‘From an idealistic fringe notion into a mainstream concern.’
I first came across the Body Shop as a child, walking in the streets of Bath, appropriately enough, with my parents. I was attracted by the name of the store: I imagined it selling spare arms and legs. When we went inside, I was disappointed to find that the shelves were stacked not with spare limbs in cellophane, but strange pastel-coloured potions in clear plastic bottles. It smelled funny, too.
There’s a lot that smells funny about the Body Shop, as it turns out. But the controversy comes later. The company started with a brilliant concept and a woman who seems to have been as inspiring as she was exasperating: the late Dame Anita Roddick. Her life was a mesh of contradictions – an anticapitalist who made a fortune, a marketing genius who hated branding, an outspoken critic of the cosmetics industry who sold her business to L’Oréal – but she changed the beauty landscape. The combination of natural ingredients, eco-consciousness and human rights activism that charged her brand’s image was a new and potent mix. It seduced a generation infused with the values of the late 1960s.
Roddick herself grew up in Littlehampton, Sussex, not far from the seaside town of Brighton, where in 1976 she would open her first store. Her childhood was as bohemian as her soul: Anita Lucia Perilli was raised as the daughter of Gilda and Donny Perilli, Italian immigrants who ran a café. Later, Gilda divorced Donny and married Henry, her lover and Anita’s natural father. Anita would often speak affectionately of Gilda, a force of nature who tooled around town in a Jaguar and went ballooning when she was 80.
After school, Anita failed to get into the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. She could have become an actress; instead, she turned her business into a stage, never failing to put herself in the spotlight whether it was to sell an ideal or a shampoo. For the moment, though, she wandered: Paris, Geneva (where she worked at the women’s rights department of the International Labour Organization), Asia, Africa, back home again, where she met Gordon Roddick, another adventuresome type. Shortly after their marriage, he set off to ride on horseback from Buenos Aires to New York; it would take him two years.
In his absence, with a bank loan of £4,000, Anita opened her first shop. She wanted to sell natural beauty products inspired by some of the remedies she’d seen women using on her travels. It was a gimcrack operation; many of the innovations that later enabled the brand to stand out were driven by necessity. Britain may have been going ‘green’, but Anita joked that the walls were painted green to hide the mould. As for recycling, she invited customers to bring back the cheap plastic bottles for refills because she could barely afford to buy more of them. She handwrote the labels. Even if she were not averse to advertising, she would never have been able to afford an agency: instead, she became a consummate self-publicist. Her first dose of media coverage came when a local funeral parlour objected to the name of her shop.
Ah, the name. One story goes that Anita borrowed it from a local garage. But there had been a Body Shop before, in Berkeley, California. It opened in 1970. Founders Peggy Short and Jane Saunders hand-labelled all their products and sold them in refillable plastic containers. When Body Shop International entered the US market in 1987, it paid Short and Saunders for the rights to use the name. The Berkeley store changed its name to Body Time, although on its website it still bills itself as ‘the original Body Shop’ (www.bodytime.com).
There is no doubt that Anita had travelled, and widely. But unless you count cocoa butter, in those days the majority of her ingredients were not sourced from distant lands. ‘Roddick’s 25 primary products were not so different from those of earlier cosmetic queens; it was the way she sold her Bedouin-recipe moisturizer that was new… [I]f she huckstered anything, it was the history of the ingredients and the anthropology of their cultivators’ (‘Obituary: Dame Anita Roddick’, Guardian, 12 September 2007). Writing an obituary in the Independent on the same date, Paul Vallely puts it another way: ‘Tales of the products and how they were made were displayed alongside photographs of the countries she had visited and the tribes peoples she had met. She was selling the story as much as the product.’
Just like the rest of them, Anita spun us a yarn.
The ‘natural’ aspect of Body Shop products has often been called into question. The lurid colours alone invite speculation. In fact – like almost every ‘natural’ product on the market today – they contain a mixture of natural and synthetic ingredients. Don’t take my word for it: the ingredients of all the Body Shop’s products are fully listed on the e-tail section of the brand’s website.
