Why the Body Shop has gone into administration?


The news that the Body Shop has called in administrators in the UK and Germany is certainly sad.

Ed Mayo, now the chief executive of pilotlight but, in the 1990s, the executive director of the New Economics Foundation (NEF) – who employed me properly there from the end of 1998 – has paid tribute to the leadership of Anita and Gordon Roddick at that time in a blog at LinkedIn.

He tells the story of the pioneering role they played developing the ideas behind the first social audit a kind of ethical audit of their company. I still have the newspaper they produced as a result (Values Report 1995).

What he didn’t say was what happened in the end, which was that – after NEF had set up a permanent social auditing team inside the Body Shop – Anita began to react against it.

She came to believe that the trouble with social auditing was that it shifted responsibility for ethics from the board and to the accounting function. So they sold their new social auditing department lock, stock and barrel to accountants KPMG, which meant that the core NEF social audit team could earn no more for the rest of the year.

Which led to something of a rethink at NEF, to say the least.

I was working closely with Anita shortly after this, mainly re-ghosting her memoir Business as Unusual – which I was intrigued to see was the book which brought Jo Swinson into politics – and thereafter writing for her as much as I could.

At the time, I was also researching my book The Tyranny of Numbers, about how too much measurement and counting tends to get in the way of authentic human life. And I was hugely influenced by her thinking on this, and much else besides. Hence the little book, Numbers, we wrote together.

But why has the Body Shop finally succumbed, 15 years since it was sold to L’Oreal?

Ed Mayo blames what he calls isomorphism – “the tendency to shift shape and character over time as eclectic and distinctive companies become more like their competitors” – and he’s absolutely right.

But why does it work like that? I submit that it has something to do with measurement, which – as I wrote in my book Tickbox – is the solution of the wealthy and powerful, because they can’t see how else they can control their vast empires.

The truth is that Anita and Gordon Roddck were such vital presences in their massive British success story that they delayed the inevitable hardening of innovation arteries and collapse.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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