Where Did It All Go Wrong For The Body Shop?

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If nostalgia were a smell, it’d be The Body Shop’s Dewberry. The perfume oil defined an era that demanded better from the beauty industry: an end to animal testing and sustainably sourced ingredients and packaging. While most brands buried their heads in the sand, The Body Shop — spearheaded by late human rights activist Anita Roddick — made strides. The brand’s unwavering commitment to ethical beauty earned it global success, which is why the recent announcement that it was set to appoint administrators (read: restructure) surprised many. 

What happened to The Body Shop?

When a business goes into corporate restructuring, it enters a legal process to save it from being liquidated or collapsing. With this news, thousands of jobs at The Body Shop, which boasts over 200 shops in the UK and 61 in the US as of December 2023, could now be at risk. According to the BBC, the brand — which alternative investment firm Aurelius Group bought in November 2023 — saw disappointing Christmas sales and had insufficient working capital to meet its day-to-day expenses. But where did it all go wrong for The Body Shop, once considered the mall-brand darling?
The Body Shop’s cruelty-free stance set it apart from other brands, and it has fought for animal rights and a ban on animal testing in cosmetics since 1989. In 2006, its founder, Roddick, sold the company to beauty conglomerate L’Oréal for $1.15 billion, according to the New York Times. L’Oréal says that it has not tested the safety of its products on animals since 1989. Still, the sale disappointed many of The Body Shop’s loyal consumers, who questioned the cosmetics giant’s company-wide ethical standards. In a 2006 interview with The Guardian, Roddick defended the sale to L’Oréal: “I believe they are honorable,” Roddick told the publication. “Especially the work they do on sourcing ingredients,” she added. “I’ve spent lots of time with their sourcing guys.” However, Roddick’s blessing wasn’t enough to convince consumers.

Why did L’Oréal buy The Body Shop?

PR and marketing consultant Laura Wythe was a sales assistant at The Body Shop from 2010 until 2014. Even years after the sale to L’Oréal, she remembers customers complaining about the acquisition. “They would say that the brand wasn’t cruelty-free anymore, and this was challenging and frustrating,” Wythe tells R29. Louise Whitbread, a journalist, editor, and beauty brand consultant, believes that once a brand has lost that consumer trust, it’s almost impossible to rebuild: “The ethics of a brand’s behavior, including everything from workplace welfare to who is an investor or the parent company, are expected to align with its core values,” says Whitbread. She adds that this is especially true when the beauty industry is as saturated as it is with eco-conscious, sustainability-focused competitors. “We also know millennials and Gen Z lack brand loyalty, so if a company is involved in a ‘scandal’ or it doesn’t respond to consumer criticism well, it’s all too easy for customers to move on and not look back,” says Whitbread. She believes that The Body Shop’s core values were compromised when L’Oréal absorbed it; customers saw the move as “selling out.”

The Body Shop’s core values were compromised when L’Oréal absorbed it; customers saw the move as “selling out.”

It seems fans of The Body Shop soon turned their attention to the independently-owned brand Lush, for whom animal protection, workers' rights, and sustainability have always been key. Undoubtedly, Lush proved fierce competition for The Body Shop with its similarly natural body, skin, hair, and makeup collections and the bath bombs it’s now famous for. Meanwhile, in the US, The Body Shop had to contend with Bath & Body Works, an American retail chain that sells inexpensive body care products and fragrances. The global beauty market has never been so saturated, says Whitbread, and ultimately, The Body Shop was unable to compete: “It’s so competitive that to stand out, brands not only need high-performing products, but a strong social presence, transparent values and a distinctive tone of voice,” says Whitbread. 
Whitbread suggests that The Body Shop struggled on all counts. Even more disappointingly, she believes that the brand, which once drew in a large young audience, couldn’t mature alongside its aging, loyal consumer base. Esthetician and beauty brand developer Alicia Lartey agrees: “We grew up with The Body Shop, but it didn’t grow up with us,” she tells R29. Certainly, in 2024, we expect much more from our skincare, says Lartey; we especially want to understand the science behind ingredients, the proven benefits, and exactly how a product works. Spotlighting science and efficacy is why brands like Naturium, The Inkey List, and The Ordinary continue to be so popular.

“We grew up with The Body Shop, but it didn’t grow up with us.”

Alicia Lartey, Esthetician and beauty brand developer
In 2017, Natura & Co bought The Body Shop from L’Oréal. In the years following the acquisition, it unveiled countless new products and ranges, including its Edelweiss skincare collection (formerly Drops of Youth), but Lartey believes that the brand’s products struggled to land with the science-savvy consumer. “Simultaneously, it didn’t connect with an emerging young audience through new and fresh products, accessibility, or visibility,” adds Whitbread. “It pales in comparison to buzzy skincare and makeup brands such as Byoma, CeraVe, e.l.f., and Milk Makeup.” Trina Albus, a marketer, digital content creator and beauty expert with 25 years of experience in the industry, says that brands are in competition more than ever before, especially with the view to go viral on TikTok. Rare Beauty and e.l.f. both do a great job at achieving viral TikTok status, says Albus.

Is The Body Shop still cruelty-free?

The Body Shop’s cruelty-free stance once put the brand in a league of its own. Now, not testing on animals is expected from all cosmetics companies. Whitbread also points out that in 2013, the European Union (EU) introduced a blanket market ban on animal testing. Going forward, every cosmetic product sold in the EU had to be cruelty-free. “Immediately, that diluted The Body Shop’s identity and left it partly indistinguishable from every other beauty brand,” says Whitbread. The vegan movement, which The Body Shop has championed, will continue to grow, adds Whitbread, but it’s no longer new or exciting for consumers.

