By Staff Writer
Former L'Oréal executive Jeremy Schwartz is reinvigorating the environmental message that has been at the core of The Body Shop for four decades, proving that activism and profits can go hand-in-hand.
We’re here to make money, let me be clear. We’re here about business. But we want to do it in a new way that helps the planet flourish.”
Jeremy Schwartz does not waste time. The former UK and Ireland country manager of cosmetics giant L’Oréal was asked in 2013 to step up as CEO of the firm’s subsidiary, The Body Shop, on the belief he was the one to lead it to success.
Three years later, he is clearly the man for the job.
Since his takeover, the environmentally ethical cosmetics company has witnessed budding sales worldwide, with particularly strong results in the Middle East, where the region now makes up over 12 percent of the company’s overall sales and accounts for 300 of its 3,100 stores.
“In various countries [including in] the Middle East, we were growing more than we had for many years, in fact double digits in some of our countries. So we were very excited about Saudi, very happy with Dubai, very happy with Kuwait,” Schwartz says. “[The Middle East] is a substantial part of our business. It’s very high up in my plan. I meet our partners from the Middle East over three to four times a year.”
But money is not the biggest input Schwartz has made to The Body Shop. A few months ago, he changed the company’s approach for the first time in its 40-year history by launching the Enrich Not Exploit Commitment, which includes 14 goals designed to “enrich” the planet by 2020.
The goals include regenerating 75 million square metres of habitat to help communities live more sustainably, powering 100 percent of its stores with renewable or carbon balanced energy, developing and delivering new sustainable packaging innovations, and ensuring 100 percent of its natural ingredients are traceable and sustainably sourced, protecting 10,000 hectares of forest and other habitat.
Schwartz says he hoped the new programme would have a similar impact as the brand itself did when it was launched by the late Anita Roddick in 1976.
“For 40 years, the company embraced a certain approach, and that was a great approach. But the world has changed a lot and the world is going to change a lot and we need a new idea,” he says. “Anita did something that people couldn’t believe is possible or was relevant. And then 20 years later they said, ‘Oh my God, we better all have a sustainability programme. So I tried to find something which people go, ‘Gosh, is that really what companies should do?’
“By writing the words ‘Not Exploit’, I’m exposing myself and the company in ways where [the customer] says ‘Okay, I want to understand what you’re doing. Show me the data, show me the information; I want transparency. But I believe that’s where companies need to be because we have transparency on where our products are sourced, how we’re recycling, how we’re making it, and it does not hurt the environment,” he says.
The Body Shop also has undoubtedly raised the bar for companies globally to improve their transparency. For Schwartz, that was always part of the plan.
“In considering our planet, in considering our obligation as companies and governments to grow, to be a commercially buyable business that’s growing, if we don’t take the planet into consideration more than ever before, in a bunch of years, the planet might not be able to support humans,” he says. “This is a non-negotiable discussion. The question is, are you going to do anything about it? The temptation for companies and government is to ignore it because it’s a difficult subject. But if we ignore it, it will be at our peril.
“You see with all the floods and the heatwaves and tornados, it’s the planet telling us, wake up, do something.”
While many of Schwartz’s realisations are inspired by Roddick, his experience at L’Oréal also influenced his new approach.
The Body Shop was created with the belief that a business could create innovative cosmetics while using natural products that did not harm the environment. The concept was well ahead of the curve.
In the first few years after launching in the UK, the brand experienced rapid growth of 50 percent annually. Within a decade, it had listed on the London Stock Exchange and saw its share price soar by 500 percent.
But in 2006, Roddick reportedly sought out L’Oréal to help guide the company further and agreed to a $930m takeover. The controversial sale led to claims that the parent company continued to test on animals, in contradiction to The Body Shop’s core value.
Roddick did not agree, Schwartz argues.
“At that time some people asked, ‘Why would Anita sell to L’Oréal and why would L’Oréal buy The Body Shop? And Anita’s first response was that in order to make this idea bigger and engage customers worldwide, she needed the professionalism of L’Oréal to help the business continue to grow,” Schwartz says. “She was an entrepreneur who started with one shop. She was in 55 countries when she sold. Now we’re in 65 countries and she recognised that she needed that professionalism to help her.”
In turn, The Body Shop has inspired the world’s largest cosmetics maker to also become more environmentally aware. While still head of L’Oréal Group, Schwartz initiated a programme that stopped animal testing across the entire company. Subsequently, it launched a program called “Sharing Beauty with All”, an initiative to transform the firm’s sustainability footprint while still achieving its business ambition.
But despite leading the global ethical cosmetics culture, The Body Shop continues to cop criticism from some environmental groups.
“There are groups of people who pick on certain ingredients and what you find is, quite rightly in a way, they decide to get very passionate about the ingredient and then quite militant to stop companies from using it,” Schwartz says. “Sometimes it’s a good one, let’s say microbeads, they are little beads that are put in scrubs to remove dry skin, but then of course they go through the water and they end up in the sea and they end up in fish. Those should be banned and it’s great that there have been some people lobbying to do that.
“Then there are other ingredients where, frankly, the replacement for that ingredient may not be as good for nature as they seem to think, or they’ve been misinformed. I think sometimes some NGOs are not helpful because actually they’re not understanding the whole mix.
“But we’re very comfortable, I can discuss with anybody any subject they want. And we’re very comfortable that we’re either very clean or that we will change something if we’ve heard something we’ve missed.”
Environmentalist lobbyists are also often spurred on by an increasing number of concerned consumers. The Body Shop estimates 25-40 percent of adults are concerned about the impact of cosmetics on the environment.
This is the basis of The Body Shop’s monetary value.
“When we speak to people, they tell us they want to engage in a brand that’s about naturalness, but with products that work. That’s what we provide. And that’s the monetary value: it has made us who we are and it’ll make us grow even faster going forward,” Schwartz says.
Moreover, environmentally-friendly products are cheaper, helping to support the brand’s bottom line, he says.
“If you save electricity, you will save money. We have 19 community trade ingredients, more than any other company in the world. And the key is that we buy directly … from the farmers. What that means is we can pay them a premium directly, but that’s still cheaper for us … than to buy from civil middlemen. It just makes good business sense,” Schwartz says.
Nature also permeates Schwartz’s daily life, helping to keep the father of three balanced.
“Whenever I arrive in a country, I always go for a run in the morning; it [allows me] to discover the country. And I never run in the gym; I always run outside. I also like adventures - I’ve ridden a horse across Mongolia, cycled across Tibet, been to the Amazon…” he says.
Awareness of the benefits of nature and natural products is blooming but Schwartz worries that since Roddick’s death in 2007, The Body Shop’s message has faded.
“Because Anita is no longer with us, and she was the spokesman for the company, our voice has not been as loud and as clear as we wanted it to be,” he says. “Our goal is to get more people to reconsider and re-understand what The Body Shop is about. We’ve got the products; we’ve got the stores; we’ve got the service. What we’ve got to get is people talking again.”
He seems only partially unaware that under his control, that has already started to happen.