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Green in a Bottle

Ioriginally planned to write this column about the merits and drawbacks of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED-certification program. It seemed a perfect fit considering that several of the retailers featured in this special issue are pursuing LEED certification.

But as I was putting the story together, news came of the passing of Anita Roddick, the 64-year-old founder of The Body Shop. If ever a retailer deserved tribute in an issue devoted to sustainability, it is Roddick. The LEED article will have to wait.

I can still recall the first time I walked into a Body Shop. I was visiting friends in London who couldn’t wait to take me to this new store that sold only natural cosmetics. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but I was game to find out. The small shop seemed vaguely exotic, with its green hues, “no animal testing” signs and heady aromas. The product seemed exotic, too. Even the bottles were different—they were refillable.

I became a Body Shop devotee on the spot, stocking up on such favorites as brazil-nut conditioner and musk bath-pearls whenever I visited the U.K. When it opened in America in the late ’80s, I was thrilled.

But as it does with so many things, success bred imitators. Other manufacturers and retailers, some with far deeper pockets and more business savvy than Roddick, hopped on board the non-animal-tested, all-natural bandwagon. The category lost its uniqueness, but due to Roddick’s pioneering efforts, found a much larger audience.

As much as Roddick is to be credited with bringing natural beauty products to the mainstream, she also deserves credit for a far greater achievement: popularizing the idea that a business could be both ethical and successful. Outspoken and flamboyant, Roddick was a dedicated environmentalist long before most people took up the cause. She sought to lessen the impact that her business had on the planet decades before other retailers even considered the notion.

Roddick blazed a trail with refillable bottles, biodegradable bags, recycling and campaigns against animal testing. Her passion for green issues and human rights was palpable. It was through Body Shop promotions that many people first heard about Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Amnesty International. Long before the Fairtrade movement, Body Shop declared that the ingredients in its products were sourced directly from growers rather than commodity brokers. Throughout her career, Roddick advised other businesses on sustainable development.

In 2006, Roddick and her husband Gordon sold The Body Shop to L’Oreal for about $1.14 billion. Although the couple had stepped down from managing the company in 2002, they remained as nonexecutive directors and reportedly made about $237 million from the deal.

Environmentalists and activists criticized the sale as a sell-out (among other things, L’Oreal does not ban animal testing). But Roddick believed she could have a positive impact on the way the company carried out business. As for the money from the deal, she planned to give it away to causes she held dear. At last count, she and her husband had set up three orphanages in Romania, an organic-farm cooperative in Nicaragua, a brazil-nut cooperative in Brazil and numerous health projects in India, to name a few initiatives.

Roddick was never shy about espousing the causes she believed in, particularly when it came to saving the planet. She put up signs in store windows, and on shopping bags. Sure, she probably turned off some customers, but I like to think she inspired a lot more. Ultimately, her credo was a simple one: Businesses have the power to do good. Roddick lived it to the hilt.

© 2014