The Body Shop was born in Brighton, England. The first store was opened in 1976 by Anita Roddick, and I became aware of it about a year later. I wasn’t in the business in those days – but I lived near Brighton and had just discovered beer and punk. My favourite pub in Brighton was the Basket Makers. It just so happened that the route from the pub to where the music gigs could be found was down Kensington Gardens. There weren’t any gardens, but there were a lot of interesting and unconventional shops. To be honest, the Body Shop didn’t really stand out. There were lots of whacky retailers in Brighton in those days. There still are. I would not have expected any of them to go on to international fame. If I’d been asked to pick a winner, I’d have probably gone for Mr Bottoms, who sold knickers with novelty prints. I remember it as being next door, but it was a long time ago now.
Roddick’s vision for the Body Shop was heavily influenced by her travels around the world, particularly her visit to a shop in Berkeley, California, USA, which sold naturally-scented soaps and lotions. She brought this concept back to the UK, adding her own unique twist. It was a message whose time had come, and the shops started to spread. I was oblivious to it and was quite amazed to discover one in Leicester in about 1980. A couple of years later, it was a national institution.
The Body Shop quickly gained popularity for its ethical stance, pioneering cruelty-free beauty products long before it was a widespread practice. The brand was also known for its commitment to environmental sustainability, with refillable containers and minimal packaging. This all sounds very obvious now. It was far from it at the time. I never worked for the Body Shop, but it did have quite a big impact on me. I’d studied environmental science which was a fashionable degree to do at the time and I’d learnt a lot. One of the things I learnt was that there were few jobs for environmental scientists at the time. But the Body Shop’s marrying of environmental messages with banana shampoos and almond body lotions made applying for a job at a nearby soap factory seem to sort of make sense.
And there was a lot to like. The Body Shop was one of the first major beauty brands to champion sustainability. From its inception in 1976, founder Anita Roddick sought to create a company that was not just about selling products but also about making a positive impact on the world. This ethos was reflected in the brand’s approach to production.
The Body Shop pioneered the concept of ‘ethical sourcing’. This meant that the ingredients used in their products were not only high-quality but also sourced in a way that was fair and beneficial to the communities that produced them. The brand established the Community Trade programme in 1987, which ensured that farmers and artisans in developing countries were paid a fair price for their goods and labour. All good stuff – translating good intentions into hard cash.
Another key aspect of The Body Shop’s sustainable production was its commitment to reducing waste. The brand was one of the first to introduce refillable containers for its products, encouraging customers to bring their empty bottles back to the store for refilling rather than throwing them away. This not only reduced the amount of packaging waste but also helped to cultivate a culture of reuse and recycling. It didn’t just help the environment. It got them on the telly too. The Body Shop was never shy about a promotional opportunity.
The Body Shop’s factory, located in Littlehampton, West Sussex, was a pioneering endeavour in sustainable manufacturing within the beauty industry. The factory was designed to minimise its environmental impact through a variety of innovative practices.
Firstly, the factory was built with sustainability in mind. It utilised recycled materials in its construction and was designed to maximise natural light, reducing the need for artificial lighting.
Secondly, the factory implemented energy-efficient manufacturing processes. It used renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, to meet some of its electricity needs – it was only a token amount, but this was in the days when green engineering was in its infancy. The factory also employed a heat recovery system, which recycled waste heat from the manufacturing process to heat the building and water and treated wastewater using reed beds.
Finally, the factory was not just about environmental sustainability but also about social responsibility. The Body Shop supported small-scale farmers and producers in developing countries. The factory also provided employment opportunities for the local community. West Sussex is not as wealthy as its image might suggest, and this was much appreciated and is now missed. The site which made much of the Body Shop’s range is now an Amazon distribution point employing fewer people on lower wages doing less interesting things.
All of which sounds very worthy, if not rather po-faced. The reality was anything but. For a start it wasn’t just successful – it was phenomenal. By the mid-1980s, The Body Shop had become a global brand with stores in several countries. The company went public in 1984, with an initial public offering on the London Stock Exchange that valued the company at £4 million. The financial success of the company continued to grow, with revenues reaching £231 million by 1991.
At one point, the Body Shop was the second biggest UK purchaser of cosmetic raw materials – and not very far behind the biggest one. (Avon – I know you wanted to know). But it still did things in its own way. Passing the factory, you would see tankers delivering from all the big chemical companies, but also the Fyffes banana lorry. Peeling the bananas was a full-time job. People were so intrigued by the brand that they were willing to pay for a tour. Characteristically this was in an electric vehicle whose batteries were charged from a windmill.
It resisted corporate norms for a long time. It was the only beauty company, possibly the only company, that employed an anthropologist. It once ran an advert in the New Scientist for an Iconoclast. The required qualification was to be an unusual person. A friend of mine applied unsuccessfully, and never did work out if he wasn’t unusual enough or too unusual.
Anita Roddick, usually called just Anita, was very popular with her staff, who were well-paid and had numerous unusual benefits. But she wasn’t afraid to make enemies. She once said that most cosmetic products were formulated by ugly old men. Ouch. The Society of Cosmetic Scientists never managed to get her to give a talk to them.
However, the 1990s saw increased competition in the market for natural and ethically sourced beauty products. Despite this, The Body Shop managed to maintain its financial growth, reaching a turnover of £419 million by 1998. This was achieved through a combination of expanding its product range, entering new markets, and maintaining a strong brand image. But it also started succumbing to the normal pressures that enforce conformity on most companies. The number of whacky Body Shop stories doing the rounds started to fall off. And the convergence also worked the other way, with some of the Body Shop’s initiatives becoming common and even mainstream. In 2006, L’Oréal acquired The Body Shop for £652 million, a move that was seen as a way for the French cosmetics giant to tap into the growing market for ethical beauty products. There were obvious concerns about the compatibility of the two companies. The Body Shop continued to operate independently and nominally maintained its ethical stance – but without Anita it lost a lot of its personality.
It didn’t really work. It’s quite hard to be an enfant terrible indefinitely. Everyone is green now. In fact by modern standards Body Shop products aren’t especially green. And far from being new and different, for a lot of current consumers they are the products that their mum used to buy.
In 2017, L’Oréal sold The Body Shop to Natura & Co, a Brazilian cosmetics company, for £880 million. That doesn’t sound too bad, but I imagine that L’Oreal could have got a better return on the investment with some of their other brands. This marked a new chapter in the Body Shop’s history, but not a good one. It proved a poor investment. Losses started to mount. By last year the Body Shop had been underperforming for years, with net revenue dipping 12% at constant currency in Q2 2023 and six consecutive quarters of losses.
Natura & Co has now sold The Body Shop to private equity investor Aurelius Group for £207 million, which is a fraction of the price Natura paid for the brand in 2017. The numbers are bleak, and I think the Body Shop as we have known it is now over. It was a brand that was of its time, and that time has passed. It was enormously influential in many ways, but having done that, it has made itself redundant. Now that we are all against animal testing and in favour of saving the planet, what is special about a brand that champions those things? And in any case, if you really believe in that kind of thing, shouldn’t you be starting your own brand? In many ways the real legacy of the Body Shop is the hundreds of companies inspired by its example. But that doesn’t create any revenue for the company that started the natural product sector. Whether or not the brand survives in some form or other it will never be the same again. But I won’t be the only one with fond memories of it.