Competition between Profit and Principles: The ‘Natural’ Market Niche in 1980s Britain

Below are findings that are part of my research for my doctoral thesis on the entanglement of commercial business and moral responsibility in the 1970s and 1980s. My access to archives across England, and specifically London, was made possible by the opportunity to stay at the German Historical Institute London in July and August 2023. In particular, the Walgreens Boots Alliance Archive in Nottingham and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London provided me with relevant sources.

Today, a growing number of commercial companies across a variety of industries emphasize their moral motivations for business. In this way, they commit their actions to moral principles that are not directly related to the goal of profit maximization and growth but are primarily intended to serve society. These companies support moral (for example, ecological or social causes) through campaigns, advertisements, and their products. This leads to an entanglement of moral and political messages with consumption, enabling the consumer to acquire not only a certain object or service, but also the moral implication that comes with it.

The practice has not only existed since the twenty-first century, as historians are increasingly pointing out. Recent historical research has stepped up its efforts to identify implicit norms and moral contexts of modern market economies in order to answer the question of the effect of their moral embedding. As part of this endeavour, my thesis aims to make a contribution to the interdisciplinary discourse on the ‘moral economy’ that has been reframed in recent years.1 Within the framework of this discourse, authors such as Joshua Clark Davis, Jürgen Finger, Benjamin Möckel, Tanja Skambraks, and Martin Lutz refer more or less explicitly to commercial actors in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.2 Ultimately, the globally effective narrative of the responsible company has not yet been examined holistically from a historical perspective and as a diachronic development.

In order to fill this gap, I am examining, among other companies in Britain and Germany, the British company The Body Shop. Germany and Britain were chosen for my project because both countries are characteristic examples of the implementation of mass consumer society in Western European societies after 1945 and illustrate in their own way how these developments were linked to the social, political, and ecological consequences of consumption as well as to the entrepreneurial context.3 They were among the first countries in Western Europe to develop socially and ecologically responsible businesses, adapting to the change in values triggered by social and ecological movements. In Great Britain, compared to Germany, many social and ecological initiatives were far more open to attempts to use consumer society for their own ends. Because of this, and due to transatlantic relationships with the United States, where Corporate Social Responsibility discourses were already underway in the 1950s, Great Britain is considered a European trendsetter in this field.4 Besides companies like Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia, the British company The Body Shop is therefore an early example of a socially and ecologically responsible way of doing business in modern market societies.5 With its early ‘profits with principles’ approach, it is considered a pioneer of ethical consumption and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), a concept that is now common across industries.

The Body Shop was founded as a small ‘one-woman business’ in Brighton in 1976 by Anita Roddick, who presented herself as the public face of the company in the following decades.6 In the 1970s and 1980s, the company expanded rapidly, first in the UK and soon internationally, not least through a franchise system developed by Gordon Roddick, Anita’s husband, who dealt primarily with the business side of the brand. Consequently, franchisees opened branded shops around the world, making The Body Shop an international company and the Roddicks multimillionaires. The company’s success story has been told many times by the founder herself, and the media and is a key part of its ‘mythology’.7 In my thesis, I explore both this brand mythology and the geopolitics of the company’s location and corporate morality.

What should be emphasized is the fact that The Body Shop incorporated social and environmental values into its products, which were starting to define an ethical niche market in the cosmetics industry in the 1970s and 1980s.8 Traditionally, cosmetic retailers sold products that primarily promised women beauty and youth, backed up with huge advertising campaigns. The Body Shop broke with this tradition. Instead of conventional marketing (the company advertised the fact that it did not have a marketing department for decades), it communicated its commitment to causing as little harm as possible to people, animals, and the planet, getting this message across very clearly through the founder, its visual appearance, and its mission statements. Since 1985, this has been actively reflected in campaigns, for example for female self-esteem, against whaling, or against the destruction of the rainforest. Messages like ‘Against Animal Testing’, ‘Community Trade’, or ‘Made from Recycled Paper’ were depicted on posters in shops, on flyers, on booklets, or directly on the products.9 The implication that ‘natural’ beauty could be attained through natural ingredients, such as jojoba, avocado, or hemp, had been at the heart of the company’s products since the first Body Shop opened in Brighton, where the characteristic ‘Boston bottles’ with handwritten labels were lined up on wooden shelves. Anita Roddick’s philosophy thus encompassed aspects such as ethical labour practices and sourcing, but it was also about providing customers with honest information on the products and their natural ingredients that did not overstate their benefits. My thesis explores this conflation of ethical and natural in the brand’s philosophy and aesthetic, as well as the implicit evocation of the geographical origins of its products’ ingredients.

