The Body Shop needs to go back to its activist roots if it wants to survive

The Body Shop has 'lost relevance' as new clean beauty brands take over
The Body Shop has 'lost relevance' as new clean beauty brands take over - Geoff Pugh

Every woman who was a teenager in the Eighties, Nineties and early Noughties probably has a favourite from The Body Shop. Mine was the mango body butter, which I invariably received in my Christmas stocking. But perhaps you were more inclined towards dewberry or white musk eau de toilette, the strawberry shower gel, or the bath pearls (now sadly discontinued).

Fast-forward 20 years and this beloved beauty brand has found itself in desperate need of a makeover. After a period of dwindling sales, the company’s Brazilian owner, Natura & Co, has sold it to private equity group Aurelius for £207m – less than a quarter of what it changed hands for six years ago. Natura & Co said 2022 had been “the most difficult year in the history of The Body Shop”. What went wrong – and can it be restored to its former glory?

Retail experts, such as Jonathan De Mello of consultancy firm JDM Retail, suggest the company needs to get back to its radical roots. “Originally, [it] had a USP, which was social consciousness and awareness,” he says. “They were all about activism. And that got lost as they became bigger and bigger.”

Founded by the late activist and campaigner Dame Anita Roddick in Brighton in 1976, The Body Shop was the original pioneering force in environmentally-friendly beauty. The premises were so run-down that Roddick joked the brand’s signature colour was dark green because it covered the mould on the walls.

When Roddick sold The Body Shop to L’Oréal for £652.3m she said she saw herself as a 'trojan horse' that could influence the sustainability of the giant company from the inside
When Roddick sold The Body Shop to L’Oréal for £652.3m she said she saw herself as a 'trojan horse' that could influence the sustainability of the giant company from the inside - Corbis Historical

The Body Shop sold products designed to make women feel good, not change how they look, and Roddick herself was a vocal critic of the beauty industry’s status quo – she once called the cosmetics industry a “monster… selling unattainable dreams”. She embraced environmental sustainability long before it was fashionable to do so.

And, of course, the products were great. In its ‘80s and ‘90s heyday, The Body Shop products were in a “league of their own,” says Telegraph beauty editor Annabel Jones, who was a particular fan of their “feel-good White Musk and sustainably-sourced body butters”. But now, “ethical, traceable beauty is standard,” she says.

Teenage girls now are more likely to spend their money on rivals such as Lush, or newcomers like Glossier, which had a billion-dollar valuation just five years after its 2014 launch. “To capture a new generation, they need to harness the roots Anita Roddick planted and pivot towards a tribal, innovative approach that speaks to both its faithful fans and the informed Gen-Z consumer,” says Jones.

But in the beginning, The Body Shop was the first crusader for greener, cleaner beauty. On its website, it says it was the first cosmetics brand to campaign on the issue of animal testing. And right from the beginning, every customer was encouraged to recycle packaging – in part because Roddick had run out of the bottles she used, which were originally designed to hold urine samples.

Jo Fairley, a women’s magazine editor at the peak of The Body Shop’s success who went on to found the chocolate company Green & Blacks, says the company was “way ahead of its time”. It was a trailblazer “in terms of raising awareness of where ingredients come from, who produces them and how fairly (or unfairly) they are treated”.

This, she says, was largely down to Roddick’s leadership. It is possible to trace the beginning of the choppy waters to the point Roddick sold the chain to L’Oréal for £652.3m in 2006, intending to have continued involvement as a consultant. The year before, the company had made £27m on sales of £419m. In an interview at the time, she said she saw herself as a “trojan horse” who could influence the sustainability and culture of the French cosmetics giant from the inside.

“After 30 years of leading the company I had other avenues to pursue... I wanted to do something useful with the money I had while I am still able to,” she said. “I’m not an apologist for [L’Oréal], I’m just excited that I can be like a trojan horse and go into that huge business.”

Sadly, Roddick died a year later, in 2007, after a brain haemorrhage. “Under [the L’Oréal] umbrella, the brand completely stagnated and lost its way,” says Fairley. It was sold 11 years later to Natura & Co for a rumoured £877m.

