Fashion Plus Sense

By Barbara Lewis, Womens Feature Service

London (Women’s Feature Service) – Biodiversity or the variety of life on earth is essential to sustaining the living networks and systems that provide each one of us with food, fuel and the vital services our lives depend on. Human activity, and that includes excessive industrialisation motivated by money-making conglomerates, has caused this rich diversity to be lost at a greatly accelerated rate. The damage is irreparable and there is need for urgent action. As the world gets ready to appreciate and safeguard its biodiveristy by commemorating 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity, there was one woman who demonstrated that concern for the environment and inclusion of feminine values can indeed add to the success of a corporate venture.

Several decades before the environment became a fashion statement, Anita Roddick, founder of the successful cosmetic chain The Body Shop, was against testing on animals and all for saving the rainforests. And she used her business to spread the important message.

While Roddick, who ran her business on passion, love and care rather than profit, passed away in 2007 after a brain haemorrhage, her legacy – much to the amazement of her detractors – lives on. Recently, the London-based New Economics Foundation (NEF) that describes itself as a think-and-do tank and has the support of the Roddick Foundation that aims to carry on Anita’s legacy, celebrated her birth anniversary. The invitations to the event were, in fact, on plain, brown recycled cards and punched into them were the words ‘The Bigger Picture – an invitation to celebrate the life and work of Anita Roddick’.

The event – that continued over a weekend – incited participants to “get on your soapbox,” “find new ways to well-being,” “get activist” and above all, to “start the great transition” to a new economy which is sustainable and fair – focused on “gross domestic happiness” rather than gross domestic product.

An extraordinarily successful businesswoman, Roddick strove to promote community and a sense of family and small-scale. That she created a global business was almost an accident. For Roddick, wealth was potentially “corrosive,” although the power that came with money and success could also be a force for good, hence her high-profile campaigning on a range of issues, notably saving the rain forest.

She saw her approach as based on “feminine values,” even if her husband Gordon was an invaluable business, as well as emotional partner. She might be gratified and depressed in equal measure by the extent to which female-style thinking has now permeated the British workplace. Flexi-time, for instance, has become the norm for working mothers, and many companies encourage female networks and mentoring, but male CEOs, and a focus on the bottom line, make up the overwhelming majority.

Even after the “masters of the universe” were blamed for the financial meltdown, many of their kind are still at the helm, still earning massive bonuses. Presumably Roddick would accuse any overpaid women banker of having bought into male values and she might argue the New Economics Foundation, with its focus on egalitarianism and inclusivity, was feminine.

For Roddick, writing in her autobiography ‘Body and Soul’, published in 1991 during the previous recession, “corporations are largely created by men, for men.” Based on old-boy networks, they maintain a status quo in which questioning is effectively discouraged. Roddick challenged them simply by being herself. “I think all business practices would improve immeasurably if they were guided by ‘feminine’ principles – qualities like love and care and intuition,” she wrote in ‘Body and Soul’.

She viewed her success as the product of common sense and her own value system, forged in the liberal 1960s and diametrically opposed to the shameless money-making of the 1980s and 1990s. It combined a reliance on instinct with intense practicality, a love of trade and a love of activism that she said gained her far more publicity than she could have achieved through the advertising she eschewed.

When she set up her first shop in Brighton, southern England, in 1976, she had no choice but to be green and recycle because she did not have enough containers for her products. Drawing on her experience as a teacher when she had sought to brighten up her classroom, that shop and the many that followed had engaging displays. After she had found her vocation to campaign: Clear messages, such as “Stop the Burning” (of the rain forest), were bandied across the stores. To businessmen, who would never have dreamt of such an approach, that it succeeded was amazing, but for Roddick: “It’s not extraordinary. It’s obvious.”

The Body Shop’s fortunes waned as rivals stole market share and it was sold in 2006 to L’Oreal – part of the big beauty business Roddick had despised. She justified the decision on the “Trojan horse” theory that you have to get inside to bring about change. Today, The Body Shop still proudly declares Roddick’s values and has 2,400 stores in 61 countries, according to its website.

The detractors who distrusted her motives were to a measure silenced after she was true to her word and left her fortune to charity, rather than to her daughters, who said they supported the decision. Her deeper legacy, meanwhile, lies in the ongoing quest for an alternative to macho capitalism.

Women's Feature Service
Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the website.