After the shockingly early death last year of Anita Roddick, I feel a bit bad leaving this piece up here. I remain a great admirer of Roddick, but I still think there was a point to be made. Judge for yourself.
So The Body Shop is to be acquired by L'Oreal. As part of the deal, the Roddicks are to sell their stake in the company they founded in 1976. Earlier today, Anita Roddick denied the deal was a sell-out, arguing that "The most exciting thing about this is that L'Oreal is asking us to teach it about community trade, which is the best poverty eradicator in the world."
Let's give Roddick the benefit of the doubt. Let's assume her values are a strong as ever. She's just looking for a new challenge: not satisfied with proving to the world that ethics can, under the right circumstances, provide a sound basis for business, she wants more. She still wants to change to world, and she realises that much of the business community still has a great deal of catching up to do.
She must be sincere: if she had been opposed to the deal on ethical grounds she could have blocked it by refusing to sell her stake. Unless she needs the cash - which I doubt - she must believe that the deal provides an opportunity to complete the job she started thirty years ago: changing the world by changing the values that drive business.
We should probably be more dubious of L'Oreal's motives. This is the company that, according to many animal rights organisations, still uses ingredients tested on animals in some of its products. Indeed, in the league table of ethical boycotts, L'Oreal comes a close second to the Swiss giant Nestlé which has long been criticised for marketing baby formula in poor countries and thus rendering next to useless the immune systems of the world's most vulnerable children. Nestlé, in case you were unaware, is the majority shareholder in L'Oreal.
Perhaps we should applaud the Roddicks' ambition in their choice of partner. If they can change L'Oreal and Nestle, then they probably can change the world. But there's the rub. Like the multinationals behind most of the world's biggest brands, L'Oreal and Nestlé are not ethical basket cases because their directors or shareholders are particularly nasty individuals with no values. They are ethical basket cases because, while ethical awareness among millions of ordinary people has been growing, the criteria for success in business in have also changed, but in a direction which often leaves companies unable to take an ethical stance, even if they wanted to. The relentless pressure for ever-increasing short-term returns puts those who lead large corporations under an unavoidable duty to their shareholders to deliver higher profits year after year.
At The Body Shop, almost uniquely, the Roddicks managed to combine ethics, profit and growth. But their idea was brilliant, and their timing perfect. They rode the crest of a wave of economic expansion from the early 1980s that corresponded with an explosion in ethical awareness among consumers. Many people could afford to pay a premium for quality products that left them with a clear conscience.
But the economic changes of the last twenty-five years have also left a sizeable majority of the world's people with less purchasing power than their parent's generation. People can afford to be ethical in their purchasing decisions only when they enjoy a degree of economic security. Current economic arrangements deny that security to far too many people. However good their intentions, the Roddicks are not going to change the world by getting into bed with unreconstructed big business. Only by changing the economic framework within which all business works will it be possible to ensure more people enjoy the economic security which is a prerequisite to ethical purchasing. But few people make the link between ethics and economics. Only when the economy is restructured with the express intention of encouraging the kind of values which the Roddicks have done so much to promote, will the world as experienced by most of its citizens - and its non-human animals - really begin to change.