Whales, Human Rights, Rain Forests And The Heady Smell Of Profits

It's a sweltering Sunday afternoon, but the group packed into a conference room at Georgetown University to mark Amnesty International's 30th anniversary numbers nearly a thousand. Clad mostly in rumpled cottons, the youthful crowd has concluded a hand-holding round of We Shall Overcome and applauds as a guest speaker moves to the podium. Her name is Anita Roddick, and with a colorful kerchief gathering her mane of dark, curly hair, she seems cut from the same cloth as the people gathered below.

At 48, Roddick may have 20 years on her average listener, but her delivery is as fiery as any young radical's. The Persian Gulf war was a disaster, the fault of "governments that have no backbone." The International Monetary Fund is staffed by tired bureaucrats. Tossing off aphorisms from Mahatma Gandhi and Ralph Waldo Emerson, she rails at institutions of all stripes. But the Englishwoman saves her sharpest barbs for the cosmetics business. "We loathe the cosmetic industry with a passion," she tells the audience. "It's run by men who create needs that don't exist."

Funny thing, though: Roddick has made herself one of the richest women in Britain by peddling products for those supposedly nonexistent needs. In the process, she has rewritten the rules for the $16 billion global cosmetics business. Starting with one store 15 years ago, the former schoolteacher has built an empire of 620 shops worldwide, employing a magic formula with two ingredients: Rather than ply her wares at department stores and drugstores--the traditional venues--Roddick sells through her chain of Body Shops. And instead of appealing to vanity to peddle her potions, she plays on concern for the environment and social issues, offering recyclable bottles and items such as soaps in the shape of endangered animals.

IMITATORS. As managing director of Body Shop International, Roddick is responsible mainly for marketing and product development. But she says her pitch is rooted in a belief that businesses also improve the world. Buy a gourd container for $6, and you'll help out the indigent Georgia farmer who harvested it. Body Shops stock literature for groups that help save the whales or the rain forest. The cynical view, of course, is that this approach generates prodigious publicity, saving Roddick from having to spend money on advertising--which she claims not to believe in.

Either way, her formula is exuding the scent of profits. Retail sales for franchised and company stores last year hit $391 million, and earnings, based on wholesale revenues of $197 million, were $21 million. Now, rivals are trying to beat Roddick at her own game. Powerhouse Estee Lauder Inc. weighed in last year with Origins, a product line that uses "natural" ingredients and recycled containers. Origins opens its first stand-alone store in July, in Cambridge's Harvard Square. In the past year, The Limited Inc. founder Leslie Wexner opened 42 Bath & Body Works shops that look astonishingly like Body Shops.

Imitation may be a form of flattery, but it must be galling when Roddick is gearing up to open 25 more stores in the U. S. Body Shop now has 52 stores here, but so far they haven't turned a profit because of heavy startup costs. Consultant Allan Mottus says Roddick ought to be concerned: "You don't get too much more competitive than Leslie Wexner and Leonard Lauder."

DEADHEADS. Roddick counters that Body Shop's political agenda will set it apart. And its lawyers are in talks with The Limited about the look-alike stores. "People think we're a flaky New Age company," she says. "But my God, we defend ourselves like lions." She also bashes rivals with glee. On Lauder's Origins: "Their environmental concern is nonexistent--give me a break!"

With rivals homing in, another manager might hunker down in the executive suite to plot strategy. But Roddick keeps up her frenetic pace, leaving administration to her husband and CEO, Gordon, at the company's headquarters in Littlehampton, England. A few months' time might see her sniffing out ingredients in the rain forest with Brazilian Indians, posing for a documentary with the Wodaabe tribe in Niger, and lecturing on whatever cause has her enthusiasm.

Consider two days early this summer: In Washington for the Amnesty International convention, the weekend turns into a typical Roddick whirlwind. First thing Saturday is a stop at a store in Georgetown. At 11 a.m., the store is packed, but Helen and Mary Ann Mills, two sisters who bought the franchise a year ago, chat amiably. "Touch my arm," says Mary Ann, glowing from a Grateful Dead concert. "That's where guitarist Bob Weir touched me last night." Everyone touches. You get a lot of mileage in a Body Shop out of going to a concert by the tree-hugging Dead. With their dark green walls and wooden shelves laden with such products as Pineapple Facial Wash, the stores are havens for the environmentally correct. "We call ourselves the grateful dead," adds Helen. "We're grateful to Anita, but we're dead from working so much."

Roddick claims to hate discussing finances--it's "bloody boring," she says--but sneaks in a quiet "How are your sales?" to the store manager. In the next breath: "How is your Amnesty?" (Salespeople help enlist customers for the cause.) The clerk responds enthusiastically. After all, Body Shop's hiring process--during which applicants are asked about everything from personal heroes to literary tastes--ensures employees will be loyal to Roddick's pet passions. She was once about to hire a new retail director, but when she learned he liked to hunt, she sent him packing.

After a lunch of tomatoes and mozzarella at the Four Seasons Hotel, Roddick piles into Helen's car to visit another franchise the sisters own in Tysons Corner, Va. Near the store's entrance is a box of postcards addressed to the President of the Republic of Malawi, appealing for the release of political prisoners. Six months from now, the handouts will be different. Roddick plugs as many hot causes as she can--although she likes only causes that are "easy to understand," choosing a new one every semester. Body Shop currently pumps roughly $5,000 a month--partly from outside contributors--into keeping up three orphanages in Romania.

Sunday morning, Roddick is up early for brunch with fellow activist Ralph Nader. The two swap opinions on Presidential politics, and the self-described "Nader groupie" doles out sympathy because "the poor darling" is suffering from a strained back.

That afternoon is the big event. Boosting Amnesty's membership roster is at the top of the Body Shop agenda this semester, so the global activist group has invited Roddick to address its members. The front row is lined with Body Shop employees. Dressed in shorts and Amnesty T-shirts, they cheer lustily as Amnesty leaders address the audience. A closing speaker asks the crowd: "What do you want?" And Roddick onstage bellows with the rest: "Human rights!"

Roddick has always loved a stage. As a child, she worked in her mother's pub in Littlehampton, and her delight in working the crowd led her to dream of becoming "some kind of performer." After college, Roddick tried several careers including teaching and working for the U. N. After marriage, she and Gordon ran an inn and then a restaurant. But when Gordon took off on horseback across South America in 1976, Roddick chose to support herself and their two children by opening a shop to sell her hand-mixed potions. Did she mind Gordon's trip? Not at all. "I love the grand gesture," she says. "This was not a boring man."

GREEN MACHINE. When Gordon returned a year later, she was preparing to open a third shop. Pragmatism, not activism, dictated how she ran her business. Recycling? "We only had 600 bottles, and we wanted people to return them." Decor? "Green is such a powerful political color--but in the first shop, walls were green because it was the only color that covered the damp patches on the wall."

She's not about to change the formula. Ditto for her style. However much money she makes, however tough the competitive battle, she promises to remain the banner-waver of old. Never shall she waver . . . well, almost never. Driving to Tysons Corner, the temperature was 95F. "What about the ozone?" she protested as Helen Mills turned on the air conditioning. "Shouldn't we try to do without it?" Dutifully, Mills switched it off. But after 10 blistering minutes, Roddick was wilting--and her principles followed suit. "To hell with it," she said, laughing. "Turn the air conditioning on."

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