Body Shop products on display at the Littlehampton Museum, UK: blue shampoo bottle (seaweed & birch) and small, black tub of cream (avocado nourishing cream) marked as exhibit 16.
Body Shop products currently on display at the Littlehampton Museum, UK; Littlehampton was Anita Roddick’s hometown and remains the location of The Body Shop headquarters until today. Photo by Janis Meder.

As a ‘first mover’, The Body Shop captured the interests and concerns of the ‘baby boomers’. Influenced by 1960s counterculture and the growing environmental movement, the ‘baby boomer’ consumer segment was more conscious of social and environmental issues, seeking out products that were sold by like-minded companies who demonstrated responsibility. Since the 1980s, experts have gradually invoked the trend towards ethical consumption. For example, the Green Consumer Guide, published in 1988 by sustainability consultants John Elkington and Julia Hailes, provided information on where to shop ethically and highlighted the social power of the ‘green consumer’.10 The Body Shop was therefore one of the first companies in a new market niche of hair and skincare products inspired by natural ingredients and marketed with reference to issues that went beyond beauty.

It was not long before companies began following the change in consumers’ behaviour and taking The Body Shop’s lead. From the late 1980s onwards, the growing ‘green’ trend established a ‘natural’ market which had no clear definition but was specialized and grew rapidly. More and more competing companies sold products that were inspired by natural ingredients. In Britain, the pharmacy chain Boots launched a supposedly innovative ‘Natural Collection’ in September 1988. The range consisted of hair, skin, and bath products containing essences of flowers, herbs, and tropical fruits, and packaged in bottles of a similar shape and colour to The Body Shop’s trademark collection.

Three bottles of toner in the Boots' 'Natural Collection' range at the Walgreens Boots Alliance Archive in Nottingham, UK. Each bottle is a different pastel colour according to its scent: green (rosemary and witchhazel), yellow (grapefruit), and peach (orange blossom).
Products from Boots’ ‘Natural Collection’ range, viewed at the Walgreens Boots Alliance Archive in Nottingham, UK. Photo by Janis Meder.11

Boots’ ‘Natural Collection’ gift strategy for Christmas business in 1988, which I viewed at the Walgreens Boots Alliance Archive in Nottingham, sets out how the range was a direct response to The Body Shop’s success.12 In addition, Boots planned to introduce a ‘Not Tested on Animals’ statement and to move to recycled bags in order to raise awareness of green issues amongst consumers. Yet, in contrast to The Body Shop, Boots did not actively conduct environmental campaigns or put forward political messages that were considered controversial by representatives of the public. On the contrary, Boots advertised the ‘Natural Collection’ specifically through print and TV ads. The focus was on presenting a youthful, fun, and colourful image, and appealing to self-indulgence. Finally, the 1988 gift strategy concluded that the ‘Natural Collection’ customer was not the conscience-led Body Shop consumer. It shows that the aim was to capitalize on key product areas of The Body Shop rather than to follow the ‘business with principles’ approach, which seeks to transform the entire economy in an ethical way. Consequently, as a company with tradition, expertise, and more financial opportunities and high-street shops, Boots had an infrastructural advantage and was able to sell its products for 10 per cent below The Body Shop’s prices.13

Accordingly, throughout the 1990s, the ‘natural’ market niche that The Body Shop helped to establish was increasingly challenged by the competition. Different retailers fought for dominance of the natural market. While established companies like Boots launched new ‘natural’ ranges, new chains appeared in industrial nations, such as Bath & Body Works in the United States. The Body Shop reacted to the tough competition by constantly presenting itself as fighting against a heartless mainstream, and with repeated attempts to restructure the company. Yet lawsuits and attacks on the company were becoming more frequent in the media. TV productions such as Channel 4’s Dispatches programme and Jon Entine’s Business Ethics article ‘Shattered Image’ publicly accused the company and its founder of hypocrisy in terms of its stance on animal testing and the natural characteristics of its products.14 For some, The Body Shop lost all credibility when the Roddicks sold the company to French multinational L’Oréal in 2006, a company that Anita Roddick had criticized throughout her career. It was largely understood as an incorporation into commercial structures, in short, as a ‘sell-out’.15

Boots’ orientation towards The Body Shop shows that the much discussed ‘moralization’ of modern markets by changing consumer behaviour was not just an isolated development driven by individual actors. It was a process that already established companies joined in, and it contributed to a normalization of moral messages, more specifically around environmental and social causes in business. The power of the consumer, as John Elkington and Julia Hailes describe it, may have changed the face of the retail industry.16 However, without wishing to contribute to a general ‘greenwashing’ discourse, I ask whether, rather than transforming ‘the’ economy, the social responsibility movement in business has been undermined by commercial causes. Has ‘the’ economy, or have certain industries, really become more ethical in the sense that Roddick was striving for? Today, consumers are certainly much more used to moral messages when making purchases, and the commercial market for ‘natural’ cosmetics and ethical products is now well established. As a testimony to this, the ‘Natural Collection’ range has continued since 1988 and can still be found in Boots shops across the UK today.