Whatever the origin of its name or its products, the Body Shop was a success: Anita rapidly opened a second branch. When her husband returned from his travels, they set about further expanding the business using a franchise model. This operated in the traditional manner: franchise holders paid a one-off fee and an annual charge for the right to run the business. They agreed to stick closely to the retail and branding template provided by the Roddicks, who helped them to train staff. As the network grew, Body Shop representatives would visit franchises to ensure that they were on-message; franchise holders were also sent newsletters and video updates.
Soon new shops were opening at the rate of two a month. Roddick’s convictions seemed to grow along with the retail chain. She billed her products as ‘cruelty free’, proudly proclaiming with labelling and in-store merchandising that the brand was ‘against animal testing’. (There was some ambiguity about this, too: although the products were not tested on animals, it was almost inevitable that some individual ingredients had been.)
By 1984, the year it went public, the company had 138 stores, 87 of them outside the UK. Anita later considered the stock market flotation a mistake, saying that the company could have eventually ‘got everywhere we wanted’ at a slower pace; shareholders also forced it to tone down its more ‘ferocious’ campaigns. At first, however, the company’s activism continued unimpeded: it launched a ‘Save the Whale’ window campaign for Greenpeace in 1986. The following year, it started Trade Not Aid, establishing fair trading partnerships with communities like the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico (from whom it sourced blue corn) and the Kayapo Indians of the Amazon river basin (who provided Brazil nut oil). The company was involved in charitable projects from Glasgow to Harlem; in London it helped to finance the launch of a newspaper sold by homeless people, the Big Issue. ‘The politics of the Body Shop have always been its DNA,’ Roddick once said, with a characteristic blend of morality and marketing savvy.
This, then, was the Body Shop brand: the colourful products with their odd names (Banana Hair Conditioner, Dewberry Body Lotion), the ethical business practices, the succession of worthy causes, and corkscrew-curled Anita in the eye of it all, trekking to deserts and rainforests to bring us back new and exotic ways of scrubbing our skin and washing our hair. As Paul Vallely writes, ‘it was an extraordinary achievement – she had taken cruelty-free products out of hippie health-food shops and into the high street… she became a key figure in turning the idea of corporate social responsibility… from an idealistic fringe notion into a mainstream concern’.
Roddick was a one-woman PR machine, but that does not mean she didn’t rely on outside help. The company established a formal marketing department around the time it moved into the United States; it also hired an advertising agency (‘Body Shop creates space for a voice in marketing’, Independent, 1 July 1995). Its ads maintained an activist tone, however. One of them featured a red-haired plastic doll with a face like Barbie and a plump, Rubenesque figure. ‘There are 3 billion women who don’t look like supermodels and only 8 who do,’ read the tagline, followed by the slogan, ‘Love your body’.
The company’s seemingly unstoppable growth made Roddick a target for accusations of hypocrisy, but she shrugged off the criticism: ‘If you wear a bullseye on your back saying “I’m doing things in a different way”, you’re going to get shot at.’ Instead, she just went right on supporting causes in her own passionate manner, showing up in Seattle to join protests against the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting: one of the rare anti-globalization demonstrators who had founded a multinational business with 1,000 outlets in almost 50 countries.
At times Roddick seemed embarrassed about the fact that she’d created a global brand. ‘I have always been deeply sceptical about the whole idea of global brands,’ she told a conference in Singapore in 2003.
There is increasing evidence that people are actually bored to death by brands. People are irritated with the way the big brands are taking over public space, not just on billboards but in their heads. They don’t like the bigness, the mental clutter, the sense that somebody is selling to them the entire time. And most of all they don’t like their sameness, their mediocrity, their reassuring blandness. (‘Dame Anita Roddick: brands are past their sell-by date’, Independent, 3 December 2003)
The sentiment jarred with her position, but it may have reflected her state of mind at the time. In 1998 the Roddicks had already begun to relinquish control of the company, appointing a CEO while they became co-chairmen. In 2002 they stepped back to non-executive roles. This enabled Anita to devote herself full time to her many campaigns against things ranging from domestic violence to sweatshop labour. In 2005 she set up the Roddick Foundation, which seems to have been created with the sole aim of giving away her £51 million fortune.
