January/February 1995

EXPLOITING IDEALISM
Jon Entine on how The Body Shop betrayed its customers

by Jon Entine

Imagine for a moment that science developed a new technology that could magically sort truth from hyperbole. When someone tells a really big lie, a truth bubble, visible only to those with this special power, suddenly appears and reveals the real story. This unique tool would be welcomed by parents, and no one would ever again have to fear used car salesmen or shifty politicians.

Or the tidal wave of green marketers exploiting idealistic consumers. If responsible business leaders were smart, they would use the truth bubble to root out hypocrisy in their own backyard before it’s used against them.

Consumers used to feel pretty confident when companies-that-share-our-values such as The Body Shop or Ben & Jerry’s promoted its latest plan to save the rainforest and empower its workforce. But the phenomenal growth of many New Age businesses has sparked a green boomlet. Now, everyone from Mobil to Monsanto to Waste Management is making noise about protecting the environment.

This dramatic increase in "cause-related marketing" raises concerns whether green practices are being replaced by green washing. But green marketing cannot be explained away as soul-less multinational capitalists using progressive buzz words and ruining it for the good guys. The circle-the-wagons mentality in the wake of the Body Shop fiasco suggests a more troubling explanation: green washing is a by-product of the arrogance of the progressive business community itself.

Few people, least of all the leaders of the social responsibility movement, asked the tough questions when Anita Roddick claimed her Body Shop was the "most honest cosmetic company in the world." The media, desperate for a feminist superstar, helped her craft an inspiring rags-to-riches-to-Robin Hood success story. Hungry for recognition, progressives seemed all too willing to encourage Roddick’s self-promoting, hyperbolic attacks. Unfortunately, enthusiasm and charisma are no substitute for integrity.

A truth bubble would have stopped the deception cold. Roddick fabricated stories about how she started the Body Shop and sourced ingredients from bare-breasted natives. Over the years, as white lies about the company’s progressive practices grew darker, the Roddicks defended their myth-making with vitriolic personal attacks and legal threats. In light of the facts, the honesty gap is startling.

Gordon and Anita Roddick may have believed their propaganda, but good intentions (if that is the case here) are not enough. In the capitalist world of caveat emptor, honest information is our only defense. Social vision means nothing unless companies tell the truth. Anita Roddick and the Body Shop may have exposed other beauty companies for exploiting women; consciously or not, she exploited the innocence and idealism of her customers.

Even today, the movement is reluctant to acknowledge its own culpability. The atmosphere at a mid-October meeting of progressive business leaders could be likened to a family gathering a few days after everyone’s favorite uncle was found molesting a neighbor’s child. The scandal was on everyone’s mind, few would openly talk about it, and most hoped that by ignoring it, the story would soon fade away. It won’t.

Here’s a wake up call: this fiasco will get worse unless progressives look into their cracked mirrors, decide what values they really stand for, and speak out loudly and decisively. Socially responsible business is not about having a good heart or striving for perfection. It’s about recognizing the original sin of capitalism, preaching only what is practiced, and turning out a fair-priced, quality product.

Baby boom businesses must guard against becoming seduced by their growing wealth and notoriety, or losing touch with the impact of grand visions on real people: women who scrape together family assets to buy a franchise, twenty-something clerks getting by on near-minimum wage, Mexican Indians turning out scrub mitts for pennies an hour, teenagers who buy shampoo or ice cream thinking they are preserving the rainforest. Recklessly executed and misleadingly promoted corporate visions undermine the credibility of those who play it straight.

Journalists love to create heroes and unmask hypocrites. With Anita Roddick, they hit the Daily Double. Over simplifying complex moral issues and exaggerating positive corporate behavior breeds cynicism. Good guys take note: green washing invites the press to caricature even the most well intentioned businesses.

The social responsibility community is justifiably concerned that the Body Shop firestorm will consume the entire movement. It could. Already, less socially conscious marketers, sensing the honesty gap, co-opt green symbols to sell everything from detergent to gasoline to cigarettes. Consumers hate to be taken for granted. Once their trust is abused, it’s gone forever.

This is a plea for less hubris and more transparency. If progressive business leaders rediscover their moral center, in a few years, the shattering of the Body Shop myth will seem like a distant memory. But if the movement doesn’t stand for openness and honesty from members of the "club," it stands for nothing at all. It’s time to use the truth bubble.