Observer Ethical Awards: Gordon Roddick, Lifetime Achievement Award
Emma John, The Observer
In the early 1970s, when Gordon Roddick was in his thirties, he and his wife Anita ran a restaurant in Littlehampton. Every night when they closed up they would move the blackboard into the window, scrub out the menu and pose a question: why, for instance, was the local council paying so much for the curtains in its new building? "Whatever pissed us off that week went on the blackboard," explains Roddick. "And people would come by to find out more. That restaurant was a political weapon."
They quit the business three years later and started a small cosmetics shop in Brighton in 1976 ("It was survival," recalls Roddick, "because we had two children to feed, and nobody would employ us"). Three decades later there were thousands of branches of the Body Shop across the world, their windows clamouring against animal testing, human rights abuses and climate change. By the time they sold the chain on to L’Oréal in 2006, the Roddicks had built a political arsenal.
Anita’s is the name, the face and the passionate personality that will forever be associated with the Body Shop’s crusading and commercial success. Her husband has remained modestly in the shadows, quietly founding and funding social enterprises that have changed thousands of lives. Few know him as the creator of The Big Issue, or as a director of Freeplay – the electronics business that provides wind-up radios to the developing world – or a driving force behind Divine, the Fairtrade chocolate.
When we meet, he has just arrived back at his Littlehampton home from Mallorca, where he was telling government and business leaders that the island’s future as a cheap tourist destination is doomed. It’s a tough message, but Roddick believes that it’s too late for people to deceive themselves any further.
"Nobody is confronting the truth that we cannot keep on going on this pattern of growth," says the 68-year-old in his soft Scottish tones. "The world has finite resources, and if we keep on growing this way we’ll be in terrible trouble. The government needs to begin to tell us the truth and prepare us for a different future. It’s not good news, any of it." And at this, Roddick does something unexpected and heartwarming – he laughs. Heartily. "It’s all you can do. There’s not much point in crying about it."
However uncompromising his message, there is nothing of the doom-monger about Roddick. Around him, his kitchen bears testimony to a life that has been exuberantly and generously lived. There’s a naughty Banksy on an easel in the corner of the room (it has to be turned around when his grandchildren are present). There are strawberries and peas on the table from the greenhouse, from which five neighbouring families are fed. There’s a bottle of delicious white wine from the vineyard he has cultivated just outside the front door. And there are numerous lively pictures of Anita, whose influence remains in all that he does.
It was her mischievous spirit, he says, that inspired 38 Degrees, the online campaigning movement which has, since its launch last year, created a focus for public dissent on dozens of policy issues, be it banking reform, political lobbying or opposing Donald Trump’s golf course in Aberdeenshire. After Anita’s sudden death from a brain haemorrhage three years ago, Roddick was looking for something that would keep alive a sense of her activism. Unaffiliated with any political party, 38 Degrees mobilises mass actions: petitions, letters – even, last month, a flash mob which turned up at the BBC to demand an end to threatened cuts. "I knew what would make Anita really laugh would be to cause a lot of trouble."
Gordon Roddick was born in 1942 to a Scottish grain broker and his Liverpudlian wife, but both his parents had died by the time he was seven. The orphaned Roddick was sent to Merchiston Castle, a public school which he hated. He went to Cirencester agricultural college "because I couldn’t think of anything else to do", and it was not a success. "I was the only person in the history of the college who failed an exam called Farm Buildings, which are not very complicated affairs," he recalls, chuckling. "Unfortunately I’d been out all night, and when I came into the exam I promptly fell asleep."
At 20 he hit the road and spent the next four and a half years travelling, working his way around Australia, New Zealand, South America and Africa in menial jobs – cleaning railway carriages, tin mining, working as a petrol pump attendant – and he says, "You can’t travel like that without learning that the poorer people in the world are being abused by the richer." He returned home hoping to immortalise his experiences in poetry, and he worked briefly on DC Thomson’s comics before the Edinburgh literary scene bested him ("I had plenty to say but I didn’t know how to say it"). He decided instead to make his way back to Australia, but only made it as far as Sussex, where he met Anita in a pub, fell instantly in love, and moved in with her a week later.
While Anita was the live wire who inspired, remonstrated and cajoled, Gordon’s great strength was a sympathique nature that enabled this unassuming, conservative Scot to build friendships in the most surprising places. He tells an extraordinary story from his travels of canoeing 1,200 miles down the Amazon with a man called Carlos who had shot his wife, and who carried a cut-throat razor so he could kill himself if they were caught. "He was a good guy despite his little aberration."
It helps to explain, too, his unlikely partnership with John Bird, the ex-con who was living rough when they first met, and who didn’t fancy running The Big Issue because he couldn’t see how he was going to make money out of it. The two have been friends for decades, and Roddick used to love watching the regular heated arguments between John and Anita. "I love people who have anarchy in their hearts," he says. "I have a number of friends like that who say exactly what they think. I take great joy and delight in them – because I can’t be like them, I’m far too much of a coward."
Roddick is often portrayed as the business brain behind his wife’s vision, but he says that the only financial know-how he had when they began was this mantra: don’t spend more than you earn. "My family was a bunch of canny Jocks," he laughs, "and that was the best teaching I could have had." What he did have was a strong sense of the injustice of traditional business practice. "Some great people can leave their morality at the front door of their office. They go into their business and behave damn badly, come out in the evening, pick up their morals and become very nice people again."
Roddick, however, was convinced that business could be a force for good. With Anita, he pioneered the concept of fair trade for Body Shop suppliers long before it was fashionable. He persevered with his idea for The Big Issue when even the Body Shop’s own foundation said it would never work. It is now one of the most successful social enterprises in the UK and still innovating: its Wedge loyalty card encourages readers to shop locally, while Big Issue Invest provides microloans for those on low incomes.
Roddick has become more radical with age. He is disillusioned with the capacity of big business and market forces to bring change and greatly regrets floating the Body Shop on the stock market, despite the fact that it led to his fortune. "The best service we could do to the world is to burn down the Harvard Business School," he says matter-of-factly. "They’ve pushed this whole ethos of shareholder value and profit before people, and that’s not acceptable any longer."
He is convinced that the developed world needs to live in a radically different way and says it is a "good thing" that we may have already reached peak oil – because "things are going to get incredibly expensive. In the current system, if we don’t keep buying refrigerators and cars, banks panic, people’s assets are devalued, everything goes into meltdown. I’d rather settle for a three-day week with much less purchasing, and cut out waste."
It may sound challenging, even unpopular, but then Roddick doesn’t always espouse obvious, feelgood causes. He supports Cageprisoners, a human rights organisation that serves those held in Guantánamo Bay and advocates talking to the Taliban. His most current, and personal, quest is to secure the release of the Angola 3, whose contested convictions for murdering a prison guard in Louisiana prison saw them held in solitary confinement for more than 30 years.
He says he doesn’t analyse whether a project will work or not – "I just think it ought to be a success" – and that he has probably got a lot wrong along the way. Roddick laughs at the memory of the Body Shop’s first campaign for Greenpeace, which was meant to raise awareness about acid rain. Carried away with their cleverness, the Roddicks filled their shop windows with the slogan "Acid Reigns". No one knew what they were talking about.
"You tend to hide and bury the mistakes," he says, "but you have to be out there. It comes down to whatever pisses you off."