“I think that [was] the turning point… I guess L’Oréal didn’t want to change much of the way that it was positioned and the dynamic and just let it run as a business where they could ultimately not invest huge amounts but [make a] profit,” De Mello says. “Under L’Oréal they did expand into new markets, which shouldn’t be lost in the commentary… [but] the values didn’t really move on.”

The most pressing issue is competition. While The Body Shop was once the UK’s only natural beauty company, now cruelty-free and sustainable beauty brands are a dime a dozen: REN, Dr Hauschka, Chantecaille and Lush are just a few examples. Over the past decade, the competition has ramped up – new clean beauty brands, such as BYBI, spring up all the time. “The overriding thing for me is that [The Body Shop] has lost relevance,” says Andrew Busby of Retail Reflections. “For any retailer, once that happens, it’s very difficult to get it back.”

The Body Shop’s products – although several of them are still fan-favourites – haven’t moved on. The chain has around 250 UK stores and 3,000 globally, but De Mello suggests they have suffered from underinvestment. Telegraph readers recently described it as “dull with poor quality products these days” and “overpriced”.

'There’s still a huge affection for the brand among customers'
'There’s still a huge affection for the brand among customers' - Geoff Pugh

As a “big, profit-making business,” it’s possible L’Oréal just regarded The Body Shop as being “lower down the list of priorities,” says De Mello. This, he argues, is reflected in their shops: “The stores they have at the moment are everywhere, cookie-cutter ubiquitous… they’re the same wherever you go, a similar size, similar merchandising mix, the colour scheme’s a bit tired.”

The new ownership at Natura & Co, which also owns Avon, failed to move the needle in terms of customer perception. “Of course, they’ve gone through a volatile period with the pandemic, and that wouldn’t have helped,” says Busby. “But there are plenty of other brands who have thrived in that period.” Now, it has been sold at a loss.

It’s not all bad news. The Body Shop is starting to reach a new audience with its nascent success on TikTok, where a new generation of teens are discovering the joys of its vanilla body spray and lip and cheek tints. As Fairley says, if it plays its cards right, The Body Shop could be “more relevant than ever”.

“The world is far more engaged with the issues Anita talked about as long ago as the 1970s,” she says. Refill stations – where customers can bring back bottles of shower gel, shampoo and hand wash to have them re-filled in store – were a fixture of the early Body Shop days but had been phased out in the late 1990s. Now they have been reintroduced, having been piloted in 2019.

A spokesperson for The Body Shop told The Telegraph that the brand had made significant progress under Natura & Co’s stewardship. “It has undergone many significant changes including an overhaul of its product portfolio and a rejuvenation of the brand. Notably, the customer experience has been enhanced with the rollout of Changemaking Workshop concept stores worldwide, and of its refill program, now in place in 793 stores.

“The Body Shop also became a certified B Corp™ in 2019, broadening its sustainability commitments and regaining its activist voice. There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the future of The Body Shop. The brand has strong foundations; it is a global brand with scale, with a network of 2,500 stores. In the beauty industry it’s quite unique to have that kind of a presence.”

Anita Roddick and her husband Graham Roddick in May 1992
Anita Roddick and her husband Graham Roddick in May 1992 - PAUL ARMIGER

But it needs a new forward-thinking leader at the helm, Fairley suggests. “A leader who has Roddick’s passion for sustainability and activism… There’s still a huge affection for the brand among customers,” she says.

De Mello agrees it has “the potential to reinvent [itself]... The Body Shop has true global penetration,” he says. In order to do so, “the environmental and the ethical positioning needs to really be pushed forward,” as it could still be their USP. “They can do that through elevating their stores.” Lush, in fact, has seen recent success through investing in their shops: it invested £7.4m in new stores, relocations and refits across the UK and Europe and in December last year announced sales of £40.5m, up 11 per cent versus pre-pandemic sales.

“I think it’s perfectly possible to turn the brand around,” says Busby. “The contradictory thing is that it needs to double down on what Anita Roddick passionately believed in.” The Body Shop could yet bounce back, especially if it reinvigorates the classic products we all know and love. But perhaps the bath pearls are best left in the ‘90s.