Retail in Asia


“A heart-in-the-mouth moment”: How The Body Shop returned to its ethical roots

As one of the pioneers of business as a force of good, The Body Shop was revolutionary in its approach when Dame Anita Roddick first launched the British beauty and body brand in 1976. To this day, it’s still seen as an inspiration for many purpose-led businesses.

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However, the road has been rocky for the retail giant, particularly when it was controversially sold to beauty powerhouse L’Oréal in 2006.

Without activism at its core any longer, The Body Shop lost its brand power. Its community work and thought-provoking campaigns were replaced with generic visuals and discounting became a regular part of the retail strategy. Meanwhile, other forward-thinking brands began to pick up the pace, eclipsing The Body Shop’s original position as a leader in the space. 

Natura & Co. founders. Source: The Body Shop

But when The Body Shop was acquired by Brazilian business Natura in 2017, it was time for a return to its politically-led roots, which was spearheaded by CEO David Boynton who joined the business at that time. 

“There’s no question that when you decide to be purpose-driven, you’re not taking the easy option. You’re setting a higher standard for yourself and your organisation,” Boynton said at the recent World Retail Congress in Barcelona. During that same presentation, Boynton announced his upcoming departure from the brand after six years.

“The last few years have been particularly challenging, it’s been a wild ride. We’ve been surviving the headwinds and learning how to thrive again, but we’ve found a way to be consistent and live up to our sense of purpose.”

Here are just a few of the key initiatives that drove The Body Shop’s return to becoming a force for good within the retail industry. 

Joining the B Corp community

One of the first decisions The Body Shop team made at the beginning of its turnaround was to become a B Corp, due to its rigorous audit process and ability to effectively measure a retailer’s social good. It was also important that the brand was part of the same collective of values-led businesses around the world, explained Boynton. 

“Back in the day when The Body Shop was emerging, we were close to organisations like Ben and Jerry’s and Patagonia. We all had a different way of thinking about business, but we lost touch with them and we wanted to be back in that community,” he said.

In recent years, an increasing number of retailers around the globe are becoming B Corp certified, from Chloe, Allbirds and Vestiaire Collective to Ganni and Aesop.

A heart-in-the-mouth moment

Source: The Body Shop

The next step for The Body Shop was to update its formulation and packaging charters and rejuvenate its entire range of 700 products. These new standards now require ingredients to be 90 per cent of natural origin and all sustainable packaging made from post-consumer material. In addition to not being tested on animals, all products are now vegan-certified by The Vegan Society. 

“We thought it was a challenge at the time, but it was an even bigger challenge thanks to Covid and the war in Europe,” recalled Boynton. 

Even the names of some of The Body Shop’s most popular products changed to reflect its return to being a socially aware brand. The ‘Drops of Youth’ range is now known as ‘Edelweiss’, named after the product’s key active ingredient. 

“Why do we celebrate youth? Whatever age you are is a good age for you. A serum might make you look and feel better, but it definitely won’t make you younger,” explained Boynton. 

“It’s always a heart-in-the-mouth moment when you change the name of your number one product. But we’re delighted that our customers came with us and Edelweiss is our number one or two product in all markets around the world.”

Welcome to the Changemaker Workshop

When Boynton came on board, The Body Shop had a portfolio of 3,000 stores all around the world with six different store concepts, all largely uninvested and each saying something different about the brand. Many were in poor locations, others were in desperate need of renovation, while others needed their rents reduced. 

After cleaning up the store strategy, the next step was to develop a new bricks-and-mortar store concept. Enter the interactive Changemaker Workshop, where The Body Shop’s products and activism roots now come to life. In the new sustainably-designed stores, customers are invited to trial products at the wash basins or make-up tables. The brand also brought back the refill stations it first launched in the 1990s, where customers can fill up their bottles of shower gel, shampoo and conditioner. 