Fans of the Body Shop were stunned the following year when the Roddicks agreed to sell the brand to L’Oréal for £625 million. The move seemed to be contrary to everything Anita claimed to stand for. Writing in the Independent newspaper only three years earlier, she had described the global cosmetics industry as ‘dull and unimaginative, run by men who create needs that don’t exist’. She continued, ‘Its primary function is to make women unhappy with what they have; it plays on insecurities and self-doubt by projecting impossible ideals of feminine beauty. It is also racist, rarely celebrating women outside Caucasian culture, and has conspired to leave us alienated from our own bodies’ (June 2003, reprinted on 12 September 2007 under the headline ‘How Anita changed the world’).
And now here she was describing L’Oréal as ‘honourable’ and saying that she hoped the Body Shop could play the role of a Trojan horse within the group, encouraging it to behave more ethically. Ultimately, the acquisition underlined the central achievement of Roddick’s career, which was to make ‘ethical and natural’ products so desirable that a mainstream beauty company wished to buy her business.
Dame Anita Roddick died of a brain haemorrhage in 2007 at the age of just 64. Despite the fact that many customers had felt betrayed by the sale of the Body Shop to L’Oréal, she remains one of the most admired British businesswomen of all time. Her ethics and that of her company were not as coherent as some might have wished them to be, but her sense of moral outrage was genuine.
And what of animal testing, the cause with which she was perhaps most closely associated? The European Commission banned finished products tested on animals in 2004; a ban on animal-tested ingredients came into force in March 2009, with a further ban on selling these products in the European Union from March 2013. Cosmetics companies are engaged in a race to develop alternative methods of testing – the most promising involve ‘growing’ discs of artificial human skin in labs from cells harvested after plastic surgery operations.
In other markets there is still work to be done: in the United States animal testing is not banned; the Food and Drug Administration says that it ‘supports the development and use of alternatives’ to animal testing and that it does not require the use of animals in testing cosmetics for safety, but under the current Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (1999, updated in 2006), ‘animal testing by manufacturers seeking to market new products may be used to establish product safety’. Were Anita Roddick still here, her fight would have continued; for all her contradictions, she made a positive contribution to the world.
As a friend responded to critics who accused Anita of opportunism: ‘How many orphanages have you built?’
In the wake of the Body Shop, ethical and natural brands seemed to spring up like green shoots emerging from a parched earth.
In the United States, one of the brand’s contemporaries was Aveda, which had been launched by professional hairdresser Horst Rechelbacher in 1978. Rechelbacher had spent time in India, where he had discovered ayurvedic medicine and herbal remedies. Wanting to share what he’d learned, he began experimenting, mixing a clove shampoo in his kitchen sink. Soon, in time-honoured fashion, he was distributing a range of products to hair salons. Rechelbacher’s plant-based ingredients and recycled packaging were ahead of their time, as were the Environmental Lifestyle Store, launched on Madison Avenue in 1989, and the Aveda Spa Retreat – offering clients treatments based on ayurvedic medicine – in 1990. Rechelbacher sold Aveda to Estée Lauder Companies in 1997, but we’ll return in a moment to what he did next.
Estée Lauder had already made an incursion into the natural market with Origins, containing natural oils and organic ingredients, which made its debut in department stores in 1990. And we heard earlier from the Australian brand Aesop, launched in 1987, whose founders fully admit that Anita Roddick and the Body Shop were precursors.
