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Business as Unusual

Business as Unusual

Fear and greed challenged by Dame Anita Roddick

Jacquelyn Suter

Read the headline again. Shouldn’t that be “business as usual”? Well, no, because when Dame Anita Roddick mounted the podium in the auditorium of the Faculty of Business Administration at CMU, all of us knew we would not hear from yet another business leader telling us how she ‘made it’, and certainly not in the ‘usual’ way. There’s nothing usual about Anita Roddick.

Members of the CMU faculties, Dame Anita Roddick (2nd right) and Mr. Christian (right) from the International Peace Foundation in Bangkok.

A featured speaker in the ‘Bridges: Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace’ series, sponsored by the International Peace Foundation, Anita Roddick challenged every assumption that business students learn as mantra. And the audience loved it! A packed house of CMU faculty, staff, and students, plus an animated ex-pat presence made this an exciting and memorable event.

Dynamic, passionate, and totally committed, are the only words for the founder of the phenomenally successful enterprise The Body Shop, with over 2,000 stores in 52 countries, including 30 in Thailand alone.

An activist in the guise of a businessperson, she says her life’s work has been to change the language and assumptions of business. One assumption - “Why does business assume that everything must be measurable?” Anita Roddick challenged, “How do we measure joy and a sense of making a contribution in our workplace?” An audience member reminded us that the King of Bhutan measured his country’s progress not by the GNP, but by the GNH - Gross National Happiness.

Too idealistic? Maybe, maybe not. Remember the best jobs you ever had? They were ones you felt enthusiastic and passionate about - ones where you felt your ideas were respected and could be implemented - by you. Now connect this passion beyond your self to the community around you - that’s the idea Anita Roddick is getting at.

“Enthusiasm when it goes to the heart is unstoppable,” Anita Roddick said. And the proverbial bottom line in all this? An engaged workforce = productivity. Anita Roddick did not use the normal business language. On the other hand, were it not for something from a more traditional business perspective going on ever so right financially - and measurable - at The Body Shop International, they would not have the funds today to devote to the social projects which totally engage Anita Roddick and her loyal buyers.

“People are irritated with the way the big brands are taking over public space, not just on billboards but in their heads,” she commented, mentioning in passing the huge and unaesthetic billboards she noticed in Chiang Mai. So, how is The Body Shop different? It’s a global brand as well. On The Body Shop truck flanks, instead of having a giant picture of a bar of soap, she has signage for missing children.

Her contention is that people remember The Body Shop for efforts that are important and make a difference to people in the community. Anita Roddick reminded us that no one is remembered for what they do in business, but rather for using their business generated wealth to change society. Citing Alfred Nobel as an example, do we remember him for creating a dynamite business or for endowing the Nobel prizes? One contemporary example is Bill Gates. The legendary and supremely controversial businessman has generously endowed a foundation for equity in world health resources (www.gatesfoundation.org). Didn’t know that, did you?

But in citing Nobel and Gates, Anita Roddick made a distinction between philanthropic companies and companies who consistently do business in a way that has a moral center. She commented that it’s easy for companies to touch social responsibility when it doesn’t affect their bottom line.

Companies like Wal-Mart or Nike have numerous philanthropic endeavors, but their offshore manufacturing practices have been severely taken to task by those on the other side of the pro-globalization debate. Utilizing cheap offshore manufacturing conditions allow these companies to be able to fund foundations at the expense of the people who work for pennies in their third-world factories.

An important point for her, and for us as well, is to reflect on the total cost of what we’re buying. Inhumane and non worker friendly environments come as part of the product. Normally, we see the product, but not the conditions behind the production of the product. Should we care? Anita Roddick gives a resounding “Yes!” In her eyes, corporations - more than governments - are the most powerful entities in the world today, often dictating governmental policies, environmental regulations, and tax structures. She feels they must be held accountable for the total cost of their products and that we, as buyers, are implicated in this weave of buying choice.

For everything you ever wanted to know about Anita Roddick and her activities, see www.anitaroddick.com