In March 1976, 44 years ago today, Dame Anita Roddick (1942 – 2007) opened the first Body Shop in Brighton. Dame Anita Roddick needs no introduction. As well as founder of high street staple, the Body Shop, she was also an energetic human rights, social justice and environmental campaigner; she became a well-known and admired woman all around the world.
Born in Littlehampton, the daughter of Italian parents who ran a café, Dame Anita fitted a lot of things into her life before alighting on the Body Shop. She worked as an English teacher, worked and travelled in Europe, Africa and the Far East, and, at one point, even ran a B&B in her home town.
In March 1976 she opened the first Body Shop in Kensington Gardens, Brighton – today a blue plaque marks the very modest spot. It was a gamble and she needed a bank loan to see the project through. Dame Anita later joked that she chose to paint the shop dark green – later to become the Body Shop’s trademark – because this was the only shade that would cover the mould on the shop walls. The company quickly struck a chord with the shopping public. A champion of fair trade and ethical business practices, its line of simply packaged cruelty free products – many unisex- were inexpensive and cool. Products that hadn’t been tested on animals and didn’t contain animal products had previously been expensive, difficult to track down or not of the best quality. The Body Shop’s standards were high and as anyone who has ever used coconut hairgel or Dewberry perfume can tell you, they also smelled great.
Fifteen years later, the little shop on a Brighton back street had mushroomed into 700 branches. It showed how ethical consumerism didn’t have to stay small but could be a sharp and slickly run business, and challenged how other businesses should behave The Body Shop’s success and subsequent presence on every town’s high street led other companies to look at their own shortcomings. Trying to catch up, every shop from Boots to Tesco to Superdrug would soon be bringing out a cruelty free option for shampoos, soaps and other grooming products, although none of them quite caught up with the Body Shop’s cool factor. The Body Shop wore its campaigns on its sleeve. Not only were its products cruelty free but they sourced from ground-level growers rather than commodity brokers and, in a move that was ahead of its time, did away with unnecessary packaging. Messages were eye-catching and written loud and clear on eye catching posters in shop windows and on walls. The Body Shop pushed these and other issues of ethical consumerism into the public – and shopping – arena. Shoppers had never been so savvy and able to make such informed and responsible choices. It set a pattern.
At Dame Anita’s helm, the company backed Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth, and the Big Issue. There was also Ruby, the size 16 doll, created to tackle stereotypes of female attractiveness, pushing this issue into debate.
By the end of the 20th century the company had 2000 outlets in 55 countries and was proving that profitable business and social conscience could go together. Although many customers were disappointed by its sale to L’Oreal in 2006, Dame Anita made sure that the company’s ethics would be ring-fenced within the group and planned to channel the profits through the charitable Roddick Foundation. In 2017, it was sold to the Brazilian cosmetics company, Natura.
Sadly Dame Anita died in 2007. If the Body Shop, although still on many high streets around the world, has lost some of its initial radical edge, the ethics of responsible consumerism it pioneered are still going from strength to strength and it has inspired companies and consumers worldwide.
Written by social historian Louise Peskett. Image of Anita with thanks to Steve Robards