The trend for natural and organic products gained impetus after the turn of the millennium, driven by a number of factors. The first was a growing interest in preserving the environment amidst anxiety over climate change. This led consumers to look closely at the chemicals used in a wide range of products, including cosmetics. Concern about the future of the planet was accompanied by a more inward-looking contemplation of health and wellness, as an ageing demographic in the West began considering kinder, gentler lifestyles.
The media amplified these trends with reports about the hidden dangers of cosmetic products. The most dramatic example of this was the parabens scare. Parabens are chemical compounds widely used as preservatives in many cosmetics and toiletries, including moisturizers and shampoo. The source of the scare appears to have been research published in January 2004 in the Journal of Applied Toxicology (volume 24, page 5) in the form of an article headed ‘Concentrations of parabens in human breast tumours’. As reported in New Scientist, the research was led by molecular biologist Philippa Darbre at the University of Reading. ‘She says that the ester-bearing form of parabens found in the tumours indicates it came from something applied to the skin, such as an underarm deodorant, cream or body spray’ (‘Cosmetic chemicals found in breast tumours’, 12 January 2004).
Understandably, this information was circulated by other media, and soon it became a given that parabens were dangerous. Some cosmetics companies, including L’Oréal’s Vichy, began marketing ‘paraben-free’ products. However, neither the European Commission’s Independent Scientific Committee on Consumer Products nor the US Food and Drug Administration have found any evidence to support the theory that parabens are harmful. The FDA clearly states on its website: ‘FDA believes that at the present time there is no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics containing parabens.’
A cosmetics trade journalist I questioned on the issue was brusquely dismissive. ‘It did a service to the big beauty companies because it provided them with another claim,’ she told me. ‘If you take out one chemical preservative, you might as well take them all out. Then you’ll have to keep your moisturizer in the fridge; otherwise it will go off in three days.’
This brings us back to Horst Rechelbacher, who could have retired comfortably after selling his brand to Estée Lauder for US$300 million. Instead, when his no-competition clause with Lauder ran out in 2007, he began developing a 100 per cent organic range called Intelligent Nutrients (www.intelligentnutrients.com). The operation is based on his farm in Wisconsin, where he grows his own organic ingredients.
‘Pesticides and insecticides make people sick and are destroying the planet,’ he told a reporter from the Telegraph. ‘The whole beauty industry is a cocktail of chemicals.’ Rechelbacher uses ‘antibacterial and antifungal’ essential oils as preservatives; he’s something of an expert in this area, having popularized aromatherapy at his Aveda spas. His golden rule is ‘Never put anything on your skin that you can’t eat.’ He’s even been known to drink his products at demonstrations. The lipsticks he makes do not have the long-lasting quality of the non-organic variety, but for good reason: ‘The stuff they put in lipstick to make it kiss-proof is a plastic coating.’ Indeed, he is down on lipstick in general. ‘The so-called natural mineral colours are all toxic metals. The colours come from iron, cobalt and lead’ (‘Aveda founder’s mission: to clean up beauty industry act’, 23 April 2011).
His products are priced at the higher end of the market: a lip balm will cost you US$12, a ‘body elixir’ from US$30 to US$80. But customers will pay. Natural and organic will play a big role in the future of the beauty industry. The sector is roughly divided into two categories: ‘organic’ cosmetics containing certified organic ingredients; and ‘natural’ cosmetics made from plant extracts and other natural ingredients, blended with synthetic chemicals. Researchers including Mintel and Euromonitor say that the number of cosmetics claiming ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ on their packaging has doubled since 2007. The challenge facing consumers, as usual, is the prevalence of spurious marketing claims.
‘Natural’ is a virtual free-for-all. ‘Organic’ is becoming more defined. In the United States, the United States Department of Agriculture awards certification to products that meet its standards: those labelled ‘100 per cent organic’ must contain only organic products; those labelled ‘organic’, 95 per cent organic products; and those labelled ‘made with organic ingredients’, 70 per cent. In Europe, the situation was confused for some time, with various bodies – Ecocert in France, Natrue and BDIH in Germany, ICEA in Italy and the Soil Association in the UK – all offering certification. However, in June 2010 many of them came together under the COSMOS standard, ‘an international and internationally recognized standard for natural and organic cosmetics’. At the time of writing, the European Commission is investigating labelling practices by cosmetic firms with a view to stricter regulation. Until then, the obvious step consumers can take is to check for certification.
