Opinion

Without The Body Shop, there'd have been no Big Issue

Anita and Gordon Roddick's pioneering company paved the way for Big Issue. More should emulate its principled stance

More than 2,200 jobs are at risk after The Body Shop’s collapse into administration in the UK, less than three months after it was taken over by German private equity company Aurelius. Image: Maureen McLean/Shutterstock

The demise of The Body Shop throws up various emotions for me as I was a product of the ‘peppermint foot lotion revolution’, as I called it. Meaning I was blessed in my efforts and endeavours by the business that Anita Roddick started with her husband Gordon in the mid-1970s. Starting with one shop in Brighton next to an undertaker (who, perhaps understandably, objected to the name Anita chose), the business grew worldwide over the next decade. 

The business grew because of its zany products – marmalade shampoo, peppermint foot lotion, coconut body butter – and a wild disregard for the usual attitudes of business towards the planet. Fair trade, no animal testing, environmental concerns, all combined to make Anita and Gordon’s business credentials seem more suited to a modern, caring, thoughtful and engaged audience than the ‘trad’ approach. 

And out of this whirligig of business with conscience grew the support that led to the creation of The Big Issue. So The Big Issue owes its gestation, germination and creation to this business that spread worldwide. When we set it up, Gordon insisted that it “wash its own face” financially – not necessarily with Body Shop products – and that it be a “business response to a social crisis”. 

I first met Gordon when I was hiding from the police in Edinburgh in 1967, aged 21 and espousing revolution. Gordon and I became mates. He then moved to Littlehampton on the south coast in Sussex. I moved back to London and occasionally visited him there. One day Gordon asked me to come down to meet his new girlfriend, and I took the train. Anita was beautiful and loud and combative, belittling my commitment to revolutionary politics by suggesting that the real fight was going on in the jungles of South America. 

Her arguing skills were superior to mine. The drink and the arguments flowed so much that I was put back on the train at Brighton, rather than stay over as planned. 

Anita’s combative power mixed with Gordon’s acumen for business drove them on to try restaurants and other things. I lost touch and forgot about the pair and heard nothing of them for 20 years. It was only when I saw their Body Shop success on TV, 10 years after they had started, that the penny dropped and I reconnected. 

Gordon was in New York in the summer of 1990 and saw a street paper being sold by an ex-homeless man; having quizzed him about how it worked, Gordon decided to support creating a street paper in London. The capital was awash with homeless people at the end of Thatcher’s period of enormous social change, and Gordon decided to try and bring some answers to the problem of rough sleeping.

I came in when Gordon had tried many other routes to market. I ran with it because, as Gordon pointed out, as an ex-offender, rough sleeper and street drinker I was like those that we were looking to help. And I was a sprightly 45 who had done very little with my chequered past and troubled life – other than write some rather questionable plays and aggressive poetry. 

So, if The Body Shop had not grown out of a shopping revolution back in the ’70s and ’80s, where more indulgences to the body were created, as well as trying to do something about the earth’s own body – ie look after it – then there would have been no Big Issue. If Gordon Roddick, with Anita, had not created the surpluses necessary to carry out this experiment then I dread to think what could have happened to the generations of homeless people, ex-homeless people, vulnerably accommodated people, and displaced people from other parts of the world. 

And I dread to think where I would have been, because history was not being kind to me back in the days when Gordon set me the challenge of making a street paper work. 

Thus I am, as I started out saying, a product of the ‘peppermint foot lotion revolution’. Out of which grew The Big Issue, Big Issue Invest, The International Network of Street Papers, the Homeless World Cup, and dozens and dozens of social businesses that owed their development to that initial bottle of something or other that people rushed to buy in a little shop down the back streets of Brighton. 

But in my opinion, the biggest achievement of The Big Issue flowing out of The Body Shop was the way it changed people’s views on the homeless, and increasingly the displaced, in our cities. The Big Issue questioned the idea that homeless and vulnerable people were simply to be administered to. That they were passive in their own situation. That they were casualties to be attended to, rather than people to be given the chance to make their own way in the world. Big Issue vendors earn their own money.  

The crisis we face now is different from that faced when The Body Shop shone its light on us. It is the deeply disruptive social policies and governmental mismanagement of budgets and investments that have created our current malaise. Added to which is the almost pathological creation of a self-harming social media that disturbs any chance of social tranquillity, and the return of global fierceness towards others. Ambitions for dominance and a fight for a new world order; they all compound themselves into the current lack of serenity in the world. 

So the recent announcement of the possible passing of The Body Shop throws up many questions for those of us who were supported, encouraged and nurtured by its unique take on trade and business. 

John Bird is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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