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Roddick's Body Shop: An Empire Built on a Ruse?

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Body Shop founder Dame Anita Roddick died this week at age 64. She created a cosmetics empire that sold good works as much as good scents: its products were branded as "pure" and not tested on animals. Alas, Roddick's ethical business claims turned to be dubious, says Scott Simon.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

What a story was Anita Roddick. The daughter of immigrants, she worked on a kibbutz and opened a cosmetic shop in Brighton, England, in 1976 with a baby on her back. She made products that she said were pure and good, and got customers to bring in their own bottles.

By the time she died this week at age 64, Dame Anita Roddick was the fourth richest woman in Britain and the Body Shop had grown to more than 2,000 outlets around the world. I remember buying stuff in one of their fragrant first stores in London's Covent Garden. The Satsuma Soap smelled terrific, but didn't seem to clean very well. I think I blamed it on the London water.

Jon Entine wrote about Anita Roddick's empire of good scents and alleged good works for Business Ethics magazine in 1994. It is one of the most devastating investigations I have ever read.

Mr. Entine established that the products the Body Shop called 100 percent pure were, in fact, only about 1 percent so. They were mostly made from cheap cosmetic petrochemicals, which the Body Shop did not list on its store signs.

Scientists pointed out that in greens like avocado, banana, green apple and grapefruit would rot within days without chemical preservatives. Those appealing stories about a pineapple face wash that was an ancient secret of Tasmanian women or the healing nut butters of Amazon tribal people, the Roddicks had never gone there, much less brought back secrets.

The stories were themselves beauty concoctions to charm customers who wanted to believe in the wisdom of ancient peoples, instead of chemists and corporations. Dame Anita scolded a meeting of the International Chamber of Commerce for not boycotting products from China.

When Jon Entine got to ask her why the Body Shop bought packaging from Chinese manufacturers, she said I was talking about what business should do, not what we actually do. My job is to inspire, but we have a bloody business to run after all.

The Body Shop famously advertised that its products weren't tested on animals, but Jon Entine pointed out that most of the ingredients in its products were tested on animals. So it changed its trademark phrase from, Not Tested on Animals to Against Animal Testing. Has a cigarette company ever come up with a more cunning slogan?

Dame Anita Roddick made green into a popular brand. Her legacy is visible on the label of every soap or shampoo that boasts of being natural, organic or pure. Some of her fans were distressed when Dame Anita sold the Body Shop stores to L'Oreal for a billion dollars.

Dame Anita said she hoped her business ethics would work their way into the French multinational cosmetics firm, instead of the other way around. Maybe they already had.

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Simon Says

Simon SaysSimon Says

NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small