Today there has been the sudden, sad news that Dame Anita Roddick, the founder of Body Shop, passed away yesterday, aged 64, from a brain haemorrhage. My immediate thoughts were with her family. Seeing the media coverage today and tonight, reviewing the controversy of her decision to sell Body Shop to L'Oreal, part-owned by Nestlé, I thought I would say something.
I never met Dame Anita. Before my time at Baby Milk Action, she had given support to the campaign in distributing some of our leaflets through the Body Shop. My contact with her began in March 2006 when I woke to hear on the radio that she was planning to sell Body Shop to L'Oreal. This gave me two immediate campaign objectives: to ensure future media reports flagged up that L'Oreal is part-owned by Nestlé, the target of a boycott as it breaks the marketing requirements for baby foods more than any other company, and to contact Dame Anita to raise these concerns with her. It seemed unlikely I would be able to convince her to think again, but I did hope for a statement on the Nestlé link. It took a long time to prompt a response. See:
Nestlé, with its 28.8% shareholding in L'Oreal, profits from its sales and so profits from Body Shop too. This seemed to have been ignored in Dame Anita's public statements defending the deal with the argument that Body Shop would be a Trojan horse, changing L'Oreal from within. As a company from which Nestlé profits, we added Body Shop to our boycott list. A survey of boycott supporters via our website found that literally 99% said they would add Body Shop to their personal boycott, which focuses on Nestlé's leading brand, Nescafé coffee. We have since assisted supporters in leafleting to expose Nestlé malpractice outside Body Shop outlets.
It was our announcement of leafleting in May 2006, to coincide with the annual demonstration at Nestlé (UK) HQ, that finally prompted a response from Dame Anita, stating: "I object to the way Nestlé behaves. I am all too aware of their track record on baby milk, GMOs and Ethiopia, you have to have been living in space to not know their reputation." See:
This generated another round of media coverage and was the sort of strong comment that we had been looking for, even if Dame Anita did step back from Body Shop's stated support for boycotts by saying: "Boycotts rarely work and the people you hurt are primarily the weak and frail." And I was disappointed that in subsequent interviews she tried to downplay the impact of the boycott:
In its report on her passing, the Financial Times recalls some of this controversy and notes that Body Shop has continued to grow despite being added to the Nestlé boycott list. That does not mean boycott supporters who said they would avoid Body Shop for independent, ethical alternatives have not done so. It reflects the expenditure L'Oreal has made in promoting the brand and expanding it in new countries. Nestlé's aggressive business strategy also grows its sales, but it takes notice of the boycott because it affects its ability to grow, its profits and its image. See:
I had contact with Dame Anita twice more on this issue.
Someone flagged up to me that Body Shop was a part-owner of Day Chocolate company, producer of Fairtrade brands such as Divine and Co-op home-brand. This ownership had been included in the sale to L'Oreal. I contacted Dame Anita and Day about this, pointing out the all-too-likely scenario that the shareholding would pass to Nestlé. The Chief Executive of Nestlé is on the board of L'Oreal and I could see him making the suggestion. Why on earth hadn't this been anticipated? Why hadn't the other shareholders been given a buy-out option? It would create a disasterous situation for co-owners Twin Trading and the Ghanaian farmers cooperative that provides the cocoa. The Day Chocolate company also has links with Comic Relief and Christian Aid.
In campaigning there is a time to shout and a time to do things quietly.
This could have been another round of controversy, which had already generated prominent coverage for the Nestlé boycott, including a front-page story in The Independent. But the message that came back to me was to keep quiet because things were afoot to rectify the situation. So I went along with this, seeing that if we shouted about the risk of the Fairtrade-chocolate company falling into Nestlé hands, then Chief Executive, Peter Brabeck-Letmathé, could, out of obstinancy, make a grab for the shareholding. Better to give some time for Dame Anita to get the shareholding back if she could.
Fortunately she succeeded, as we reported in our Update newsletter. The shareholding was transferred not to Nestlé, but to Kuapa Kokoo, the Ghanaian farmers cooperative that part-owned Day. This gives the farmers a 47% holding. Also see the Day Chocolate company website. It was a perfect solution to my mind.
A few months ago Dame Anita phoned Baby Milk Action in a rush. She had a meeting with Nestlé - perhaps as an advisor to L'Oreal, she was going to encounter Peter Brabeck-Letmathé at a board meeting - and wanted a briefing on current concerns. So I ran through some of the cases of aggressive marketing we were targeting and how Nestle's policies are not in line with international standards.
I didn't expect she would make a breakthrough as experience shows Nestlé only changes its baby food marketing policies and practices when forced to by legislation or campaigning pressure, but having a call for change from another direction could be helpful if handled correctly. Sometimes such intiatives can be counter-productive - the Methodist Church Central Finance Board is pursuing a strategy of 'engaging' with Nestlé while refusing to 'engage' with Baby Milk Action to inform its discussions. The Board recently made a naive and potentially damaging report to the Methodist Conference.
I never heard back from Dame Anita about what happened with her meeting. We certainly haven't seen any great change of heart from Mr. Brabeck.
I guess it was Dame Anita trying to change things from within. As The Financial Times mentions she has : "passed away before what she had called her "Trojan Horse" strategy at L'Oréal could unfold."
Channel 4 television news tonight had an interview with Mark Constantine who worked with Dame Anita and had apparently offered to buy the company as an alternative to the L'Oreal deal. He is co-founder of a competing chain with an 'ethical' business approach. He recalls his time working with Dame Anita here:
He made an excellent point on the news about the 'Trojan Horse' strategy. To paraphrase: every day a Chief Executive wakes up, there are decisions to be made. It doesn't take buying a company to bring an ethical dimension. The Chief Executive can simply start taking different decisions.
In itself, looking for ethical business leaders is not the solution - it is for society through its laws to set the boundaries on what is and what is not acceptable as business practice - and we should not be taken in by well-sounding promises that mean little or only produce token changes. But the more business leaders who start their day thinking about the impact of decisions on people throughout their supply chain and the wider environment, the better.
With Body Shop (at least until it was floated as a public company, something she said she regretted) Dame Anita did demonstrate that business leaders can consider more than the profit motive.