The European Commission has already banned more than 1,000 chemicals formerly contained in cosmetics under the EU Cosmetics Directive, revised in 2003. The FDA has banned only a handful, as the industry in the United States is self-regulating, but this is one area in which the globalization of the beauty industry will aid consumers. In addition, the popular movement against chemicals is being abetted by the internet, which has put power into the hands of consumers in the beauty arena just as it has in every other. Numerous websites offer a comprehensive guide to cosmetics and their ingredients, notably the Environmental Working Group’s database of 65,000 products, Skin Deep (www.ewg.org/skindeep). The European Commission has its own database of the ingredients covered by its amended Cosmetics Directive. Health Canada provides an online Cosmetics Hotlist of substances it considers inappropriate for cosmetics use. The ‘cosmetic cop’ Paula Begoun’s ‘Beautypedia’ is a searchable database of more than 45,000 skincare and make-up reviews, which goes into great detail about ingredients and their potential effects (as well as their effectiveness). New books sounding the alarm about the chemicals contained in cosmetics appear every month.
This may be good news for the beauty industry as well as consumers. Rising demand for natural products is providing an opportunity for cosmetics marketers; it has created a niche for entrepreneurs as well as a new generation of brands that will become targets for acquisition by the global beauty giants; shelf space devoted to naturals and organics is increasing, and there is room for new distribution channels, such as stores devoted entirely to natural beauty. Regions where the trend has not yet fully taken hold – such as Central and Eastern Europe – also offer growth potential. Above all, natural provides a fertile new territory for marketers looking to weave stories and claims.
There is another side to this debate, and one that is worth mentioning: organic products are not necessarily good for your skin. Nature is not gentle. In fact, as we know, it is red in tooth and claw. The natural world swirls with toxins and allergens. A random list of poisonous plants might include deadly nightshade, foxglove, hemlock and henbane. In other words, just because a product is organic doesn’t mean it’s not going to bring you out in a rash.
Clarins: natural luxury
Can a beauty brand based in a posh Paris suburb, sold in upmarket department stores and promoted with glossy advertisements that are positively weighed down with claims also be ethical and responsible? Clarins thinks so. ‘Our vision is based on respect and paying attention,’ says Christian Courtin-Clarins, chairman of the privately held company. ‘We respect and pay attention to customers. And we respect and pay attention to nature. It’s as simple as that.’
He smiles, an amiable smile that creases his sun-tanned face. Courtin-Clarins was the one who told me, when referring to his men’s skincare line, that every man secretly wanted to charm. He was certainly including himself in that assessment. He runs the company with Olivier, his brother, who heads the research arm of the operation.
The company was started in 1954 by their father, the late Jacques Courtin, an aspiring surgeon whose medical studies were cut short by the war. Courtin had grown up with a sister and her many friends, which gave him a natural complicity with women, as well as an insight into their health and beauty concerns. While assisting surgeons, he was shocked by how little attention they paid to aesthetic matters when dealing with women: as long as they saved the patient, the size of the scar did not matter. He remembered a doctor brusquely asking a nurse to remove a jar of night cream from a patient’s bedside table: for doctors, such products were confidence tricks.
After the war, Courtin looked for a way of putting what he’d learned into practice. The early results of his reflections seem archaic today – a ‘breastfirming’ device that involved spraying cool water through a pair of cones, a weight-loss machine based on massaging the client with rubber rollers – but they illustrate his lively, questing imagination. His clients seemed to appreciate his methods: Courtin’s first beauty institute in the 9th arrondissement attracted a steady stream of saleswomen, actresses and society beauties. He called it Clarins after a role he’d taken in a school play set during the Roman Empire (his sons have since added it to the family name in homage to him).
