I would mourn The Body Shop – it was a gateway to politics for animal-obsessed teenagers like me


‘This is a bit rubbish,” my 16-year-old said as he handed me a Christmas present. I love it when that happens. It gives me the chance to be the cool maternal care-giver who doesn’t sweat the small stuff, as opposed to the critical and unforgiving mother you read about in novels. It was a coconut body spray from The Body Shop, and when I say “coconut”, I mean it smelled of nothing except coconut, and when I say “body spray”, I mean it was plainly labelled as a thing you were supposed to spray on yourself.

“That’s lovely, darling,” I said. “Now if I just find my peanut lip balm, I’ll smell like a delicious pad thai.”

“I told you it was rubbish,” he said in his defence, and I said: “This is so much worse than rubbish.” It turned out to be the gift that kept on giving. It lives by the front door, and everyone who comes round squirts it in the air, going: “Who would ever want to smell like that?” It’s such a great, odorous ice-breaker that I’ll refill it when it runs out – if I can. The Body Shop is likely to call in administrators, amid predictions of shop closures and job losses.

When Anita Roddick opened the first shop in 1976, I guess the fundamental inquiry was: what if you wanted to be a hippy but also spend money? What if you wanted to be a feminist but also smell nice? What if you wanted to be a proto-environmentalist but also consume things? Plainly, you’d do exactly what Anita and Gordon Roddick did, to the extent that it often felt, later, as if they embodied those questions. You’d start in Brighton, put the accent on all-natural ingredients, emphasise that all customers were innately beautiful but here was some concealer just in case, trade fairly, reduce waste and wham, you’ve pretty much invented ethical consumerism.

Anita Roddick celebrates the 25th anniversary of The Body Shop in 2001. Photograph: Nils Jorgensen/Rex Features

By the time there was a Body Shop on every high street, though – the mid-80s – its offer had turned into something else: the distilled essence of teenage girl.

It started off as gateway politics, but that was much less about the recycling and fair trade than it was about the fact that products weren’t tested on animals. It is impossible to overstate how obsessed schoolgirls like me were with animal vivisection. We’d write letters to big pharma in school lunchtimes and, theoretically at least, volunteer on stalls at weekends, handing out leaflets showing bunnies with gunk in their eyes. Obviously, we never had time to do the stalls because we were too busy going round The Body Shop.

The cause was attractive for its moral clarity – do you, or do you not, want to see a little baby rabbit tortured? – yet, for the same reason, lacked texture and complexity. It was a kind of discursive pabulum; it slipped down without chewing and left you hungry for more causes five minutes later. Foxhunting had more going for it as an animal rights issue, having a highly visible enemy.

I’m making all this intensity of feeling sound inconsequential, but it wasn’t: in 1986, the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act became the “tightest system of regulation in the world” (that’s according to a select committee in the early 00s). That’s not to say that those stalls made all the difference, still less that you could trace a direct line from sales of dewberry body wash to parliament, but no question, there had been a change in the weather. Pre-Anita Roddick, it was pretty niche to care about the welfare of anything smaller than a cat; after her, it was considered very weird not to.

The shopping experience was one of living your values. No, it was better than that – you walked out smelling of your values. Some of these smells – the dewberry – were so enticing that you couldn’t really rest until you had the full set: the body wash and the shampoo and everything in between. It was an almost gamified business, collecting them all – olfactory Pokémon Go. What was a dewberry, anyway? None of us had ever seen one, and we had no idea if this is how they smelled. Didn’t matter – now it was the sweet scent of self-care meeting social justice. Other smells – white musk – were actively disgusting, but everyone had at least one friend who didn’t realise that, and what were you going to do, drop her? No, better to just adapt, learn to love it as the funky, musty stink of the campaigner.

Anita Roddick died in 2007, young at 64, still a heroine of ethical consumerism and so true to her values that she left all £51m of her estate to charities rather than her children. You can’t say any of that about The Body Shop, however: its values are all over the place and its demise is not untimely.

Even before it was bought by L’Oréal in 2006, the shop was trying to move away from teenagers and become more “masstige” – a mashup of “mass market” and “prestige” – and when you drill in to what that means, you land inevitably at: “Everything is more expensive.” It can’t have helped that the masstige market it was tilting at would have been exactly the teenagers who fell in love with The Body Shop 20 years before. All its brand associations were the powerful scent of naive activism, which is not a prestige aroma that you want to take into your grownup workplace.

By the time it was part of the L’Oréal empire, in the 00s and 10s, the rest of the world had caught up. It would have been outlier behaviour for a cosmetic brand not to talk about sustainability and fair trade. “Vegan where possible” was no longer a unique selling point. Who the hell put meat in their shampoo anyway? Boasting about it started to sound a little passé.

Via the Brazilian company Natura & Co, who had it for six years, The Body Shop finally fetched up in the hands of the private equity firm Aurelius Group last November. How to explain the speed of its fall? Did it mess up royally, by putting too much coconut in everything? Or is just one of those mysterious corporate collapses that seem to happen a lot when private equity is around?

It would be a reach to say I’ll miss it: I never went in as an adult, and mercilessly mocked any family member who went in on my behalf. But, as the emblem of a capitalism that tried to do ethics before “ethics wash” was invented, I will mourn it.

Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

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