FOR AS LONG AS I CAN REMEMBER, popular culture has depicted big business as the bad guys, gimlet eyes fixed on the year-end results and to heck with whoever gets in the way. That’s why I actually didn’t think of myself as being “in business” when I started The Body Shop. My idea of a business was my mother’s café. Working there taught me that business was less financial science than simple trading, buying, and selling. And I learned a different kind of bottom line: you can bring your heart to work.
I believe that service — whether to family, the community, or the people you love — is fundamental to what life is all about. And if while providing this service you should create a successful business, you then have an opportunity to improve your life and an obligation to improve the lives of those around you.
The opposing view says the role of business is purely to generate profits for shareholders who can then spend the dividends on whatever they choose, charity included. The idea that business is responsible only to its shareholders mortifies me in its narrowness. Are we still trapped in Milton Friedman’s strange view that corporate giving is socialism? And how can we pretend any longer that business is only about private contracts between individuals when business has so obviously become the dominant sociopolitical force on the planet? Business is faster, more creative, and wealthier than some governments. There has never been a greater need for business to take a moral stance on the consequences of its actions.
Yet for all that, I agree that business is not charity. The Body Shop does have a foundation which supports a number of private charities whose work we endorse, among them caring for kids in Eastern Europe (Children on the Edge), and Body+Soul — an organization which works with HIV-positive women and children. But rather than talking about “philanthropy” and the Lady Bountiful act it implies, I prefer to get away from the ideology of giving and talk instead about partnering.
We now have 22 suppliers in 13 countries, and in our trading relationships we share our skills and enable many suppliers to have a far wider outlet than would have been possible without The Body Shop. You could say that there are philanthropic urges at work here, but in return we acquire the innovative high-quality raw materials that make our products so distinctive in an increasingly crowded marketplace, and by publicizing the origin of our products we try to rekindle some of the connection between producer and buyer. The point of trading is, after all, reciprocity. You get as good as you give.
That is why I am so proud of initiatives like our project with the Nanhu Indians in the Mesquital Valley, a three-hour drive north of Mexico City. Using ancient techniques perfected by the Aztecs, the Nanhu women have been making body scrubs from the fibers of the maguey cactus. They have formed five cooperatives to protect their communities, battered by economic deprivation and the loss of their menfolk. Thanks to efforts by The Body Shop and others, these women are making a sustainable — if still very rough — living.
Suppliers are just one of the communities with which a business involves itself. A true sense of community starts at home, with your own workforce. The Body Shop encourages employees to take some time each month to work locally with AIDS charities, children’s groups, hospitals, or wherever they feel there is a need. In the last year for which figures are available, 2,143 staff members in the United Kingdom volunteered a total of 16,164 hours of community service. I believe that the feeling of group commitment — working together as part of a team — increases their sense of impact and effectiveness beyond what they would feel as individuals. This in turn makes work into an experience more fulfilling than the simple collection of a pay packet every week or month. Create an ideology, a common purpose that staff can unite around and you will foster an invaluable, motivated loyalty. On that level, you can be as pragmatic as you like and say that philanthropy, or community involvement, is also good for the bottom line. And this common purpose does not just exist for staff members. Indeed, the core of a successful modern business practice is figuring out how to engage with all its stakeholders: employees, shareholders, and customers.
And finally, in seeking to respond to community needs, it seems to me that a philanthropist is investing in the future of that community. So philanthropy is as much an act of faith as it is an expression of optimism. More than just goodness or generosity, it is simply what you have to do. And I for one couldn’t conduct my business any other way.
Anita Roddick is the founder and co-chair of The Body Shop International PLC.