency in marketing and advertising, telling the truth about the products and the benefits without hype and exaggeration.  As Anita puts it, “we sell cosmetics with the minimum of hype and packaging and promote health rather than glamour, reality rather than the dubious promise of instant rejuvenation”
  • The work-place is considered as a community where people are provided with opportunities for personal growth while working for the common good of all.   They are designed to be family-friendly where parents are served, child development needs are supported and families are welcomed and valued.  For example in the Body Shop workplace at Little Hampton, a Child development Centre is built at a cost of $1 million.  It has places for children between the ages of three months and five years.  It also runs an after-school scheme, where children are collected from local schools by nursery staff and are involved in various activities until their parents finishes their work.
  • The company measures its progress and performance interms of its values.

 The Value Auditing

The most important of Body Shop strategy is the last part, an honest attempt to measure its performance interms of its professed values.  It is in this domain most of the companies, which talk about ethics or CSR or sustainability, fail.  They speak loftily about these higher values in their reports but the performance of the company and its executives are measured interms of short-term financial or productivity target.  In Body Shop, Anita has made an honest attempt to assess company’s performance in the non-commercial domain though a system of ethical, social and environmental auditing which she calls as “Values Report.”  As Anita Roddick explains:

 “Auditing shouldn’t just be for accountants, after all. If The Body Shop wants the freedom to campaign on public issues, we must first demonstrate our commitment to our beliefs. This means opening up to defined standards of human rights, social wel­fare and worker safety, environmental protection and, where rele­vant, wider ethical issues like animal protection. We believe we have a moral responsibility to tell the truth about ourselves and face up to those areas where we fall short.”

 “We have been trying to bring in new barometers of measurement that show that people and the Earth do matter. Every two years The Body Shop conducts a social audit, which offers a means of evaluation of the social impact and behaviour of an orga­nization in relation to its stakeholders. We have 5,000 stakeholders – anyone involved in oraffected by The Body Shop, from the suppli­ers to the staff to the shareholders to the communities in which we’re working to people who have received money fromthe founda­tion – and the audit involves them all telling us what they think of the company.”

Ethical auditing is an all-encompassing term that describes social and environmental auditing and any other ethics-related auditing that we may do, such as animal-protection auditing. We began it as an independently verified assessment of the company’s performance against our stated values, and in 1995 we produced our first Values Report. The latter involved in-depth interviews and wide-scale sur­veys with all our stakeholders, ranging fromemployees to share­holders, fromsuppliers to local communities”

 “We also produce an environmental statement, which is our contribution towards providing a measure of progress towards more sustainable operations. It is a public document and allows the flow of informa­tion that is so vital to creating a link with our stakeholders, who are very concerned about the future.”

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