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.

  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. []

The German Naval Memorial in Laboe

The German Naval Memorial in Laboe, a coastal town in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, is dedicated to those who have lost their lives at sea. It was first envisioned as a national memorial to German sailors who were killed in the line of duty during the First World War and has developed into an international site to commemorate civilians and military personnel alike.

I first heard about it in 2018, when I met the historian Dr Jann M. Witt at a conference hosted jointly by Gateways to the First World War and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Dr Witt kindly offered me work experience at the Naval Memorial, and in 2023 I finally made it to Laboe.

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Trial and Error: The Federal Republic of Germany’s Failed First National Day of Remembrance and Where to Go from There

On 7 September 1950, the improvised West German parliamentary building—the Bundeshaus in Bonn—was packed with people. The Federal Chancellor with his cabinet, the majority of both chambers of parliament, as well as a significant number of honorary guests from high society had come together for the first ‘National Day of Remembrance of the German People’ (Nationaler Gedenktag des deutschen Volkes). Even the Allied High Commissioners were there.1

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  1. See C. E. L., ‘Ein Tag wie jeder andere’, Die Zeit, 7 Sept. 1950, at [https://www.zeit.de/1950/36/ein-tag-wie-jeder-andere], accessed 12 June 2023. []

A Short Walk through London’s History during the Second World War: Financial Experts in Exile

It is a great source of satisfaction to me to feel that we are taking advantage of the wonderful opportunity which fate has afforded us of getting to know and understand each other better. We are meeting as a family. Family discussions can be pointed, but often that spirit strengthens the family.1

This quote stems from a speech given by the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Howard Kingsley Wood, to a group of Continental European financial policymakers and central bankers in London in 1942, including the finance ministers of the Allied governments in exile, their principal advisers and secretaries of state, and the governors of the central banks in exile. What had happened? Why had the leaders of European economic and financial policy come together in the midst of the Second World War, and why did the British Chancellor of the Exchequer speak of a ‘wonderful opportunity’ in this context?

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  1. National Archives, T 172/2015, Speech at Lunch to Allied Finance Ministers, 22 Feb. 1942. []

Philip Quaque in Cape Coast 1766–1816

Cape Coast Castle is one of more than thirty forts which European trading companies erected on the coast of modern-day Ghana between the fifteenth and the nineteenth century. The castle has long been a symbol of one of the most heinous crimes in history: the Atlantic slave trade. Visitors who tour the building in the twenty-first century often project their feelings of anger, grief, and regret onto the inert structure. Some of them are even convinced that spirits roam the slave dungeons, courtyards, and parapets.1 One of these spirits is the Reverend Philip Quaque, the first person of African descent to ever be ordained in the Anglican Church. Quaque is buried in the fort’s courtyard under a couple of stone slabs bearing his initials. His story, or at least a version of it, features in every guided tour.2

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  1. Bayo Holsey, Routes of Remembrance: Refashioning the Slave Trade in Ghana (Chicago and London, 2008), 151–95. []
  2. Ibid. 186–7. []

Sing a Line with Coca Wine: The European Rediscovery of Coca

‘Cocaine flashed like a meteor before the eyes of the medical world.’1

The discovery of cocaine turned out to be an exceptional novelty in the medicinal and pharmaceutical world of the late nineteenth century but the history of the raw material of the drug, however, went far back in the originating countries. For millennia, coca had been the ‘sacred plant of the Inca’, who regarded it as a gift from the gods, and their priests used it first and foremost in ancient rituals.2 There was a brief caesura in the use of coca when the conquistadores considered coca consumption an indigenous vice, but they soon changed their minds, and the habit spread among all social classes and became a cultural marker for the native population.3 The drug enjoyed popularity in western South America due to it alleviating altitude sickness in the Andes and suppressing hunger, but it also had pain-relieving properties.4 Convinced by the plant’s marvellous effects on the human body, the conquistadores contemplated the introduction of coca into the European market, but they failed in their plan because of underdeveloped means of transport and a lack of knowledge about proper storage, which impacted coca’s potency.

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  1. ‘Cocaine’, Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art, 3/114 (6 March 1886), 147. []
  2. Joseph Acosta, The Naturall and Morall Historie of the East and West Indies, trans. E. G. (London, 1604), 273; Joseph Kennedy, Coca Exotica. The Illustrated Story of Cocaine (London, 1985), p. x. []
  3. ‘Some Popular Remedies’, Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Art, 12/577 (19 January 1895), 44; Kennedy, Coca Exotica, 15, 26, 27. []
  4. J. J. von Tschudi, Travels in Peru, During the Years 1838–1842, on the Coast, in the Sierra, across the Cordilleras and the Andes, into the Primeval Forests, trans. Thomasina Ross (London, 1847), 452, 453, 454. []

