Q&A: Anita Roddick's Kind of Revolution

At a time when many progressives in the U.S. feel increasingly wary, if not weary, Anita Roddick is brimming with indefatigable enthusiasm. "Cynicism is what passes for insight when courage is lacking," she declares with conviction, quoting one of her fellow speakers at a recent conference. "I love that one. You should put that up as the headline," she insists. The former CEO of the Body Shop and political activist, Roddick talked to us from her home in Santa Barbara, Calif., about the importance of language, global change and her latest book, "A Revolution in Kindness."

There are many other equally worthy values, why did you pick Kindness as the focus of your book?

Because it has been appropriated by the wishy-washy brigade. It's like self-esteem. That's another wishy-washy concept. But when you deconstruct it, it's the route to revolution.

It's so uncool to even talk about kindness these days. So I thought, let's turn the damn thing on its head, put in some adjectives to describe it, and show these incredible acts that go on consistently, day after day, under the radar screen. And I was so outraged that the biggest value we have in our society these days is economics. Economic values override every other human value, be it justice, human rights, kindness, whatever.

I thought, let's take something that is conspicuous in its absence even at any point in discussion and let's see what we can do with it. And let's not make it wishy-washy. The book goes into areas where people least expect to find it or interpret it.

Exactly. Kindness is usually thought of an individual quality, something you associate with a person not issues of policy. How did you arrive at that connection?

I was born into the Catholic religion and attended this school run by nuns, and there was this nun called the Sister of Immaculate Conception. She was amazing. Every week, we had to prepare the rooms for the Knights of the Road. They were actually tramps, but she didn't ever allow us to call them that. It made us look at them in another way.

She taught me something that Wittgenstein, the philosopher, reiterated time and time again: words create your world. For example, in my company (BodyShop) -- when I ran it -- I asked, "How do you measure joy in the workplace?" Well, nobody in their bloody right mind in the business world would want to attempt that because it was not a financial measurement. But it made possibilities so exciting when you brought those words into play.

How do you re-enchant politics? That's another extraordinary word. So I was finding words that were just lost on the radar screen, like awe and wonderment and kindness.

The rightwing media has been telling celebrities to shut up about political and social issues. Have you felt that kind of pressure?

I've never had that problem because I've always been an activist. As one of the architects of the corporate social responsibility movement, I've always had gravitas.

I've never been about telling people to buy another strawberry bubble bath. My thing has been: don't bloody buy it. Buy something that gives someone else some freedom or economic independence. So I've never been put into that celebrity bracket. I may have been ridiculed for my ideas about making business kinder, but I've always had smart answers for that.

But you did have a taste of that yourself when the Body Shop distanced itself from your column criticizing George Bush. What was that about?

That was an example of knee-jerk reaction, of fear that thousands and thousands of customers in the Midwest or wherever might not buy the products.

The executive committee decided to distance themselves from me because they've gotten more and more worried as I get more and more radical. So they post this statement on their website that says they support George Bush and the war on terrorism. I said to them, "Who the f__ was talking about terrorism." I'm more of an American-phile than you are because I care so much about the loss of some of the things that are so great about this country. Of course, there was a backlash against what they did. So they got all confused.

When it comes to political debate, even the Left relies more on the rhetoric of pragmatism -- talking about costs and consequences rather than compassion or justice. How do you feel about that?

That's right. The moral reason to not do things is never debated now. It's never that this is the right or wrong thing to do. Or the kind thing to do. But (this type of rhetoric) doesn't allow reflection. Thomas Berry said that the eighth deadly sin is speed. When they boycotted the goods going into South Africa, it took decades for that government to change. But these days we've got to have instant response and instant results.

In that case, what are the prospects of revolutionary change if we keep talking in terms of self-interest?

I know I'm pathologically optimistic, but I do believe we are living in remarkable times. Every country around the world there's an insurgence against much of what we've been taught. What we're seeing now is an amazing rebirth of grassroots community, including community economic initiatives. There is a plethora of these social experiments. And I think this is what to me is the most exciting.

But in the United States, there is a sense of losing ground among progressives in this post-9/11 era.

I can only say, the United States isn't the world. Look at the burgeoning grassroots cooperative movement of women in India or Africa. There are these extraordinary actions wherever you go. This is the biggest explosion of social solidarity in -- not our times -- but in our entire history. And it's made more powerful by the spirit of transformation. It's not just an action or response. It's a transformation where we're producing new forms of economic cooperation, for a start. And this cooperation is allowing people to work outside the relationship of dependency. They don't have to be dependent on America or the West.

So you believe kindness is alive and well and growing.

You can interpret kindness here as cooperation and sharing. The Zapatistas call it the "rebirth of democracy." In England, we call it "reclaiming the local." Beyond the radar of the media and the political upper classes, something is massing. You can call it community organizing or call it kindness, but it's bigger than any of us realize. To me, it looks like the beginning of a genuine global revolution of which kindness is a characteristic.

When you look back at all that you've done, where do you think you're headed?

Women when they get older, get more radical. I've got a quote in my office that says, "A woman in advancing old age is unstoppable by any earthly force." That's our nature. That's our DNA. My company was started to communicate things I really cared about. And I was getting more and more radical. So maybe it's really good that I've stepped back and let it run.

I've got limited time left -- maybe ten, twenty years at max -- and I just don't want to waste my time. I want to support those people whose vision is stronger than mine, who have an absolute sense of focus on issues I care about, whether it is human rights, or social justice. I will do everything I can to support them. And for no other reason other than that I feel it's the best way I can spend my time, my energy and resources. In the end, I want to go to my grave hop, skipping, and jumping saying I did the best I damn well could.

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