Vale: the activist's activist

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Anita Roddick, Dame Commander of the British Empire, founder of The Body Shop Ltd., and lifelong activist 1942 - 10 Sept 2007.

I was incredibly saddened to hear the news of Anita Roddick’s sudden death last night. In every area of her public life, be it her business practice or her activism, Anita was a pioneer; raising awareness of issues and campaigning for solutions to them well before they were either fashionable or mainstream. It’s a tragedy that she has also died before her time. At the age of 64 Anita was as energetic, committed and feisty as ever, and was very busy giving the money she’d made selling The Body Shop, away to good causes.

Her single biggest contribution was of course not so much The Body Shop but the impact that its pioneering socially conscious business practices had on the corporate world more generally. It took cruelty free cosmetics from the margins on to the high street, introduced it’s customers to the idea of recycling their plastic and pioneered the sourcing of sustainable and fairly traded products from the developing world. The Body Shop also became wildly successful by marketing ideas and opportunities for activism, and for never once running an ad. Now, all of these practices, albeit almost always not as well or as thoroughly, are part of mainstream business life.

During my time at the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties, The Body Shop’s Australian outfit supported our work, funding a human rights essay competition and the distribution of a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to every Victorian School. The winners of the essay competition were presented their prizes by Anita at an inspiring session during which she talked with passion and vigour about education, the environment, childcare, campaigning and of course human rights.

In her human-rights and environmental activism, she saw plenty of tragedy. Her friend, Nigerian playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa, was executed by the Nigerian government after he led a long battle against Shell Oil in the Ogoni tribal lands in 1995. I was involved in a vigil outside The Body Shop’s Bourke Street Mall shop in Melbourne on that fateful day, which played an important part in introducing me to environmental injustice in general and the work of leading African environmental justice advocates in particular.

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Unbeknown to me our paths would continue to cross, with Anita offering supportive advice and inspiration to me in respect of a number of projects and initiatives with which I was involved. In recent years Anita established her own publishing company with the aim of using publishing to secure a new and wider audience for her passions. I had the pleasure of hosting an event in London at which she talked about her foray into publishing and at which she launched her latest book 'Troubled Water', in which leading activists and experts talked about the vital importance of water together with lively graphics and moving photography. Always essentially a passionate communicator that's exactly what Anita wanted to do with the printed page. 

I’m very grateful for our various associations and for the opportunity to have known and be advised and supported by one of my activist heroes.

She was fond of saying that she was born an activist and would die an activist, and she certainly lived up to that. For those of us who knew her, the challenge is to live up to the example she’s left us.