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FEATURE | September 2003


The Fierce Kind
In business and in life, Anita Roddick proves it’s not hard to be soft.

Ms. Fall 2003

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Kindness, according to Webster’s, is the state of being affectionate, loving, helpful, solicitous, forbearing, sympathetic and gentle. Kindness, according to Anita Roddick, is much thicker-skinned: It can be "fierce, tenacious ... and sometimes positively revolutionary."

Webster's kindness is sweet but a bit insipid; Roddick makes kindness a feminist value.

That's what comes across in her new book, A Revolution in Kindness (Anita Roddick Books, 2003). Kindness is as powerful as nonviolent protest, as marching for peace, as giving birth, as dispensing tough love. Kindness considers the means as valuable as the ends. Kindness seeks the greatest good for all concerned, not a win at all costs. Kindness may be self-serving at times-one is sometimes kind to extract similar kindness from others-but what's wrong with that? We've seen the alternative-I'll bomb you before you even think of bombing me!-and where it can take us.

People don’t think enough about kindness these days -- at least not in the ways Roddick, the 61-year-old British activist and founder of skin-and hair-product retailer The Body Shop, wants us to.

"I don't mean the random act," she says, recalling the bumper sticker urging us to "commit random acts of kindness," and adds: "I mean, let's take institutions and see what happens if you overlay the word 'kindness.' Which means thoughtfulness. Which means consideration. And which means action."

We're at a restaurant in Hollywood, in the midst of a fancy new shopping center, and Roddick herself seems kind indeed (what a disappointment if she weren’t) -which means friendly, open, generous with her time and attention. She also turns out to be earthy and salty, fun-loving, fast-talking, and a volcano of energy and ideas. Despite my initial protest she insists I have a glass of wine along with her and her friend Kate Maher-Purcell, one of the contributors to Kindness.

In her book-one of two recent efforts from her own publishing imprint-she has gathered together short essays on kind-minded topics. What, the book asks, would our world look like if we were kinder to the environment, kinder in politics, kinder in business?

The answers-which come from theologians, homeless people, celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Annie Lennox, and others-are simple but profound. I'm especially drawn to a quote by sociology professor Peter Phillips in the section "What If the Media Were Required to Be Kind": Kindness, he writes, "can only emerge When heart-centered individual reporters are allowed to pursue news stories that encompass their natural, internalized values."

In Roddick’s own business, she tried to reflect those values. Even after The Body Shop went public in 1984, she insisted that success be measured by more than the bottom line. So the company proceeded to set up community-volunteering opportunities for staffers, most of whom are women under 25-and paid them to help, for example, rebuild a hospital in Romania. "It's the experience that changes your values, we found," says Roddick.

The Body Shop helped raise the profile of the animal-testing issue, and began not just purchasing products from grassroots women’s cooperatives but also encouraging other body-care companies to do the same. "I want mates, I want friends to play in this business of fair trade justice," Roddick explains. "I want a cosmetic industry that doesn't just talk about the next way of getting rid of a wrinkle."

Roddick was born into an Italian Catholic immigrant family with an irrepressible mother (who's still going strong) and teachers who "never tried to suppress my brio." Like her mom, she had little regard for her church’s priests, but was stirred by the words and deeds of Sister Immaculate Conception-who taught her to call hobos "Knights of the Road" and treat them in kind accordance.

A powerful streak of spiritually grounded activism still runs through Roddick; the other book she's recently produced, Brave Hearts Rebel Spirits: A Spiritual Activists Handbook (Roddick Books, 2003), chronicles the inspiring work of faith-based women and men, including Catholic peace organizer Mairead Maguire and Hindu anti-globalization expert Vandana Shiva.

As a young wife with two daughters, Roddick-who previously was a teacher and ran a hotel with her husband, Gordon-opened her first Body Shop in Brighton, England, in 1976, and her first foreign franchise two years later (there are now over 1,900 stores in 50 countries). The Body Shop went public in 1984, and at the height of its success, in 1992, was worth 700 million pounds (about $1.3 billion).

Business slipped when mainstream retailers appropriated Body Shop ideas, such as promoting cruelty-free products, and problems arose with franchisees, but the company is still a force to be reckoned with. Roddick, however, resigned as chief executive in 1998, and in 2002 stepped down as co-chair.

Now she's under contract to The Body Shop as a mentor, gadfly, anarchist, irritant" (otherwise known as a consultant). And she's made activism pretty much a full-time job. "The stuff I would do in The Body Shop if I was running it is the stuff I'm doing outside of The Body Shop," she says.

A month or so after our interview, I receive a press release from Roddick, headlined-to her mischievous delight, I'm sure-"Prison Bans Kindness." It refers to the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where she was told it would be a "threat to internal security' if inmate Herman Wallace were allowed to receive his copy of Roddick’s book (to which-as a member of the long-imprisoned Angola 3-he contributed).

"Kindness is a moral threat now!" Roddick rails to me on the phone. "Goodness is probably an act of terrorism. And generosity of spirit is seen as an act of violence. You throw bombs at someone and it's called an act of peace."

It's probably the word Revolution in the title that made prison officials itchy. But Roddick certainly doesn’t want anyone killed with kindness. Rather, she sees it as an instrument of change. Kindness makes us work harder to do the right thing. Kindness makes us consider others' feelings and not just our own. Kindness makes us feel larger without making someone else smaller. Being fair and doing good, with kindness, makes life richer.

"I don’t want to ever say I want to change the world" says Roddick. "That's bullshit. I just want to be able to see if everything I can do can change one person’s life, make it easier. Then you can bloody go to the grave thinking, 'I did the best I could.'"