Featured image: The Body Shop at the Toronto Eaton Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Photograph provided via Wikimedia Commons under a CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED licence.



Cite this blog post
Janis Meder (2024, February 29). Competition between Profit and Principles: The ‘Natural’ Market Niche in 1980s Britain. German Historical Institute London Blog. Retrieved April 14, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vxhq

  1. Karl Polanyi’s 1944 work The Great Transformation forms an essential reference point for the idea of the social situatedness of the economy. The British historian E. P. Thompson took up Polanyi’s perspective in the early 1970s and coined the term ‘moral economy’. See Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (New York, 1944); Edward P. Thompson, ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’, Past & Present, 50 (1971), 76–136. []
  2. See Joshua Clark Davis; From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs (New York, 2017); Jürgen Finger and Benjamin Möckel, Ökonomie und Moral im langen 20. Jahrhundert: Eine Anthologie (Göttingen, 2022); Tanja Skambraks and Martin Lutz, Reassessing the Moral Economy: Religion and Ethics from Ancient Greece to the 20th Century (Cham, 2023). []
  3. For another comparison between West German and British companies after 1945 see David Paulson, Family Firms in Postwar Britain and Germany: Competing Approaches (Woodbridge, 2023). []
  4. See e.g. Howard R. Bowen, Social Responsibilities of the Businessman (Iowa City, 1953). []
  5. See the Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream founders’ thoughts on socially responsible business, e.g. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, Ben & Jerry’s Double Dip: Lead with Your Values and Make Money, Too (New York, 1997); Ben Cohen and Mal Warwick, Values-Driven Business: How to Change the World, Make Money, and Have Fun (San Francisco, 2006); see Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard’s views on the topic: Yvon Chouinard and Vincent Stanley, The Responsible Company: What We’ve Learned From Patagonia’s First 40 Years (Ventura, 2012). []
  6. Anita Roddick was referred to as the ‘Green Queen’ and given similar titles in the media throughout her career. []
  7. See e.g. Anita Roddick’s autobiographical publications: Anita Roddick and Russell Miller, Body and Soul: How to Succeed in Business and Change the World (London, 1991); Anita Roddick, Business as Unusual: The Journey of Anita Roddick and The Body Shop (London, 2000). []
  8. See e.g. Geoffrey Jones, Profits and Sustainability: A History of Green Entrepreneurship (Oxford, 2017). []
  9. Campaign posters and other Body Shop items can be viewed in the study rooms at the Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington, London. []
  10. See John Elkington and Julia Hailes, The Green Consumer Guide: From Shampoo to Champagne—High-Street Shopping for a Better Environment (London, 1988); John Elkington and Julia Hailes, The Green Consumer’s Supermarket Shopping Guide (London, 1989). []
  11. See Walgreens Boots Alliance Archive, Nottingham: Box M899: 1988–1997, 22/13/9-11. []
  12. See Walgreens Boots Alliance Archive, Nottingham: WBA/BT/11/17/5/22 (2253): 2. Gift Strategy (including Natural Collection). []
  13. Ibid. On the history of Boots see e.g. Stanley Chapman, Jesse Boot of Boots the Chemists (Worcester/London, 1974). []
  14. See Jon Entine, ‘Shattered Image’, Business Ethics, 8/5 (1994), 23–8. []
  15. See ‘The Body Shop: What Went Wrong?’, 9 Feb. 2017, at [https://www.bbc.com/news/business-38905530], accessed 9 Jan. 2024. []
  16. See Elkington and Hailes, The Green Consumer Guide and The Green Consumer’s Supermarket Shopping Guide. []

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Janis Meder

Janis Meder is a PhD student in Modern History at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. His research interests lie in the historic entanglements of business, culture, and activism in Western Europe and the United States. He holds a BA and MEd from the Freie Universität Berlin. As a GHIL scholarship holder, Janis Meder spent two months conducting research in London.

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