EP15: How The Body Shop supports community trade suppliers

By November 22, 2016 Podcasts No Comments
The Body Shop

I met last week with Neil Jarvis, International Director of Quality and Industrial Operations and Ethical Trade of The Body Shop. Neil’s responsibilities include making sure all of the community trade suppliers and partnerships in developing countries around the world manage to deliver product that meet the exacting standards of the organisation.  It involves a high degree of reactivity, people skills and understanding, and of course international travel.  I caught up with Neil in the Sussex headquarters to find out how the organisation is growing its commitment to community trade, and how it’s doing since the acquisition by cosmetics giant L’Oreal.

How did you first start working with The Body Shop?

I joined The Body Shop in 1990 after a period of world travel. I got a job for Christmas packing gifts in the factory. The Body Shop was growing and it was a great time of opportunity.  I quickly joined the quality control unit, and the company saw my enthusiasm so they trained and invested in me sending me off to Chichester College. I progressed upwards in the manufacturing organisation and, although I left the organisation for a period, I soon came back!

How has the purpose of The Body Shop changed since the 1970s?

Although we’ve grown and are now a large international business, the core purpose of The Body Shop hasn’t changed. We’re still a values-led organisation, still have ambitions to be the No1 beauty retailer. It’s not about profit, it’s about how we do business. We still remain committed to our values, people have a strong sense of purpose. We still do community volunteering that is paid time off. We’re still against animal testing, we support community trade suppliers and we protect our planet.

The Body Shop HQ

The Body Shop HQ

The Body Shop has a commitment to working with community trade suppliers. What are the challenges of working with small organisations in remote locations like Nepal?

Supporting community trade suppliers is part of our DNA and a very motivational thing to be involved in. It’s not easy. There are pitfalls and challenges. For example, we work with a hand-made paper organisation in Nepal who make a lot of our seasonal boxes for Christmas products. You’re in Nepal, making a paper product in a very low-tech industry compared to what you might find in China. It’s a cooperative business; many of the workforce don’t read or write. The company has just a single email address. There are big cultural differences to overcome.

It would be much easier to go to a commercial vendor who could deliver a lot more consistency. We choose not to do that, because we know the difference we make. Because of our support, the company in Nepal are now supporting 5 schools in the area, doing a lot of health education for their workers, giving jobs to marginalised women and therefore getting more children into schools.

You have to have a very agile mindset. You have to be prepared to help them with training. You must be very clear in your communications, take more time to educate and train people, and be prepared to spend time with them. You have to be very hands on and do business slower. You can’t just send a product brief with specifications.

Can you share some of the specific challenges you have encountered and how The Body Shop has managed those?

The company in Nepal produces a lot of our paper packaging for Christmas gifts. They’re high quality items, often once packed with products, it’s high value. They’re a huge distance from the nearest shipping port in India. Transporting paper products in the rainy season, which are often shifted by hand from one lorry to another, which can be parked up in port for some time can be challenging. We have had deliveries come in right before the peak Christmas season that are mouldy. Then you are suddenly in crisis mode having to resolve the issue.

That’s part of my daily life. We’ve learned a lot over the years. We have a continuous improvement mindset, we’ll go back and work out what went wrong. We used a glue that didn’t have biocide int he glue. We’ve worked with them to improve the product. It’s important we do that because it makes these businesses sustainable in the long run, which is our goal.

Has it changed how you view the world?

The experience of visiting companies like this is life-changing. Quite profound. I’m in and out of factories all the time. To suddenly land in one of the poorest countries in the world – they still have leprosy for example – and meet these fantastic people, in a beautiful landscape, with a very vibrant and colourful culture, is very intense.  Suddenly trying to embed my knowledge into a cooperative family run business of 300 people was a shock. I couldn’t rely on my powerpoint presentations because they don’t have powerpoint! All the things I brought with me on my laptop were useless!  It forced me to engage with people on a much more personal level – which I really like. They were so keen to draw information our of me. You’re very quickly engaged and you really want the people to succeed.

The cultural piece made me think a lot. It made me re-evaluate my values of the world. I consider myself very privileged to grow up in the UK, where we do tend to take everything for granted. There are not so many areas that are like the UK. There’s an awful lot of the world that’s like Nepal. I now have a different view of listening to people talk about their iPad not working!  We really have to get off focusing on first world problems.  You have to see the bigger picture, how can we help these people. I feel better for having done those trips. I feel I can add more to the world.

Have your experiences changed how your work with and lead your team?

It has affected how I work with my team, but also my family. I try to share my experiences. I always try to keep in mind why we’re here. On the days that are tough, the days you have problems, I look at one of our Christmas gifts which I kept.  It’s a school house, and it reminds me of the people we’ve helped build schools in Nepal.  I try to use those stories to keep my team motivated when times are tough.

What sort of structure does an organisation need to put in place to be able to successfully support emerging community trade partners, and what sort of skills do you need to develop in your team?

We have a dedicated team that is responsible for establishing these relationships and helping the businesses grow. They are very knowledgable about international business and the challenges of developing countries. We have experts in purchasing, health & safety, manufacturing – we have a deep pool of expertise across the business.  We deploy all these assets to support our community trade suppliers. If they need help, we will try to get them the expertise they need. Sometimes they come to the UK, it’s a very co-creative partnership. We connect them to NGOs and other businesses as well. Our aim is to help them connect with other global organisations and expand their business.

