Anita Roddick: We shall always remember you

Image courtesy Treehugger

“Remember me!”

That’s how Anita Roddick, who died on 10 September of brain haemorrhage, autographed for me a copy of her book Taking It Personally: How to make Conscious Choices to Change the World.

You’re hard to forget, I told her at the time. And suddenly, memories are all we are left with. And what vivid ones!

Dame Anita Roddick (1942 – 2007), founder of The Body Shop, is one of the most unforgettable persons I have met. And now that she has moved on, far too soon, her memory challenges us to persist with the social, humanitarian and environmental causes that she so passionately championed.

Media obituaries described her as the ‘Queen of Green’, but Anita was much more than just green. She stood for justice, fairness and equality in both business practices and her campaigns. From ethical sourcing of raw materials for her beauty products to agitating for human rights and humane globalization, she was one activist who walked the talk.

“I came out of the womb as an activist. I’m part of the 1960s; it’s in my DNA,” she wrote in Newsweek earlier this year. “So the idea of dying with loads of money doesn’t appeal to me at all.”

She added: “I want to use the last years I have to get my hands dirty working for civil change. I want to be able to see the positive difference that money can make by giving away what I have.”

It’s not immediately clear if she made much headway with that, but the recently set up Roddick Foundation is the latest of a long line of campaigns, social projects and charities that she founded, energised or supported.

Her business acumen and commitment to global justice have been eulogised for years. She was equally adept in using the media and communications to draw attention to a cause, issue or incident.

Without going to any business school, Anita built up a global business that had over 2,200 stores in 55 countries by the time she let go of the company in 2004. And without attending any communication school, she became one of the best communicators of our troubled times – speaking eloquently for her company’s ideals and various charitable causes.

It all came from the heart, and it was passion –- not cold facts or even colder logic -– that drove her to be a phenomenally successful communicator.

Anita loved to say: “The job of a citizen is to keep his mouth open.” And her advice to activists was: Get Informed. Get Inspired. Get Outraged. Get Active.

Never underestimate the power of one, she said. As she liked to put it:
If many little people
In many little places
Did many little deeds
They can change the face of the Earth

And like the Energizer bunny, but with lot more purpose, she kept going, going and going. She loved the Dorothy Sayers quote: “A woman in advancing old age is unstoppable by any earthly force”.

It was on one of her many world travels that our paths first crossed. In the summer of 1991, I was invited to give a workshop at Youthquake, a Canadian environmental conference building up momentum for the Earth Summit scheduled for the following year. It was here that I met two of my all-time favourite activists: geneticist-turned-TV presenter David Suzuki, and Anita Roddick. The celebrity guest was Mutang Tu’o, a representative from the Penan indigenous tribe from Sarawak, Malaysia, whose jungles were in imminent danger of being logged.

Youthquake was part conference, part youth jamboree and altogether a great deal of fun. Anita turned up with her youngest daughter Sam, and spent hours just telling real life stories in her inimitable way – full of laughter and making fun of power and pomposity. After all these years, I can’t remember anything about what I myself spoke, but I know Anita’s remarks had a lasting influence.

In those heady days before the Earth Summit, email and the global Internet, activists had an easier and simpler choice of adversaries — Uncle Sam and World Bank usually came up among the top five. When economic globalization gathered pace, things became more complex and nuanced. Ah, for the good old days!

Anita marched fearlessly into this new world where corporate fortunes are being made at the speed of light, governments are waging wars to the tune of media-entertainment industries, and certain development agencies have turned poverty reduction and HIV/AIDS into cottage industries.

Marshall all facts, get analysis right, take your firing positions and never give up the good struggle, she seemed to suggest: there’s a war out there, and it wasn’t just in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In fact, Taking It Personally was her rough guide on how to tame run-away globalization. For it, Anita invited the top thinkers in the struggle for humanitarian trade policies to weigh in on the problem, and to give citizens the tools and inspiration to do work for constructive solutions. Among its contributors were Vandana Shiva, Paul Hawken (Natural Capitalism), Naomi Klein (No Logo), and Ralph Nader.

When she autographed a copy for me, she added with a mischievous grin that the book’s US distributors had been coerced to withdraw it. She showed a possible reason: that famous photo of President George W Bush reading a book with a young child — while holding it upside down!

It’s this topsy turvy, cruel world that Anita Roddick tried to make slightly better in a thousand different ways. We fellow travellers will sorely miss her, but there is ‘no bloody alternative’ but to just slog on.

— Nalaka Gunawardene; Kathmandu 12 September 2007

Read my earlier post: Anita Roddick, Angkor Wat and the ‘Development Pill’

BBC Online: Dame Anita Roddick dies at 64

One Response to “Anita Roddick: We shall always remember you”

  1. Jon Bono Says:

    I like your post, but want to point out that the US does not ban books. There is no tradition of book banning in the US. It’s a free country where anyone can criticize the president, or any public official. And believe me, we tear them apart! And still live to tell the tale. Some of us, like Michael Moore, have made a decent living out of it too. So Anita’s distributor must have had other reasons to withdraw the book. Can’t be official pressure.

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