What The Body Shop Has Learned About Keeping Its Values After a Takeover

By the Global Good Awards

The Body Shop is back. More than 10 years after its surprise take over by French beauty giant L’Oreal, and fresh from being bought by ethical Brazilian beauty brand Natura, the pioneering beauty brand is ready to redefine ethical business for the 21st century. We caught up with International Director of Corporate Responsibility and Campaigns, Christopher Davis, on how the original ethical brand has kept its values after two takeovers.

Davis is passionate, outspoken and has obviously experienced real change throughout his 14 years at The Body Shop. Originally taken on to work with founder Anita Roddick on campaigns, he’s forthright about the challenges of staying true to the spirit of adventure that made The Body Shop unique:

“Anita had a brilliant radar. She was always looking outside the business and into the outside world, embracing movements and communities like Fair Trade and groundbreaking, interesting NGOs.”

“The biggest change I’ve observed was being part of the L’Oreal group. Anita was such a visionary leader and because of that the company itself was an adventurer and an innovator. It was hard to continue to flourish as an adventurer when we were part of a much larger group.

For example, the company found itself unable to form the kind of partnerships with the real trailblazers they had done before, in part due to Roddick’s absence (she sadly passed away in 2007, shortly after the sale to L’Oreal). An influx of more traditionally business minded people had also diluted the distinct culture that set The Body Shop apart from others in the beauty industry.

The endeavor had started out in great faith, with Roddick confident that she had ensured The Body Shop’s principles were protected under the terms of the takeover, insisting they could be a “Trojan horse” to bring about change from within:

“In the earlier years of L’Oreal, we had enough independence and could push things through we could believe in. The last campaign we worked with Anita on, on human trafficking, changed laws across 23 countries and was presented to the UN Human Rights Council. It was a big deal. But L’Oreal were surprised we were doing it. There wasn’t much evidence of the campaign in our stores, and it didn’t focus on beauty. But it was a natural thing for our staff and people to want to do. We looked at ourselves as much bigger than the beauty industry. What changed later was that the advocates for looking at the Body Shop through the lens of business for social change got quieter. That’s where the transformation started.”

Yet, after an uneasy period, The Body Shop appears to be back on track, reaffirming its desire to do ‘business as a force for good’ launching 14 targets for 2020, under its Enrich Not Exploit™ Commitment. Not only that, but September’s takeover by Natura has given them confidence that their belief in becoming “A business that the planet, not the markets need”, is possible. They’re now determining how they can reach ‘zero harm’ with consultancy Future Fit.

Davis outlines the scale of their ambition:

“I hope soon, we will be looked at once again for reinventing ethical business. Some of the things we pioneered are now mainstream, such as our Community Trade programme, encouraging our customers and employees to campaign, and of course, cruelty-free cosmetics.”

Although sustainable business has come far in the 11 years since their original takeover, Davis still thinks it needs to be reinvented:

“When oil companies are riding high in the Dow Jones Sustainability index, you realise that the definition of a sustainable business doesn’t exist! Our 2020 goals are practical and tactical, but they’re not yet the transformation the world needs. The groundbreaking leap comes when we start to drive Future Fit and we embrace a clear destination with measurable science.”

He continues:

“The job of trail blazers has to be reinvention of what it means to be an ethical or responsible company. Look at what’s still happening to politics and the planet. What many describe as ethical business in its current form has failed and is failing!”

And Davis has an enviable remit to do so. Brazilian company Natura are well known internationally for their ethical business credentials and are a founding member of the Union for Bioethical Trade. Not only that, but Davis is confident that, despite the changes over the years, The Body Shop has the people for the job:

“What’s astonishes me is still The Body Shop’s people. They still have the mindset that they want to work for a business that’s different. We still work with our first Community Trade partners, after 31 years. When we launched our sustainability strategy last year we stated we would be the most sustainable company on the planet. And we still believe that, across our 66 countries and multiple franchises.”

So, how has the pioneering business stayed true to itself and what makes this takeover a better fit than the last? Over to Davis:

Founders who ‘get’ you

“The biggest impact we have felt already [from the takeover by Natura] is from the founders and founding philosophy of Natura. The three founders are entrepreneurs at heart, with a deep belief that business should be about making things better. Simply by talking to these three gentlemen, many of us felt like there was a weight off our shoulders. They want to do what we want to do.”

Big ambitions that align

“Natura have long-term goals to be a company responding to planetary and societal needs by 2050. I can’t tell you what that means on a practical level, but on a softer level we have more clarity and more understanding of the purpose of the business: which goes beyond returning money to the stock market. And it’s had a real effect. We now think: ‘let’s be as profitable as we can be, because we share it with our shareholders, whilst also driving our environmental and social agenda.’ It’s much more motivating.”

Enshrining your mindset and culture

“True ethical business needs to scale for us to have real impact. So I won’t say: ‘don’t sell to a large business’. But you should sell to a business that shares your beliefs, and formalise those where possible. If you look around at the acquisitions of purpose-led businesses, there are a few success stories, but there are few that have been straightforward. When Ben & Jerrys sold to Unilever, they put in an independent board and that was the thing that saved them. Formal mechanisms show the acquirer takes you seriously. Under Natura, our CEO is empowered to drive the company in the way they want to, giving us independence.”

The Body Shop’s story is one of belief, struggle and reinvigoration. And Davis is positive about their future and new remit:

“I hope we’ll be doing such a good job [the mainstream] will join us. [In five years’ time], I hope to have learned a lot from Natura that is true and deep.”

This is part of a series of interviews with Global Good Award winners and finalists, which seeks to reward the businesses, NGOs and social enterprises doing ‘good’ across the world. Entries start on December 1 and run until February 2.

Image credit: Flickr / Bargainmoose

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