The Body Shop has always been known for its entrepreneurial culture.  How does an organisation like The Body Shop maintain its rebel culture once acquired by an organisation which is very structured – L’Oreal? 

It’s been an interesting journey. L’Oreal have a lot of corporate structures because they are managing such a huge organisation. The Body Shop needed some of that, because we had grown and grown. We needed better governance, it made us more productive and more efficient. We have a lot of resource an

Activist at The Body Shop

The Body Shop a history of activism

d expertise available to us now. It has helped strengthen our business.

It was a culture change, without a doubt. We had to build that relationship with L’Oreal. We didn’t want to lose any of that spirit. We worked hard internally to remind everyone where we came from and what we stand for. At first it was about understanding and alignment, but now we have a voice at the table. We’ve been able to introduce more ideas around sustainability, community commitment.

How do you continue to encourage creativity and innovation at The Body Shop within a larger corporate structure?

It’s about empowering and motivating people. Any business that stifles that has a problem. We have a theme for the way we work which is Frame & Trust. We set the leadership direction so that people are clear about what the expectations are, we’re clear about what constraints there are around budget and resource and then we get out of their way and let them do it. I’m there to support and encourage them.

At times you have to remove yourself as a leader from the process. If you’re a leader, you tend to love being in front, you’re energetic and have ideas. Sometimes just being in the room means you squash someone else’s ideas – they might feel more intimidated and not speak. So I like to be there to support my team, but they have a lot of latitude to be innovative and creative on their own.

What are the key characteristics and skills you look for in your team, and how do you see these characteristics being developed currently at school and in Universities, if at all?  

When I recruit, I don’t worry about technical skills and qualifications. You can learn anything these days. We have a huge amount of resource in L’Oreal. And the internet has opened up a world of learning. So it’s all about the character and personality. I like to build a team on a lot of different personalities. I’m looking for people who are curious, people who ask questions, they want to understand why things work the way they do, is there a way it could be done better. I want people who are going to challenge me, have energy and are quite driven. They are keen and enthusiastic and will overcome the challenges of the particular way we work. You’ll go and read a book, find a solution.

I think teachers try to bring out these qualities but there is a very strict curriculum they are forced to crunch through. That doesn’t always allow them to stop and understand the different learning styles people have. It’s better than it used to be, but a lot more could be done. There are more things schools and Universities could do to get students work-ready. We must let them know what work is going to really be like. We need to grow the social skills that are needed to manage the workplace. But I also think a lot of that falls on parents too; how they are inspiring their kids.

There’s also a current challenge around ‘happiness’. There’s a lot of talk about wanting to be happy. But if you want to get on in life, if you want to work in an organisation that is making positive change, there are going to be a lot of days where there are challenges. Where you’re not going to be ‘happy’, when you’re frustrated and tired. I’m keen to encourage people to go through the pain of making a difference.

What impact have the UN Sustainable Development Goals had on how The Body Shop operates or will operate in the future? Are you aligning operations again the SDGs in any way?

There are many frameworks. We look at them all. We have our own framework which takes into account ethics, corporate social responsibility, sustainability branding Enrich nor Exploit. We have a very strong programme with goals right up to 2020 which is built around three key pillars:-

  • Enriching the Planet – building bio-bridges, protecting and regenerating 75 million square metres of habitat, and helping communities to live more sustainably
  • Enriching our Products – ensuring 100& of our natural ingredients are traceable and sustainably sourced
  • Enriching our People – doubling our community trade programme from 19 to 40 ingredients to help enrich communities that produce them
The Body Shop

Enrich not Exploit

What top 3 pieces of advice would you give to an ‘activist entrepreneur’ aiming to create a business that in some way answers the challenges framed within the UN SDGs?

You’ve got to get the right team. If you can hire and retain great talent, you’ll succeed. Wherever I’ve been, the team is what has driven success. They are what creates energy. If your team isn’t where you would like to be, it’s what do you need to do to get them where you want them to be, or how can you recruit to change the dynamic of the team.

You can’t put things off. If you know things are not quite right, if things need to change, if you know in your heart something’s not right, you can’t defer it. If you’ve got the people piece going, you’ve got to take on the difficult challenges right away.

I sat recently on a train with a top business school lecturer and I asked him what the number one characteristic of a great leader is. He said not being afraid to fail. It’s not about charging blindly in to any situation, but you do have to be able to operate in the area which is always just outside your comfort zone. If you’re in the shadows or you’re hesitant, you won’t succeed. You can fail and you will learn from failure. So finally, it’s about having the courage to fail.

Has your work ever impacted your health and life?

I’ve only ever had 2 sick days since I’ve been here at The Body Shop. It probably has more effect on my family than me as I am away so much.

My way of coping with stress is to focus on where my thoughts go. I focus on the positives. We have long days, but compared to others my life is easy. I eat great food, I work in a great building, I have money in my pocket to do things I like, I’ve got a great family, wife and children. If I focus on those things, I can always find the energy to keep going again and push through the more challenging times.

What are your future ambitions with your career at The Body Shop?

I’ve been so long in a reactive mode, perhaps a role with more strategy and less travel. I’ve travelled constantly in the last two decades, and although I love the cultural experiences whilst I’m there, I am not often home. But I’m always worried that if I had a quieter life I would be bored! Life’s an exciting journey and you go with it and embrace it.

Useful Links:

The Body Shop

Neil Jarvis, The Body Shop, LinkedIn



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