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Body Shop Founder Lobbies for Clean Water - 2004-09-17

Activist Anita Roddick, who founded a successful cosmetic business called The Body Shop, combines business with environmental and social concerns. She is using her money and influence to promote awareness about water.

Water is the most common substance on earth, but the lack of clean water for drinking and sanitation has become a crisis in many parts of the world. Disputes over water have sparked regional tensions, and some security experts predict that scarce water could prompt wars in the future.

Anita Roddick examines the problem in a book called Troubled Water. It contains essays by environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr., representatives of the organizations Greenpeace, Oxfam, and others.

Ms. Roddick and the essayists take on the big water companies like the French firms Suez and Vivendi. They cast a critical eye on the Americans and Europeans who waste large amounts of clean tap water, but spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on water in plastic bottles. She says it is often no cleaner.

In 1976, Ms. Roddick started her environmentally friendly cosmetics company with a single store in England. It now has more than 2,000 shops in 55 countries. "We brought activism into the work place. We campaigned. We leveraged millions of customers to come in and sign a letter, save a life, human rights work, environmental work. And we had an attitude, which was not about just selling skin care," she says.

As the company sold products like shampoo and face creams, it used its buying power to promote development projects. One product, for example, is made with nuts from a women's cooperative in Ghana, and another uses oil from native Brazilian growers.

At age 62, Ms. Roddick retains ties to the company as a consultant, but in recent years has spent much of her time and fortune in social activism. "I took the activism and said, what do I do at my age? I have got money, I have got influence. So for me it is taking these big issues and popularizing them, using graphics, illustrations, using all media, whether it is my Internet Web sites, whether it is books, whether it is supporting movies, documentaries, just to take these issues out and get them popular because it is not in the mainstream media," she says.

Ms. Roddick points out only a tiny percentage of the world's water is safe for drinking. Most water is found in the oceans, and treatments to remove its salt remain expensive. Some groundwater is naturally contaminated, like the arsenic-laced water found in parts of Bangladesh. In much of the world, human-caused pollution adds to the problem.

Non-government organizations are helping in some places by testing the water and providing filtering systems.

The activist says simple methods can remove some contaminants, as she has seen in Bangladesh. "The women wear saris, and they do an extraordinary thing. They just fold their saris up to five or six times, filter the water through it, and that stops the bacteria. Then they have got in Chile a wonderful initiative where farmers are marking thin nets and they are collecting the fog in the morning. And the dew they collect slides down these nets into makeshift pipes and into ceramic reservoirs. So they are collecting the water that way," she says.

The activist would like to see more people in business involved in the search for solutions. "You know, the world does not need an electric wiggle-waggle toothbrush. It needs responsible products, responsible services. And I think any one of us, it goes without saying, in business or that have an inordinate amount of wealth, should be putting some of our creative ideas or supporting creative solutions for these absolute world problems," she says.

The entrepreneur believes that poverty is the most pressing problem facing the world today, and says imagination and creative thinking can help to solve it. On the water issue, she says conservation, testing, and simple filtering systems would go far toward eliminating the shortages.