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Rory O'Connor

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There Was Nothing Like This Dame

Posted: 09/12/07 06:21 PM ET

I lost a friend, and the world lost a visionary social activist and human rights defender this week, when Dame Anita Roddick died at age 64 from the effects of a brain hemorrhage. Roddick, the working class British daughter of immigrants, was an unlikely global business pioneer, who as founder of the socially responsible cosmetics firm Body Shop fought to bring sustainable and ethically-sourced products to the beauty industry long before it became fashionable, earning her the sobriquet "Queen of Green."

From its humble beginning in 1976 as a single store in Brighton, England, with only fifteen products, the company grew rapidly on the strength of strong demand for both those products and Roddick's in-your-face social activism. After eight years, the company went public and franchises spread all over England, and later the world. Today there are more than two thousand Body Shop stores in 55 different markets, serving more than 77 million customers speaking 25 languages.

How did it happen? By happenstance, according to Anita, who explained it all in 1993 in Third Way Magazine:

"The original Body Shop was a series of brilliant accidents. It had a great smell, it had a funky name. It was positioned between two funeral parlours -- that always caused controversy. It was incredibly sensuous. It was 1976, the year of the heatwave, so there was a lot of flesh around. We knew about storytelling then, so all the products had stories. We recycled everything, not because we were environmentally friendly but because we didn't have enough bottles. It was a good idea. What was unique about it, with no intent at all, no marketing nous, was that it translated across cultures, across geographical barriers and social structures. It wasn't a sophisticated plan, it just happened like that."

But the success of her stores was hardly an accident -- and business success was just the beginning for Anita. Although it led to great wealth (her 'net worth' reportedly topped out at more than $200 million) and high honors (in 2003, Queen Elizabeth II appointed her a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire), business itself was always merely a means to an end. And the end Anita Roddick had in mind was making the world a better, fairer place for all.

We first met nearly two decades ago, at a gathering of progressive business executives called the Social Ventures Network. At the time, my Globalvision partner Danny Schechter and I were producing the not-for-profit weekly television series "South Africa Now." Naturally, the program was anti-apartheid -- after all, at the time even the president of the United States, George H.W. Bush, openly opposed the racist underpinnings of South Africa's white minority government... Nonetheless, we were deemed "activists" instead of journalists, our position was deemed too controversial to obtain support from public broadcasting bureaucrats, and we were forced to seek funding for the program elsewhere, such as from the United Nations, foundations, and business leaders like Roddick.

For whatever reason -- most likely our shared working class backgrounds -- Danny, Anita and I instantly connected on a visceral level, and we spent much of the SVN meeting talking, laughing and plotting over drinks. Anita promptly invited us to visit her in the UK, which soon led to a whirlwind but typically comprehensive tour that included a brief stay at one of her London flats, a detailed examination of Body Shop production headquarters in Littlehampton, lightning-like visits to several shops in the Midlands, and ultimately a long, wet weekend tramping through high gorse in the Scottish Highlands. Soon we became fast friends and co-conspirators.

Thankfully, the situation on the ground in South Africa changed, as Nelson Mandela managed to negotiate his own release from prison after twenty-seven years, and the beloved country began its long procession toward modern democracy. We wound down weekly production of the South Africa Now show, and immediately began plotting a new human rights-oriented newsmagazine - this time focusing not just on southern Africa, but the entire world. Anita and her husband Gordon were key players in that series -- "Rights & Wrongs: Human Rights Television" -- coming to fruition. They contributed their energy and enthusiasm, their ideas and information, their contacts and creativity (and oh yes, their capital!) and without all of it, the series would never have been born. But with their help, the award winning newsmagazine was broadcast weekly for four years, on more than 150 public television stations in the USA, as well as on channels and networks in sixty-one other countries. It remains the only regularly scheduled television program in history devoted exclusively to coverage of human rights.