And at the activism corner, shoppers can find out more about social causes or even sign a petition to drive change happen within the community. Some stores also feature murals designed by local artists as well as a water refill station. In others, shoppers are also given a credit voucher for every five empty bottles or containers that they return from any brand. 

Circularity with social impact

Dolly, a wastepicker in India working with the brand. Source: The Body Shop

As part of its transformation, The Body Shop set a challenge where all of its plastic is now post-consumer material and in this new era, the retailer partnered with not-for-profit Plastics for Change in 2019. Through this new initiative, The Body Shop began working with waste pickers, who are typically women from the lowest social group in India’s caste system, making them vulnerable to discrimination and poor working conditions. 

“We created an environment where they have safe working conditions and a regular rate of pay for the bottles they collect. Since we started, we estimate we’ve taken 100 million plastic bottles off the streets,” said Boynton. 

Hiring done differently

Open hiring is a concept that was pioneered by former Zen Buddhist monk Bernie Glassman, founder of Greyston Bakery. In a nutshell, everyone is welcome to apply for a job by simply adding their name to a list, regardless of their background. These candidates might come from a refugee background, or experienced homelessness, or they may be a carer or parent returning to the workplace. No resumes or reference checks are necessary, and once the candidate’s name reaches the top of the list, they are automatically given a job and training.

In light of the current global labour shortage, this is a concept that Boynton brought to The Body Shop in an effort to boost the industry, but to inject even more purpose to the business.

“Our staff can say: ‘If you want to give 5,000 people the opportunity for the dignity of paid work, sell a Body Shop product. If you want to take 100 million plastic bottles off the streets of India, sell a Body Shop product.’ It’s incredibly engaging for our people,” said Boynton.

Retail is often seen as a last resort option by the wider community, but the reality is that for many, it can be a successful career, if offered the right opportunities and development. 

“We believe that retail is a fantastic industry. You can have an incredible career in the industry and for a long time, it’s been the career for driving mobility. I started working the till at Safeway in London,” said Boynton. “We asked ourselves, ‘How can we think differently about how we bring people into the industry?’”

First, The Body Shop successfully tested open hiring in its distribution centre in North Carolina, then it made the “bold and controversial decision” to extend the practice to the shopfloor. Initially, the existing team were concerned. 

“They said: ‘We’re really quite skilled, why would you bring people in with no experience or skills?’ When we explained the reasons, our store teams were proud,” recalls Boynton. “It’s about the standard. The standard never changes. You have to be good enough to thrive in this environment, we’re just removing the barrier to you getting a job. 

“It’s been an amazing program for us. We’re very proud and so far, 5,000 people have come through our open hiring program who were otherwise excluded from the dignity of paid work.”

Changing the language of change

Activism is increasingly becoming a polarising word, loaded with potential backlash from different groups of customers. 

“As we’ve seen in the UK, an activist conjures up a picture of people’s minds of someone glueing themselves to the M25 and making you late for work. So we wanted to change the language of change,” said Boynton. “We talk increasingly about changemakers being at the heart of what we’ve done. For over 40 years, we’ve been responsible for driving change in 24 laws in 22 different countries by mobilising our customers.”

The Body Shop’s latest campaign, “Be seen, be heard” has partnered with the United Nations to drive youth participation in political life – but in a bold way, using messaging like “FFS (for all our future’s sake)”.

“We’re being more playful and having fun in terms of how we bring important change and enabling younger people to have more of a voice. These campaigns get us talked about on social media,  in the House of Lords and every magazine from Vogue to Fortune magazine,” Boynton said. 

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As the concept of corporate social responsibility has evolved over the years and sustainable and ethical business have become an essential part of the retail landscape, it’s heartening to see that The Body Shop has returned to its DNA and continued to develop from the inside out. 

About the author

Matt Newell is the founder and CEO of The General Store, a business that specialises in retail strategy and innovation and works with retailers in APAC like Central Group, Rebel, Freedom Furniture, BBQs Galore and Salvos Stores.