The full cost of global profits

Business As Unusual
March 2, 2001

Anita Roddick begins her biography of herself and her creation, the Body Shop, by describing activist preparations for a protest at a World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle, Washington. Seattle has become the centre of protest for hardcore egalitarians and, increasingly, a hot-spot for violent and non-violent protest on the streets and for fictional resistance against a fascist United States government (in the television shows Dark Angel and Freedom ). The Pacific Northwest is part of the US in which a storm has been brewing, in particular an eco-storm, but it is also claimed by white supremacists and rightwing militias. Roddick came to this US cauldron to be inspired by those who, like her, care about people on the margins, especially women and children, along with indigenous tribes fighting for survival in environments controlled by the machinations of global business, the newest form of robber-baronism run amok.

Business As Unusual is, as Roddick says, "the story of how I managed to maintain some intimate part of myself -the original core, if you like -in a business gone global." She means her own business, The Body Shop, which sells skin and hair-care products. She most often uses "business", however, to refer to global business, the business that moves money, pillages tribal resources and uproots 1,000-year-old trees. She is clear on how the phenomenon of money without borders leads to sweatshop exploitation of the world's poorest: "Industry after industry seems perfectly happy to use sweatshops and the globe is quickly becoming a playground for those who can move capital and projects quickly from place to place. When business can roam from country to country with few restrictions in its search for the lowest wages, the loosest environmental regulations and the most docile and desperate workers, then the destruction of livelihoods, cultures and environments can be enormous." That was not so hard to understand, was it? So why does everyone pretend that understanding exploitation is brain science?

Roddick claims: "It would take one Haitian worker producing Disney clothes and dolls 166 years to earn as much as Disney president Michael Eisner earns in one day." There is no doubt that the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), a free-trade agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico, has fattened US corporate coffers at the expense of the environment and workers. Roddick paraphrases Colin Hines of the International Forum on Globalisation saying that since Nafta "around 2,000 factories have moved from the US to operate in the border region in Mexico, virtually unhindered by lax environmental and labour regulations".

Clinton stood up for Nafta, pretty much grinding opposition to dust under his heavy boots, while Patrick Buchanan, the rightwing occasional nominee for president, opposed the trade agreement. Buchanan was standing up for the US worker, with emphasis on nationality; Clinton was standing up for global money, with emphasis on the US, which has more global money than anyone else on the Monopoly board. But, because Clinton's ambidextrous near-right was in conflict with Buchanan's America-first right, people, myself included, got confused. We have become used to making decisions based on symbols and sound-bites, whereas if we thought it through the reality would be both clear and unavoidable: of course labour is cheaper and the environment more polluted in Mexico -it remains a third-world country; of course US businesses would prefer cheaper workers and lower eco-standards; of course those of us who feel ashamed of the US exploitation of Central and South America do not want to look as if we are insulting Mexico or denying Mexico some chance at jobs and money. That shut us right up.

Roddick is clear on how current world trade allows money to cross borders to find the cheapest labour. For those of us not planning to take an economics class at college level any time soon, that alone makes Roddick's book worth the cost. After reading Roddick's book, I felt so much happier that I had voted for Ralph Nader, one of her rave faves, for president. The point is that Clinton-Gore could not say the word "sweatshop" without turning beet red. They knew what they did in championing Nafta: the earth was in the balance, as were women and children, and they did not care. Gore went along to get along, and his integrity went along too.

Roddick contends that global money is "world government by default", and this new sovereignty "looks at the bottom line, (and) can't see anything else. It can recognise profit and loss, but it cannot recognise human rights, child labour or the need to keep the environment viable for future generations. It is government without a heart...". We have seen heartless governments before, but Roddick is one of many articulating a new understanding of how money transcends state power and becomes in itself a movable despotism.

US workers have a lot to lose in the new world economy and so Buchanan has a constituency, populous, disaffected and bilious; competing for slave wages does not sit well with workers in a rich country. The new world trade without borders threatens the women and children in third-world countries without protecting the women and children in wealthier regions. The poor pull down the marginal and disenfranchised to a bottom so base that one cannot yet entirely discern it.

Roddick raises ethical questions that go beyond the ability of money per se to pollute the planet: "Personally, I do not want to buy flowers from Colombia because I know about the diseases, caused by pesticides, that women are enduring in the cut flower industry." She does not want to buy from some companies because of the way they do business in poor countries:

"I just make my choices. I am opposed to maximising profit to satisfy investors and I believe you should care for your employees and care for your suppliers. You should tell the truth to your public and your customers. Only then can you conduct your business in a profitable way." Well, no. You will make more money through stealing and lying; but how good that Roddick does not want to.

She recognises that when one counts the cost to the human spirit of devaluing people and the earth itself, loss outweighs profit -but most people do not count using that particular scale. Roddick says: "We need business that respects and supports communities and families. We need business that safeguards the environment. We need business that encourages countries to educate their children, heal their sick, value the work of women and respect human rights." She questions what "profit" means and she wants us to "measure progress by human development, not gross national product". She is worried about the loneliness built into the new money economy and the malignant effect of the propaganda called advertising; she believes that "we're all in this together and we are at a crossroads. We have the power to preserve or destroy the sacred interconnections of life on this planet."

She thinks that the holistic ways that women reason may be basic to a world in which there is profit without exploitation. She wants "masculine-controlled, obsessive notions of the process of management to give way to more inclusive and feminine forms of collaborative and informal networks". She hits the nail on the head so to speak when she becomes specific about her own business: "We're in the skin and hair care business, and it's an industry not known for treating women with respect, whether it is targeting women with anti-ageing creams, unnecessarily testing products on animals or wrapping products in wasteful and unrecyclable packaging." According to Roddick, people around the world spend Pounds 10 billion a year on cosmetics and toiletries. In her view, "moisturiser is really the only valid skin care product, because it really does help prevent loss of moisture in the skin. But it won't make you look younger. We tell our customers that." Roddick talks about ageing with a disarming openness. Rightly making Gloria Steinem's locution her own, she says: "I'm 57 and I am what 57 looks like." Roddick talks about thinner hair, the changing shape of the body, lines on one's face.

She also talks about the larger picture of social forces that are designed to hurt women in particular: hierarchy, dominance and submission and the tyranny of the looking glass -"a beauty industry making women dissatisfied with their bodies, an economic system that is often stacked against them, a set of hierarchal traditions designed to exclude them".

Roddick contends that "it will be 500 years before [women] have equal managerial status in the world, then another 475 years before [women] hold equal political and economic status to men." She talks about the undervaluing of feminine labour: getting water, tilling the fields, cooking the food. In fact, only now that the sex traffic in women covers the globe has the United Nations suggested that money made in trafficking women be counted in a country's gross national product; hauling all that water was just not sexy enough to have an economic value assigned to it. It is hard to get even radical economists to understand the nature of this problem: women's work having no value and no visibility unless it is so-called sex-work.

The stories of the Body Shop itself, its personnel, history, problems and accomplishments, are part of a larger argument about a new way of doing business; the stories of various tribes and their productivity are fascinating; the prose is a little dull but that hardly matters in a heartfelt book by a pioneering woman.

Andrea Dworkin's most recent book is Scapegoat: The Jews, Israel, and Women's Liberation .

Business As Unusual

Author - Anita Roddick
ISBN - 0 7225 3987 8
Publisher - Thorsons
Price - £17.99
Pages - 287

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