In addition to their longstanding interest in and support of human rights, Anita and Gordon both dedicated themselves to a wide variety of other causes, ranging from campaigns to save the Amazon rain forest and to stop violence against women to battles over climate change, to concern over the effects of globalization and the need for fair trade, to active involvement in prison and justice issues and programs aimed at combating HIV/AIDS. But Anita was still a visionary businesswoman, despite her many and loudly public anti-business remarks. (Most famously, she wrote in her autobiography, Body and Soul: Profits with Principles, "I hate the beauty business. It is a monster industry selling unattainable dreams. It lies. It cheats. It exploits women.") And at the same time that she committed a large grant to the production of Rights & Wrongs, we also entered into a commercial relationship aimed at fostering better corporate communications within the burgeoning Body Shop empire, as well promoting Anita herself and the Body Shop brand, and smoothing its entry into the United States.

Soon, Globalvision and the Body Shop seemed joined at the hip. In addition to weekly episodes of our human rights broadcast, we were also producing 'fortnightly' (a word we had picked up from Anita and begun to employ widely!) editions of Body Shop Television -- a unique, in-store television magazine devoted to internal communication among Body Shop employees and managers. In addition, there were numerous special videos to produce and many more speeches, press releases and conferences, store openings and media appearances to coordinate and attend to. Being in business with Anita -- being anywhere around Anita -- was simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting. She was in all respects a human dynamo...

Although Anita wasn't a media activist per se, she intuitively understood how media could be used for activism, and she did so shamelessly and in a cheerfully relentless manner. Whether she was supporting social and environmental causes through window displays, convincing American Express to pay her to appear in an ad promoting the Body Shop and its causes, working with Globalvision on its commercial and non-profit programming (or later writing books, blogging, running an activist website, contributing to the success of Mother Jones magazine, or working closely with -- and donating millions to -- media-savvy organizations such as Amnesty International,) Anita intrinsically 'got' the importance of characters and stories to selling anything -- from cold cream to ideas and values -- and she employed them cleverly and constantly in support of her principles.

In time, the rigors and realities of capitalism caught up with Anita, as they do with all of us in one way or the other, and she and her husband began to back away from running the company. In 2002, they stepped down as co-chairmen, though she continued to contribute as a consultant. "I source new products during travels abroad," she wrote. "And I constantly question myself: How can I bring values to an industry that is certainly not values-laden?" Finally, in July 2006, the Body Shop lost its independence entirely and became part of the French company L'Oreal Group.

Then this past February Anita revealed on her website that she was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver after contracting Hepatitis C from blood given during the birth of her youngest daughter in 1971. She had unknowingly lived with "this silent killer" for three decades. "What I can say is that having Hep C means that I live with a sharp sense of my own mortality, which in many ways makes life more vivid and immediate," she said, perhaps presciently.

Tributes to that life have been pouring in ever since Anita's passing, from the high and mighty to ordinary workers and fellow activists.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown noted, "She will be remembered not only as a great campaigner but also as a great entrepreneur." Justin Francis, who worked with her at Body Shop, said "She had a great passion for life, a great passion for business and for people." And Adrian Bellamy, present chairman of The Body Shop International, said in a statement that "Anita was not only our founder but she was also the heart and passion of The Body Shop and with her we achieved so much, whether on animal rights, human rights, Community Trade, or through the founding of organizations like Children on the Edge. It is no exaggeration to say that she changed the world of business with her campaigns for social and environmental responsibility."

And now all that is left is to mourn. Our sympathies go out to her husband Gordon, and beloved daughters Sam and Justine. But ultimately it should be left to Anita, and Anita alone, to have the final words. After all, she was so damned good at public speaking, it would truly be a shame to get in her way!

To her children: "I hope to leave my children a sense of empathy and pity and a will to right social wrongs"

To fellow entrepreneurs: "I want to work for a company that contributes to and is part of the community. I want something not just to invest in. I want something to believe in."

AND: "Political Awareness and Activism must be woven into the fabric of business -- to do otherwise is to be not merely an ostrich, but criminally irresponsible."

To the rest of us, her customers, fellow citizens, and friends: "To succeed you have to believe in something with such a passion that it becomes a reality."

AND: "If you think you're too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito."

And finally: "Join me: I want to connect with people who share my outrage over the menace of global business practices, and who, like me, are seeking solutions. But I also want to tell -- and hear, from you -- stories that lift our spirits, that celebrate how glorious our planet is. Outrage and celebration -- let's run this gamut together."

Rest in peace, my old friend, and I hope to see you again on the other side...

 

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