Business should feed the human spirit

By Peter Heslam
9 Oct 2007

When Anita Roddick founded the Body Shop in 1976, there was nothing remarkable about hippyish lefties dreaming of a new order. No one guessed that, in pursuing her dream, this particular eco-worrier would build a multi-million-dollar global brand with a dominant high-street presence.

The distinctives of her business are well known. None of her products was tested on animals or caused unnecessary environmental damage. She encouraged shop workers to join demonstrations and used her window displays to publicise campaigns. She was especially vocal against the purported evils of big business and took a prominent role in anti-globalisation activism pre-‘9/11’.

What was less well known, and was overlooked in the obituaries, was her lively spirituality, reflected in the title of her autobiography, Body and Soul. In another bestseller, Business as Unusual, she argued that because it has surpassed both church and state in power and influence, business should assume moral leadership in society. It has to shift its emphasis from the material to the spiritual, connecting with people’s sense of meaning and purpose.

To achieve this, business has to recapture a sense of ‘reverence’ – an attitude, not necessarily dependent on organised religion, that regards life as sacred and awe-inspiring. For an example of this, Roddick turned to the great Quaker industrialists of the past. Their spirituality was nurtured by their religion, but what was key for her was that it inspired a highly effective combination of business acumen and moral responsibility.

Roddick was not always consistent, of course. She called for a boycott of China while importing Chinese products; she sold her stake in the Body Shop to L’Oréal, the cosmetics giant that sanctioned animal testing; and although she claimed to adhere to the Catholic faith in which she was raised, she was generally dismissive of Christianity.

But such inconsistencies do not overshadow her greatness. As an enlightened entrepreneur, she embodied her brand: principled, outspoken and daring. And like other great entrepreneurs, she deliberately disrupted conventional business thinking and practice. She was determined to use business to drive social change. ‘You never get remembered by what you do in business,’ she said once. ‘You get remembered for what you do for civil society.’

When she died last month, Dame Anita Roddick left us with a model of how to do business with attitude, in both senses of the phrase, for the sake of a better world.

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See also: Roddick: Greenbelt challenged my bias against religion - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/5682

(c) Dr Peter Heslam. The author is director of Transforming Business at Cambridge University, and an honorary associate of the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity, to whom acknowledgments are due for this article. Comments can be made here: http://www.licc.org.uk/culture/anita-roddick

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