February 14, 2024 - 1:10pm

Much has been made of the catchphrase “go woke go broke”, but what happens when companies go broke because they are not actually woke enough? This seems to be the case with The Body Shop, a high street skincare and beauty retailer, which has now gone into administration.

Founded in 1976, The Body Shop was once a trailblazing pioneer of ethical, cruelty-free business, built on values of environmental conscience and social justice. Its founder Anita Roddick championed “inclusive beauty” with an ad campaign centred on a full-figured doll called Ruby; she put photos of missing people on the sides of her delivery trucks; and in 1991 she led a petition with over four million signatures to stop animal testing. 

Yet now The Body Shop is another victim of the TikTokification of the beauty industry. Beauty trends are now just a swipe rather than a shopping trip away, and The Body Shop failed to connect with new customers or position itself to a new generation who discover their favourite products on social media. The modern-day ubiquity of “Body Shop values” also means that the business lost its unique selling point; “sustainable”, “eco-friendly” and “green” are no longer just buzzwords but industry standards. As more and more businesses joined the clean, natural and ethical brigade, The Body Shop simply could not compete against more online-facing brands such as Aesop, Glossier, Sephora, e.l.f. and The Ordinary.

But what is really more important to younger audiences: being vegan, or being viral? Members of Generation Z are often hailed as more sustainable, eco-conscious consumers, but the reality is a lot more complicated. Research by McKinsey suggests that the cost-of-living crisis has eroded Gen Z’s willingness to purchase sustainable products, and that all age groups prioritise price, quality and convenience instead. Another survey found that the group is more likely than any other generation to place value in low costs over an environmentally-friendly product. 

Much is made of Gen Z members’ strong moral values, but their concerns about climate change and social justice don’t always translate into purchasing behaviours. They are voracious consumers of fast-fashion brands with deeply unethical practices (there is a whole TikTok sub-genre of “clothing hauls”, where content creators show off their recent purchases, many of which are never worn or thrown away after one use). Zoomers are travelling (and flying) more than previous generations; they are the least likely generation to recycle; and while 60% say a brand’s sustainability is important to them, only 20% actively seek out that information. 

This cognitive dissonance is a problem for brands like The Body Shop, which can’t compete with online retailers on price points but are not quite valued enough that consumers can justify the premium. For example, from 2021 The Body Shop launched refill stations in hundreds of its stores, which may have appealed to people’s social sensibilities, but not their price-sensitive pockets. The company tried other initiatives: discontinuing face wipes, expanding its refill programme to make-up, creating a Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill. Yet nothing beats the cult of convenience, or the lure of a celebrity influencer gushing about a beauty product whilst simultaneously using filters, ring lights and other editing tools. High-street brands don’t stand a chance.

Kristina Murkett is a freelance writer and English teacher.