Business as Unusual

Anita Roddick, CEO of The Body Shop, presented an alternate view to Harvard Business School students last week: business is not about money, it is about responsibility. Several students who left early in the presentation, mostly likely wishing that they had attended the Color Squad games instead, were probably not ready for Roddick’s healthy dose of political activism. However, for those first year students that enjoyed the Society & Enterprise Foundations classes this week, the theme of civic responsibility echoes the business ethics that Roddick also advocates in her book, Business as Unusual.
Roddick stated that business enterprises have outgrown political institutions at the local, national, and supernational level. Consequently, a growing realization exists that businesses have to play a social role that accords with their position in society. Roddick believes that if companies are in business solely to make money, no consumer can fully trust what they say or do.
Roddick feels that purchases are moral choices, and she chooses not to buy gasoline from Shell because of its practices in Nigeria and Burma. Shell’s new head of social accountability conceded, “Consumers have a choice. They can vote with their wallet.” And in fact, they do. For instance, Nike’s sales dipped when the media leaked rumors of children in Thailand manufacturing their cross-trainer shoes. Consumer power has proven effective when consumers buy intelligently, demand information on products, or participate in boycotts.
People respond to The Body Shop’s redefinition of business, and consider The Body Shop’s social and environmental values part of its DNA. Roddick admits that The Body Shop achieves very little financial gain in the short term through socially and environmentally responsible business practices. The Body Shop chooses such practices because its employees feel that it is the most humane way of doing business.
Roddick implemented ethical and environmental auditing to complement the usual annual report on financial and operational performance. Because Roddick sees advertising as waste, The Body Shop promotes its products by linking them to political and social messages. For example, The Body Shop paints pictures of missing persons on the side of its trucks, an activity that has yielded a high success rate of person recovery. The business community has great potential for immense, lasting impact that could dwarf efforts of government and non-governmental organizations.
Because her stakeholder rather than purely shareholder approach to business conflicts with the traditional material taught at the top business schools, several years ago, Roddick would not have hired a MBA. In a recent encounter with Stanford MBA students, however, she realized that these very talented students were motivated by personal values, but lacked the understanding of how to intertwine public good with economic interests. Roddick challenges future MBA programs to incorporate the language and action of social justice, human rights, community economics and ethics as well as productivity of the human soul.
The audience of Harvard Business School students admired Roddick’s determination to satisfy not just the financial bottom line, but the social and environmental bottom line as well. Many left the presentation with a renewed optimism that the education at HBS could serve as an ideal vehicle to promote sustainable development. For those MBAs that seek a greater challenge than just profit, Roddick presented a difficult but achievable path to social and environmental contribution.
The event was co-sponsored by the Women’s Student Association (WSA) and the Sustainable Development Society (SDS).