Behind the Green Veil: Notes from Stan Cox

Stan Cox has an excellent report on greenwashing today. It looks to be drawn from his important new book.

One of the sections of Cox’s report deals with the Body Shop, the highly-touted cosmetics corporation run by the recently-passed Anita Roddick. Supposedly a proof of the viability of green capitalism, the Body Shop turns out to have been rather less than such. As Cox explains:

For more than 30 years, The Body Shop and its CEO, self-styled anti-capitalist capitalist Anita Roddick, avidly cultivated a corporate image as pioneers of high business ethics. But The Body Shop has been dismissed by critics as no more than a world leader in pale-green consumerism.

A 1994 expose by John Entine [6] charged the company with exploiting workers, franchisees, and indigenous peoples who supply ingredients; using artificial and sometimes harmful chemicals in products labeled as “all natural”; selling bacteria-contaminated products; flushing toxic chemicals into sewage systems; and promoting overconsumption of costly but Wal-Mart-quality products.

Others have blasted the company’s much-publicized relationships with indigenous peoples who supply some of their ingredients. An anthropologist who worked for more than thirty years among Brazil’s Kayapo people charged in 1995 that The Body Shop purchased much smaller quantities of products like brazil-nut oil than the Kayapo wanted to sell, and forbade them to sell to other companies. The company did that, he charged, because the real purpose of the project was to acquire not oil but rather the exclusive right to heartwarming photographs of the Kayapo that would appeal to the tastes of “Western ecoliberals.”

Cox quotes Entine’s conclusion:

Ethical or not, The Body Shop can’t be considered an environmental leader, wrote Entine on the occasion of Roddick’s death last year: “She sold cosmetics made mostly with water, colorings, fragrances and preservatives made from petrochemicals. Body Shop packages beauty notions in plastic bottles, an anathema to serious environmentalists, and ships them around the world in carbon-belching trucks and planes. From an environmental perspective, its business model is a train wreck.

This is a fine conclusion, but notice again the punch-pulling tendency of even the best critics of big business marketing. Notice how the concept of “cosmetics” escapes analysis here, despite the fact that cosmetic-wearing is a human behavior that has been immensely shaped and expanded by corporate marketing itself. How green is it to buy and wear make-up? Not very. Nevertheless, it is a very lucrative thing for corporate investors.

For those interested in this topic, I would refer you back to an item I discussed in my own book, The Consumer Trap: Big Business Marketing in American Life. There, I reported on what I learned after studying Cover Girl cosmetics marketing documents archived at the Smithsonian Institution.

One thing I learned there was that wearing make-up was still not a common, everyday practice among teenage girls well into the 1950s. In that climate, marketing consultants to the Noxzema Chemical Company (long since absorbed by Procter & Gamble) hit on the idea of putting Noxzema’s astringent ingredients into make-up and pitching it to teen girls as a way of extending Noxzema’s product line by giving teen girls an quasi-medical anti-acne excuse to ask for and use cosmetics. By the 1980s, when teen girls took cosmetics to be a preface to every day of their lives, Cover Girl, the resulting new make-up brand, had it marketers crowing about how “today’s consumer — she may use up to 11 products to get the natural look.”

Such is the stuff of capitalist normalcy. And the real, behind-the-scenes reason for the extension of commodities was not any kind of concern for girls. It was concern for the Noxzema Chemical Company. “We need products to advertise, and you don’t have any for us” one Noxzema executive reported to his superiors. “Now, what you’ve got to do to help [the] company grow is to get some new products.”

The result was a “natural” example of big business marketing in action.