Is The Body Shop an MLM?

Despite its ethical principles, The Body Shop has courted controversy. This month, the brand announced that it had closed The Body Shop at Home service, which allowed consultants to sell products from their houses, earning a commission in return. This came as welcome news to consumers, who drew comparisons between the business concept and problematic pyramid schemes, which rely on profiting from sign-up fees rather than the sale of actual products. A business page for The Body Shop at Home denied that it was a pyramid scheme but rather a “direct selling channel” that had seen success in the UK and Australia. However, consumers continued to question the concept online, likening it to a multi-level marketing scheme (MLM) — the practice of selling products to the public. MLMs are not without contention. Making money through an MLM is not guaranteed, and in some cases, it can be difficult to earn any income at all. MLM participants have also reported feeling pressured to sell products. 
Regardless, The Body Shop is still thought of fondly, says Whitbread. There is nostalgia around its fruity lip balms and cosseting body butters, but if the brand’s declining sales are anything to go by, it seems its products aren’t being repurchased by those once avid shoppers. Perhaps the recession is partly to blame. With costs rising left and right, we have far less disposable income to spend on beauty. The cost of fair trade, plus sustainable materials and packaging, has also increased, which is often reflected in the price of products. On one hand, plenty of The Body Shop’s consumers have respected its need to raise prices, but many have taken to social media to complain. In regard to the brand’s iconic body butters especially, cheap dupes from Burt's Bees and Soap & Glory are swaying consumers who can’t afford to keep stocked up. 
Price hikes are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to customer dissatisfaction. Loyal The Body Shop fans have vented their disappointment over various discontinued products in a Reddit thread titled “Body Shop — are you trying to destroy your own brand on purpose?” Posters also lamented the decision to axe ranges like Fuji Green Tea. Additionally, in a bid to make all of its current products vegan, The Body Shop reformulated a handful of lines, which seems to upset its fanbase. “I’m actually switching my hair care and deodorant needs to Faith in Nature, and once my skincare stuff runs out, I’ll probably head over to CeraVe as I’ve heard good things about them,” wrote one.

Has The Body Shop lost its identity?

For Wythe, the brand’s nostalgia (think fruity soaps and bath pearls) is why she took a job at The Body Shop. However, ​​like plenty of consumers, Wythe also noticed that the portfolio of products became more trend-led; she believes that these launches were not true to the core identity of the brand and were part of L’Oréal's influence. There is also the matter of excessive launches. “Not only does this dilute the uniqueness of The Body Shop when it’s trying to compete with other mid-range beauty brands already, but it also leads to launch fatigue — especially when we’re in an era of overconsumption,” says Whitbread.

What’s going to happen to The Body Shop?

Here’s the rub: Experts are divided about what The Body Shop should do next. Many Reddit threads have called for a return of bath pearls, fruit soaps, and, of course, Dewberry Perfume Oil. Albus thinks the brand should make the most of this and partner with beauty influencers to create “nostalgia boxes” filled with bestselling products. On the other hand, some beauty experts believe that the brand must evolve to stay relevant. “I think The Body Shop leaned too heavily on nostalgia and then expected consumers who bought its lip balms with their pocket money to convert to serious skincare shoppers as they grew up,” says Tara Ledden, beauty editor at Fabulous. “Bringing back the old greats, like they did with White Musk, reinforced the idea they’d not really moved on from the ’90s,” she says, “and despite the buzz around its relaunch, I don’t imagine many people repurchased a fragrance they used 30 years ago; I certainly wouldn’t walk into Claire’s to buy Lip Smackers now.” 

“Bringing back the old greats, like they did with White Musk, reinforced the idea they’d not really moved on from the ’90s.”

Tara Ledden, beauty editor at Fabulous

Is The Body Shop closing down?

While The Body Shop is unlikely to disappear entirely, the possibility that its brick-and-mortar stores will be lost or that the brand could eventually cease to exist is upsetting to long-time customers. Sanya, a loyal consumer of the brand, says that she would miss the customer service above all: “Everyone is so helpful there, rather than pushy like at Lush, which feels chaotic and gimmicky. At The Body Shop, you can actually take everything in,” she says. “I also like that you can try all the samples without being watched or scorned for doing so.” Moreover, The Body Shop has always been an inclusive space, and its “Everyone is beautiful” tagline welcomes marginalized individuals. Wythe enjoyed being part of something that she felt mattered: “Members of the trans community who felt safe enough with us would purchase their first makeup at The Body Shop,” she says. “I felt privileged to help them in a small way on their journey to becoming their authentic selves.” 
Despite its various downfalls, The Body Shop is a brand that beauty editors would continue to recommend. “So many of its products are brilliant,” says Ledden, “but they’re largely the ones that go under the radar.” Whitbread champions its Chamomile Sumptuous Makeup Cleansing Butter for removing makeup, while the Ginger Anti-Dandruff Shampoo and Ginger Scalp Care Conditioner are R29 favorites. So where does The Body Shop go from here? It seems no one can agree on the future direction of the brand. Whitbread thinks there is potential for it to pivot to an online presence, but the idea of it existing solely in a digital space puts off customers like Sanya: “The Body Shop is such a sensory brand, and I think that this would diminish the experience,” she tells R29. 
Whatever happens next at The Body Shop, one thing is clear, says Whitbread: It will continue to face stiff competition, and now, likely a damaged reputation. 
This story was originally published on Refinery29UK.

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