Body Shop takeover – Durham Story

A bad day for animal welfare?

What happens when a cosmetic company that prides itself on its ethical stance and animal-friendly image is sold to a multinational that has long been criticised for a range of unethical practices? Christine Lee reports.

With today’s wheels-within-wheels style of business, who owns whom can be a moral maze for potential ethical consumers. However, few people can have been unaware of l’Oréal’s takeover of the Body Shop last month. But perhaps people are unaware that l’Oréal has been subject to accusations of testing on animals and of being part of a price-fixing cartel of French perfume houses, or indeed that l’Oréal is part-owned by the Nestlé corporation, which in turn is subject to boycott campaigns for using child labour on African cocoa farms, promoting formula milk for babies rather than breast milk, and various other issues.

Body Shop founder Anita Roddick (who in the past has been a harsh critic of both l’Oréal’s animal testing policies and of its attitude towards women) claims that the acquisition will help the cosmetics giant to develop more ethical practices, while the l’Oréal chief executive Sir Lindsay Owen-Jones commented “We are just as convinced that it is urgent and important to put an end to all animal testing in the cosmetics industry.” And even animal rights campaigning group PETA have stated they believe that l’Oréal will learn a lot from the Body Shop.

Nevertheless there are many who remain skeptical of the motivation of both parties, and it seems to be the animal testing question that is provoking the fiercest reactions. Few people who took time to think about the issues would dispute that there really is no moral justification for animals to suffer for the sake of human vanity and a fear of growing old. In Europe mice, guinea pigs, rabbits, rats and fish still continue to be used to test for eye and skin irritation and toxicity. And it is the large multinationals that seem to be the biggest culprits.

Ruth Rosselson of Ethical Consumer magazine comments, “It’s ironic that a company well-known for its anti-animal testing stance should sell out to one that tests on animals and which has yet to show its commitment to any ethical issues at all. I for one will certainly not be shopping there again and I urge other consumers concerned about ethical issues to follow my example. There are plenty of other higher scoring ethical companies out there.”

Rosselson is not alone. A number of animal welfare campaigning groups, including Uncaged and Naturewatch, have all spoken out against the takeover and are encouraging consumers to boycott the Body Shop. Naturewatch is asking shoppers to send them their Body Shop ‘Love Your Body’ loyalty cards with a view to later presenting them to l’Oréal to indicate how strongly consumers feel about the issues involved. Another organisation has produced a website called ‘Boycott the Body Shop’ with a petition against the takeover and a list of reasons, cross-referenced to external sources, why they believe the l’Oréal-Nestlé connection destroys the Body Shop’s ethical credentials.

So there is a strong trend towards boycotting the Body Shop, but one has to ask – to what end? After all, l’Oréal is not going to ‘un-buy’ the Body Shop. And will such a huge multinational take any notice of such a boycott in the long run? What will it achieve? Naturewatch Director John Ruane explained thus: “L’Oreal has been talking about phasing out animal testing for a long time, but with no concrete results. Ultimately we would like l’Oréal to come up with an acceptable timeframe for phasing out animal testing – one that can be independently verified. Now l’Oréal has a specific brand image – they can’t afford to be associated with a company that’s seen to be the target of a boycott.”

I asked him if a boycott could really work. Ruane said: “Like any new owner, l’Oréal will be looking to make money on its investment, so the Body Shop will be keenly watched, not only by the management of l’Oréal, but also by its shareholders. The Body Shop will need to gain big sales increases and that’s where the key part of the boycott can work. Remember – and we must keep this point alive – the Body Shop had to issue a profits warning last December, the busiest time of the trading year. That was December 2005, before the l’Oréal bid. If the Body Shop thought last Christmas was tough trading, imagine how much tougher it will be with a couple of dozen protesters urging a boycott outside the shop frontage every day! Clearly everyone can see the incredible press interest there has been already, with the main issue being the ethical sell-out angle. To have the media questioning corporate takeovers is a wonderful aid to any boycott plans.”

In the mean time, PR Week magazine has revealed that the Body Shop has short listed a number of PR agencies specifically to address such campaigns. Evidently there is concern over retaining its ethical image. It will be interesting to see if l’Oréal does produce such a timeframe and ‘walk its talk’ to use one of Anita Roddick’s phrases; it would be good to think that l’Oréal might opt for more openness about its policies (to use their own slogan) “because it’s worth it”.

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