When a company you've given birth to reaches the age of 26 -- a good five years past its twenty-first birthday -- it's probably about time you let it stand on its own two feet.
Likewise, as I step down as co-chair of The Body Shop, I realize you could also make that joke the other way around. I'm probably old enough now to stand on my own two feet, too.
My personality and that of The Body Shop have always been closely intertwined -- sometimes dangerously so. But then, starting your own business is a bit like that.
Someday, someone is going to write the truth about being an entrepreneur. It isn't something you learn, and it certainly isn't primarily about making money. Entrepreneurs are obsessed with freedom -- we're outsiders, which is why immigrants often make the best entrepreneurs. We're obsessed by a vision, an idea, and we're pathologically optimistic. We don't get worked up about processes, plans, or strategies.
The truth is that I never meant to be a big boss. But somehow, out of those beginnings, we -- and that "we" includes staff, customers, and franchisees -- created something that spread to 2,000 shops in nearly 50 countries.
Quite what that something was, and how it could be nurtured, is something I've spent much of the past quarter-century working out. I never went to business school or read economics textbooks. I believed business was about buying and selling, not some kind of arcane financial science.
But even if I had read them, and had gotten my MBA, I don't think it would have helped. There simply was no rulebook for running an inclusive, ethical company based -- above all -- on excitement and creativity. The fact that there now is such a rulebook is largely owed to what we did over the past quarter-century.
I believed then -- and still do, with a passion -- that there's a better way. It is possible to trade ethically, to commit to global social responsibility. I still think it's possible to rewrite the rulebook. That was always the vision. It's about creating a new business paradigm and showing that business can have a human face -- and God help us if we don't try. It's about empowering employees -- without being scared of them -- as the key to keeping them, and empowering them by creating a more inclusive system. It's about demonstrating that you forsake your values at the cost of your workforce. It's about paying attention to the aesthetics of business. It's all that. You may not get there, but at least you try to make the journey an honorable one.
That's why my journey was constantly experimental. I made mistakes constantly: if I had my time again, I wouldn't have hurried to the stock market, and I wouldn't have employed management consultants -- certainly not the ones we did employ. Sometimes it seemed like management by falling apart at the seams.
But I believe my ignorance of management theory was really important. I didn't stick to the rules because I didn't know there were any, and our very difference has been a major factor in our success. I didn't know not to run the company in an inclusive way, blurring the distinction between retailing and campaigning. I didn't know not to take the company to places -- community trade or human rights -- where our competitors would never follow.
Needless to say, this has never endeared me to the business world. Maybe I shouldn't have used the phrase "dinosaurs in pinstripes" in that 1987 speech at the CBI after we'd been voted company of the year (I looked up afterwards and there was Robert Maxwell, walking out in protest).
I'm glad I did, but it clearly never improved my relations with the business press. In the aftermath of the announcement that I was moving on, I noticed the code word "idiosyncratic" in the descriptions of The Body Shop. One article even used the word "flakiness."
Actually, I think that in a quarter century, we have proved that putting a child development center into a factory isn't necessarily an eccentric thing to do. And if you want creativity from your staff, trying to create something closer to joy in the workplace isn't actually flaky at all. Running a creative company isn't easy, but it's a good deal more worthwhile -- in all senses of the word -- than managing mediocrity.
What has also upset the old guard, I think, is how hard it's been to categorize us. We measured our success by how many people we employed -- in an era when stock markets positively frowned on employment. Most of the marketing awards we won came when we didn't even have a marketing department.
They've referred to us as if I were somehow interfering in the "serious" business of running a company. But for those who think share price is the highest and best ambition of all, ours was at its highest when I was in day-to-day control of the company. Perhaps over the past four years, when I haven't been, I should have "interfered" a little more.
The truth is that we flew in the face of accepted business thinking. I hope the company continues to do so -- but that means constantly changing.
My new role as creative consultant means that I'm licensed to focus on change. So I'm going to be challenging, questioning, encouraging and driving the company crazy with ideas, hoping that it becomes both braver and bolder as the years go by.
As you might expect, I'll also be ready with advice. I'll be urging them never to waste time holding a focus group about what their brand means. The Body Shop will always mean what it actually is -- and that means staying authentic, staying inclusive, and constantly striving to make social responsibility mean something.
I'm proud that the global social responsibility movement -- partly because of what we did -- is as powerful as it is today. But unless social responsibility has some guts to it, it's no more than an empty mixture of auditing and rhetoric.
The experience of being tear-gassed in Seattle in 1999 has taught me that we need more international regulation, not less, if innovative companies are going to make real progress in social responsibility.
But just as important, business is richer and more powerful than any other force on the planet and is in a better position than anyone to shape the world for the better. Business is, after all, a means to an end. The end is something that can energize the human spirit.
We aren't remembered for the things we've done in business for business reasons -- no businessperson ever is. What we're remembered for is what we gave back, and the style in which we gave it.
It's about what bottom lines we live by. Of course businesses have to make a profit, but if that's our only bottom line, we will shrivel and die.
The future lies in finding a broader bottom line to live by. If The Body Shop can stay true to a bottom line that is breathtakingly exciting, empowering, and inclusive -- not just an Enron-style sleight-of-hand, where all the goodies are for the top managers -- then it will stay at the forefront of retailing and business ideas.
It's the modern paradox of business. Sustainable profit doesn't come from an obsession with profit. Neither does change come from an explicit effort to make change, and it absolutely never comes about at the urging of outside consultants or as the result of a bloodless strategic plan.
It comes from the generosity of your ideals, and it will be accepted in The Body Shop if it is expressed in terms that staff and customers can relate to, both personally and professionally.
Whether The Body Shop remains radical will depend on its support system of NGOs, other progressive businesses, and visionary business academics who can give it the confidence to challenge the status quo. They know that the last thing the world needs is yet another dime-a-dozen cosmetics company. It does need examples of truly creative thinking about the role and the nature of business.
I was also described once as a "merchant of vision." I hope I can continue to live up to that title, both as a non-executive director of The Body Shop and as a creative consultant, as well as in my life outside. Either way, I'll continue to give the company the benefit of the main lesson I draw from its first 26 years: Have fun, put your labor where your love is -- and vice versa -- and go in the opposite direction from everyone else.
So I may be stepping down, but I'm not going away. Next week I'll be at a meeting on an island off the coast of Georgia, together with politicians and representatives of the National Labor Committee, about the next stage in the campaign to drive out child and sweatshop labor.
I believe the time is coming -- and soon -- when we can make sure that not one product made under this modern form of slavery reaches the British Isles. I certainly want to play my part in bringing that time a little nearer.
(An abridged version of this essay appeared on February 17, 2002 in the Observer.)