The Postcolonial Nation in the Museum: World Appropriation and National Identity at the Humboldt Forum and British Museum

… the great increase in the medieval and ethnographical collections, and the great interest taken by the public in the British antiquity most especially, render it highly desirable, or rather quite necessary that a separate department should be created for them. The necessity for adopting this course seems self-evident to Mr Panizzi, and he thinks therefore that he need not dwell upon it.1

On 9 March 1866, the director of the British Museum, Anthony Panizzi, used these words to appeal to the trustees of the museum for the creation of a ‘Department of British and Medieval Antiquities and Ethnography’. Two months later, the founding of the department was approved. Along with Romano-British antiquities, medieval objects, and the ethnological holdings, it also housed the collection of European prehistory. While the quotation and the department name might initially suggest that the merging of these seemingly disparate holdings was an administrative decision guided by pragmatism, a closer look reveals that the contemporary social penetration of an evolutionist model of human cultural development formed its actual basis: the ethnological collections had been brought together with the British European archaeology collections ‘as materials for reconstructing the lost portions of European history’,2 as the newly appointed Keeper of the Department Augustus Wollaston Franks had said a little earlier about the central Christy holdings within the collection.

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  1. British Museum Central Archives, CE5/77, 9 March 1866 (Officers’ Reports to General Meetings and Standing Committee, 1805–69), cited in David M. Wilson, The British Museum. A History (London 2002), 142. []
  2. British Museum Central Archives, CE4/84, 7 November 1865, Document C (Officers’ Reports to General Meetings and Standing Committee, 1805–69. []

All Along the Peace Walls – Revisiting 1960s and 1970s Belfast

I had the absolute pleasure of spending a day exploring Northern Ireland’s capital Belfast with Kevin McGlinchey in June 2022.1 Kevin replied to my letter to the editor of the Irish Independent seeking people to share their experiences of growing up on the island of Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s for my Ph.D. project. He instantly agreed to take me on a trip down memory lane, as he ‘valued the opportunity to bring to life an historical, personal, local and community experience of this particular area of Belfast and Belfast as a whole during both good and bad times.’2 Kevin was born in 1950 and grew up in Belfast, where he witnessed the beginning of the Troubles as a teenager.3

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  1. I sincerely thank Kevin and his sister Deirdre McGlinchey for their time and willingness to share their youth experiences with me, without which my research would not be possible. I am also grateful to Dr Séan Ó Duibhir for valuable comments on an earlier draft of this article. []
  2. Kevin McGlinchey, email to the author, 3 Nov. 2022. []
  3. ‘The Troubles’ is a euphemism for the Northern Ireland conflict, which lasted from the late 1960s to the 1980s. The Troubles are often considered to be a religious conflict between the Catholic and Protestant populations of Northern Ireland, but were in fact caused by Ireland’s colonial past, which was marked by political and confessional frictions. ‘[T]he Northern Irish conflict is not a religious conflict . . . Although religion has a place—and indeed an important one—in the repertoire of conflict in Northern Ireland, the majority of participants see the situation as primarily concerned with matters of politics and nationalism, not religion.’ Richard Jenkins, Rethinking Ethnicity: Arguments and Explorations (London, 1997), 120. A summary of this view can be found in Claire Mitchell, Religion, Identity and Politics in Northern Ireland: Boundaries of Belonging and Belief (Aldershot, 2006), 5: ‘The central argument is that religion is an ethnic marker, but that it is not generally politically relevant in and of itself. Instead, ethnonationalism lies at the root of the conflict.’ For more background to the conflict, see CAIN Archive: Conflict and Politics in Northern Ireland, accessed 20 Feb. 2023. []

A View of Europe through the Prism of the Rhine

Journeying down the river Rhine and diving into its past reveals a new endeavour in European history. The Rhine basin demarcates and crosses the borders of nine European states, creating a need for cooperation, posing an inherent risk of conflict, and calling static ideas of space into question. From its source down to its estuary, it inspires various images and definitions of a Europe on the one hand, and different understandings of water management issues on the other, as well as informing how these two dimensions come together. These ideas about Europe may be geographical, based on organizational structures, or charged with symbolism.

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Essays and Reviews: The ‘Greatest Religious Crisis of the Victorian Age’?

One of the best-known controversies in nineteenth-century Britain revolved around the publication of a collection of theological writings in March 1860 titled Essays and Reviews. The book, edited by John William Parker, consisted of seven essays that explored various topics, such as the evidence for Christianity, religious thought in England, and—perhaps most controversially—the interpretation of scripture. The underlying theme behind these essays was theological methodology—namely, the exploration of German-speaking Protestant theological discussions within Anglican theological thought. Essays and Reviews was a cautious, partly implicit acknowledgement of scientific findings and historical–philological methods.

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