In the 1960s, Courtin launched six oils to be used during his massage therapies – three for the body and three for the face – made with 100 per cent natural plant extracts. ‘He talked about the benefits of natural ingredients decades before the current trend,’ says Christian. ‘I spent a large part of my childhood exploring botanical gardens with him. What appealed to him was that these ingredients had been used for thousands of years – their beneficial effects were already known.’
‘Natural’ and ‘botanical’ are now key elements of the Clarins brand identity. It says it does not use any ingredients of animal origin in its formulas; nor does it test its products on animals. The company engages in fair trade and sponsors a number of environmental projects, such as the Solar Impulse solar-powered plane, and the Alp Action initiative to preserve the biological diversity of the Alpine region.
But Jacques’s determination to listen to his customers became a source of anxiety when he began selling his natural oils through perfumeries. ‘He liked the idea that he could constantly fine-tune his products based on what people told him,’ explains Christian. ‘Of course, selling them through a distributor meant he was out of the picture. That’s why he began putting cards in each product that the customer could fill in and return. When I first started working here he would give me 10 of them to read the moment I arrived at the office. CRM is deeply embedded in our culture. We created our first serum because customers were asking for it: up until that time, the word was commonly used in pharmacies but not in the beauty industry.’
Another product, Lift Affine Visage, was created to answer a demand among Asian consumers for slimmer, tauter-looking faces. And Jacques Courtin began researching barriers against pollution when customers told him they appreciated how much better their skin looked after spending time outside the city.
Today the company has a club called Clarins & Me that customers can join via its website. They can also sign up to receive a newsletter. Based on the information in its database, Clarins sends out a great deal of samples. ‘We encourage the customers to try before they buy. We don’t want them to have some kind of allergic reaction: natural ingredients are not necessarily mild.’
Clarins’s advertising is both minimalist and bold, combining its bright red logo on a white field with large, soft-focus portraits shot by still-life photographer Guido Mocafico, accompanied by extensive claims in an elegant typeface. Christian says fashion magazines are inevitably the most effective marketing vehicles. ‘Each one has a particular readership profile, so we can tailor our messages to them. TV would be a waste. We’re also interested in news magazines because they attract opinion leaders.’
Like his father, Christian is inspired by nature, particularly biomimicry – the art of taking inspiration from nature to solve human problems. But the company is careful not to overstate its ‘natural’ claims in advertising. ‘We aim to make products that are effective and safe. When we have the choice, we’ll use natural raw materials. If they don’t serve our needs, we’ll use chemicals. In 90 per cent of cases, we’ll favour natural. Of the natural raw materials, we try to ensure that they’re grown both locally and organically – but that isn’t easy because only a small percentage of cultivated land in France is devoted to organic farming. So we can’t and don’t claim to be an organic brand.’
Neither does the brand wish to deceive, says Christian, when it comes to the touchy subject of anti-age creams. ‘Look, I believe a woman in her 50s looks more desirable today than she did 15 years ago, and that cosmetics have had something to do with that. But we don’t promise miracles. When we’re promoting a cream aimed at women in their 50s, we’ll take a model in her 40s – not in her 30s – and we won’t remove every single line from her face.’
Claims are the territory of Christian’s brother, Olivier, who joined the family firm in the 1990s. He spent a great deal of his career as an orthopaedic surgeon, where he specialized in interventions that left minimal scarring. Now he oversees a team of 80 researchers. ‘We have never claimed that we can make wrinkles vanish,’ he says. ‘We can reduce them, to an extent. But what our creams really do is limit future damage. In that way, you could say that we slow down time.’
Christian insists that Clarins products are reasonably priced compared to certain other luxury brands, ‘which quite frankly overstep the boundaries of decency’. He smiles once again, aware that the interview is about to return to its point of departure. ‘It all goes back to respecting your customers.’