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The Zombie Shop?

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The Body Shop is dead, declare several Naturewatch and anti-animal cruelty organisations after the much-publicised L’Oreal acquisition. The Body Shop went from the “good guys” side on many of these organisations’ ethical shopping guides to the “bad guys” side – pretty much overnight.

Today, on 1st of April 2006, some had even planned a Day Of Action event to publicly protest about the sell-out. An international Day of Action is planned for the 29th of April.

This is not the first time The Body Shop has come under scrutiny. The 90s leaflet and boycott campaigns attempted to dig deeper behind the marketing strategies and public image. This time, the big question is whether all this hoopla around L’Oreal and TBS deter the average customer. It’s one thing to end up putting off a hardcore set of followers (that’s what TBS used to inspire.) For quite some time now, TBS has gone after the “average customer” instead and various activism-heavy campaigns have been replaced by the sort of 3 for 2 promotions that you might spot at any typical UK High Street retailer.

During TBS’ golden era in the 80s, there was nothing average about the campaigns, stores, or products. Anita Roddick started her business in Brighton in the 70s, with just one small store, then opened a second one with a £4000 loan from a former garage owner (now TBS’ biggest single shareholder) – but it could be argued that the influence of Mark Constantine and his creative team helped to lift her business to superstar status. The marketing concepts of ethical consumerism were already brewing, but when Mark introduced the anti-animal testing slant to the business and produced most of TBS’ best-selling products for a decade or so to boot, things went from quirky to global at breakneck speed.

When the Roddicks brought all manufacturing in-house and parted ways with Mr. Constantine, many consumers didn’t notice an immediate difference, as The Body Shop had purchased the recipes and continued to make at least some of the best-selling items. This did not last. Dubious new products were introduced (dubious, in the sense that they did not seem all that “natural” after all) and by the mid 90s, as consumer awareness of cosmetic ingredients and business issues increased, The Body Shop started to lose credibility with the original customer base it had worked so hard to develop. Add to that, the extreme mistakes made in their business model (franchising and over-expanding beyond what their infrastructure could handle), by the late 90s, the value of the company had actually drastically declined, despite its inflated size.

What’s particularly depressing is that, once upon a time, TBS actually had a genuine positive influence on individuals’ lives and on the entire legislative jungle surrounding animal testing on cosmetics. Now money spent at TBS will go to the pockets of the biggest cosmetics giant in the world — not inherently bad per se, business is business — but sadly, since L’Oreal does not share the principles that really made a difference, this acquisition has effectively removed the biggest single “pro-ethical cosmetics” voice from the marketplace. I suppose it could be said that TBS has been washing its ideals off bit by bit for quite some time in the lead-up to this, so the unholy marriage with L’Oreal is not really as unholy as it seems on the surface.

That voice had long since left the building.

It will be very interesting to watch what happens next. I would like to put forward my thoughts on this: The Body Shop is not dead; it’s a zombie. It’s been dead for quite some time but still seems to be able to potter around. L’Oreal has the funds to turbo-charge this walking dead of a company, so we could soon witness the Thriller of the century. It’s also worth noting that not all anti-animal cruelty organisations have whipped TBS off their ethical shopping lists. This might, of course, have something to do with the fact that some ethical shopping guide producers charge the companies for inclusion on the lists, thereby effectively selling endorsement (and making a business of it).

The whole world of various animal testing policies is somewhat bewildering. Fixed cut-off dates and a whole host of confusing mission statements often leave consumers so confused that when making choices about products, they just naturally gravitate towards convenience and pleasure rather than to the company whose morals and ethics most closely match with their own. I’m certainly guilty of this; choosing a product because it was there, or because I liked the way it felt, rather than because I knew what the company’s stance was on, say, recycling. I wouldn’t say such basic behaviour was to be categorically condemned, but I would say that the biggest mistake TBS made wasn’t the sale to L’Oreal, it was their drop in product quality, which inevitably led to consumers not being quite so drawn in by these very basic shopping behaviours. Enter a period of declining profits, ripen for takeover; we know the rest.

The genius of TBS in the 80s was that by attracting customers by providing new and innovative products that not only felt good but provided nice benefits, the average customer was reeled in by those things first; the education about ethical consumerism happened as part of the process. It was the perfect combination: buy something that you like and feel good about buying it.

Today, when more so-called ethical companies get bought out by the not-so-ethical ones, it is getting harder to decide whether something labeled as “fair trade” or “not tested on animals” really means what you think it means. Add to that the premium price you often pay for such products, and one day soon you might find that consumers increasingly characterised by apathy rather than activism.

There may very well be a backlash in the wings for many big corporations who either buy takeaway ethics to go (like L’Oreal just did) or develop special “Fair Trade” brands in house to cash in on the lucrative ethical-consumer market. Unless the products are actually better than the alternatives, people might not care.

Further reading: Compassionate shopping guide (by Naturewatch).

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About Nukapai

I learned to write before I could read and my first story was published when I was only 9 years old. I'm interested in a range of topics - particularly in science fiction, fantasy, horror, illustration, cosmetics industry, consumer psychology, marketing and perfumery. I keep a personal blog at http://www.volatilefiction.co.uk