Profitable Business vs. Sustainability: Why Not Both?

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Many companies struggle with integrating sustainable practices into their business models. Product labeling brings upon sourcing and traceability issues, and consumer interests are often replaced with cheaper methods of production. Why should profitable business be antithetical to ethics and sustainability?

Anita Roddick (1942-2007), founder of The Body Shop, was a catalyst in combining business practices with ethical choices. Her business model strived to put consumers first. “Roddick believed that business could be run ethically, with what she called ‘moral leadership,’ and still turn a profit.” [1] Roddick did not simply choose one side in the debate between environmental activism vs. creating a profitable business. She chose both.

As a young woman, Roddick spent some time travelling to and exploring abroad. She visited Tahiti, Australia, and South Africa—and was fascinated by the natural body and skincare regiments used in these nations. After marriage, Roddick and her husband owned a restaurant together. But once they decided to sell it, however, Roddick (mother of 2 at the time) was determined to bring in an income to support her family.

Inspired by this “back-to nature cosmetic knowledge” [2] discovered abroad, she founded The Body Shop with a $6,500 loan and a contracted herbalist. Roddick carried out simplistic marketing strategies with consumer interests in mind. Offering discounted refills to returning customers who brought back used containers helped her gain brand loyalty—while also reducing environmental waste. “She used her stores to spread her philosophy and promote causes” [1], revolutionizing the concept of cause marketing and social activism through business practices.

Although Roddick eventually sold The Body Shop to L’Oréal—a company does, in fact, emphasize the importance of sustainable development—she “hoped that the Body Shop would spur L’Oréal to behave more ethically” [1]. Roddick “grew a single shop into an international empire” [2] and forever changed the way in which both producers and consumers think about ethical sourcing and corporate social responsibility.

Roddick’s story reflects my personal values in regards to the importance of sustainability in business. I recently spent my summer interning on the sustainable business practices and corporate social responsibility team at Cone Communications, a specialty public relations and marketing agency. Not only did I work on fair trade and sustainability campaigns, but I also gained experience working with the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) to measure various companies’ commitments to integrate sustainable development into their core business models. As a social and environmental activist, Roddick chose both profitable business and sustainability—a practice more businesses should engage in today.

 

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/12/world/europe/12roddick.html

[2] http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/197688

Julia Cohen

Brandeis University, ‘15

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