The leader of the iconic British brand shares what he’s learnt about the role of innovation and sustainability in transforming a business and creating a better world
David Boynton had his work cut out for him when he joined The Body Shop as CEO in 2017. Following the £652.3 million sale of the business to French cosmetics giant L’Oreal ten years earlier, the brand had suffered backlash and boycotts from those who felt it had moved too far away from the ethical principles on which it was founded.
When sales fell by five per cent to €921 million in 2016, and its operating profit declined by 38 per cent during the same period, L’Oreal cut its losses and sold the business to the purpose-driven, global beauty group, Natura &Co. Boynton took the helm of the battered business shortly after, tasked with reinventing its strategy, execution, and growth in more than 65 markets worldwide.
The challenge was not small. How could the brand known for its ethical products, environmentally friendly practices, and social activism once more find its place in the world – at a time when it had never been more greatly needed?
Today, The Body Shop is a proud B Corp, making headlines for the right reasons. It has pledged to be completely vegan by 2030, as well as making 100 per cent of its packaging materials either recyclable, reusable, or compostable in the same timeframe. It is also tapping into its social justice roots: last month, it launched an interactive ‘activist workshop’ store in Doha, replete with refill stations and an activism hub, where people can campaign for social change on issues including gender equality and fighting cosmetic animal testing.
Here, we speak to Boynton about the transformation of The Body Shop under his leadership, and what he’s learnt about innovation and sustainability along the way.
What’s the most enlightened thing you’ve done as a leader?
Working with the team back in 2017 to reignite a sense of purpose for The Body Shop, and to be much clearer about the kind of choices that we needed to make to succeed today and in the future.
When I first joined the business, I immediately noticed a cultural mismatch between the brand and its previous owner. Everything seemed totally misaligned to what I thought The Body Shop should stand for – and had stood for when Anita Roddick founded it.
So, the first thing I did was to kick off a piece of work to define our ‘North Star’ – what it was we were supposed to be doing. We shelved all the new, shiny products that had been developed so we could focus on this important job. We knew our purpose should be aligned with activism, being a campaigning brand, being prepared to put our heads above the parapet, and ensuring nobody gets left behind.
Ultimately, we landed on a phrase: “The Body Shop exists to fight for a fairer, more beautiful world.” And although that phrase has since leaked out into the wider public, that was never the intention. It was meant to be more like Fight Club – it was there in your heart, but you never needed to say it out loud.
Our next job was to challenge ourselves to be the most modern and relevant version of who we were back in 1976, when we were founded. And this forced a whole series of challenges, which required innovation.
Which areas of innovation are you most excited about?
There’s a crisis of packaging in the world. A recent study by The Body Shop revealed that the number of empty shower gel bottles thrown away each month in the US is equal to the total number of cars in the country. We decided to approach this in two ways: first, is there anything that we can do with the plastic that already exists? And then: how can we ensure there’s no more new plastic coming into the world?
For the first one, we decided to change the plastic we’d use. Our previous owners had chosen transparent plastic bottles that required a high level of purity and virgin plastic, as well as polypropylene caps that were completely unrecyclable. So we decided on PCR (post-consumer recycled) plastic. Making it green-coloured enabled us to have a greater level of variation in the plastic content that went into the material.
Led by our purpose, we then asked ourselves: can we add a social justice angle to this too? So we partnered with an NGO called Plastics for Change in India, and gave ourselves the objective of working towards sourcing all of our PCR plastic from waste pickers in India. The idea is that this would bring more dignity to their existence by providing them with consistent employment and a fair and consistent level of payment for the plastic they were collecting.
On the issue of minimising our plastic use, we went ‘back to the future’ to reintroduce refills – which is what used to happen in the earliest stores. It’s not always easy for consumers to participate in the circular economy in a consumer goods environment – but in the first year, we rolled it out to 410 stores. We wanted to show the industry that it was possible to do this stuff. We hope to add another 400 stores this year, and be in all stores in the first quarter of 2023.
We also made the decision to give customers a price advantage for refills, which appears to be working. We’re seeing a higher rate of repurchase and refills than we see in our standard plastic shower gels.
Can the beauty industry ever truly be sustainable?
We should set ourselves the ambition of being truly sustainable in terms of every dimension that we’re touching. Take the Amazon Rainforest, for example. It’s always been a big part of The Body Shop narrative. When Anita was there in the eighties and nineties, having forest gatherings with the indigenous people, it was largely a story of land clearance, displaced people, and species extinction. And while those are still massive issues today, they’re joined by something that wasn’t front of mind back then – and that’s carbon.
The beauty industry can have an important role to play in asking: what are the natural fruits of the forests? Let’s work with indigenous people to harvest and take a different approach to agroforestry. It’s moving away from a monoculture like palm, and instead being creative and innovative about finding things that allow the forest to demonstrate economic value and enable it to keep standing.
Can brands be profitable and purposeful?
My belief is that there isn’t a conflict: it truly is about the triple bottom line. That’s always been at the heart of what we’ve done. Now that doesn’t mean we’re an NGO. Also, we’re not doing philanthropic things with the money we make, like many big corporates might do. Instead, it’s about the way we do business – moving the game on in areas of environment, social justice, and profit. We need to do it in ways that maintain credibility and provide a leadership position to kind of say: ‘come on in; the water’s fine’.
We believe being purpose-driven is a good thing. Some people talk about brand purpose as if it’s something for the ESG section of the annual report, but it must be more fundamental than that. If it is—and it feels true and authentic to the people in the business—it makes your company more resilient because you’ve got something else, something deeper to draw on.
What advice would you give to other business leaders?
Purpose can be an incredible way of re-energising your business, so I would encourage people to go on the journey. It’s worth it because that essential truth in your business then becomes compelling to your people and interesting to your customers, too. People want to shop with your brand and support you when you genuinely care about the things that they care about.
Words: Hannah Hudson
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20th July 2022