Newsmaker: Body and soul - Anita Roddick, Founder, The Body Shop

Tania Mason

Anita Roddick's first contribution to Amnesty International was as a student, selling kisses in pubs to raise money. "I think it was really just any excuse for a snog, in those days," she grins.

Her latest gift to the human rights group is somewhat more substantial.

Last week, she and husband Gordon announced they would donate £1m to the organisation to be spent on the new Human Rights Action Centre in London's Shoreditch. And it's not a one-off expression of generosity, either - they say they will stump up a similar amount each year for various organisations involved in causes close to their hearts.

The problem is, it's easier to list the issues Roddick doesn't care passionately about. Though she insists that her interests are "99.9 per cent human rights", her bugbears are widely documented - rainforest destruction, child sweatshop labour, corporate irresponsibility, global warming, torture, freeing political prisoners.

She makes no pretence to diplomacy or political correctness - big business is interested in nothing but profits, and governments are useless because they are in bed with business. And she flatly rejects any suggestion that she might have more impact concentrating on just one or two issues. "I think we can tame multitudes," she says cheerfully.

In conversation Roddick wanders off on tangents constantly, but this is the result of wanting to get so much across, wanting to highlight all those injustices, wanting to change so much. At times she's so fired up she veers into incoherence, but you can't fail to be inspired - her passion and drive are utterly palpable. And you can't argue with history; over the years she has been a tireless campaigner, turning her Body Shop stores into 'action stations' and using her marketing and communications expertise to popularise issues and galvanise support. Four million people called into UK Body Shop stores to help get the law changed on animal testing, while 12 million visited its shops around the world to support Amnesty's 'Make Our Mark' campaign to free prisoners of conscience jailed for defending human rights. The animal-testing law was changed and several prisoners were freed - those are just two examples.

As a daughter of the first Italian immigrant family in Littlehampton, West Sussex, Roddick grew up "always dancing to a different drum".

"I knew I was going to be different because I was told often enough that I was," she says. "What I didn't know was that I was going to be financially successful. But the minute I did know that, I said I'm going to make this money for good causes, to spend it on campaigning. I want to get my hands dirty."

The £1m gift equates to 2.85 per cent of the couple's £35m fortune, yet Roddick does not think a 'giving benchmark' would entice Britain's rich to give more away, as suggested recently by Lord Joffe. "I don't think anything will. I think wealth corrodes the human spirit, I really do.

And it corrodes it in so many ways that are almost below the radar screen - you have less empathy with the human condition. We live in silos, in gated cities, we don't take the Tube, we don't queue." She makes sure she doesn't lose touch with humanity by deliberately "putting obstacles in the way"; for example, she regularly spends time in the slums of Bangladesh checking on children involved in child labour and once travelled with an American vagabond.

Roddick spent a lot of time in the US this year, and worries about the infiltration of huge charities and foundations there by "corporate sinners".

She's "in awe" of some voluntary groups in the UK - War on Want, Oxfam, Christian Aid, People and Planet - but thinks "they've done a lousy job with the DfID. Most aid money is only given if it's linked to privatisation.

That's a bloody sin". She evidently missed Gordon Brown's spending review pledge to increase international aid, but has a better idea anyway: "You know what he should do? Move the money from the military and give it to aid. Yes, it is that simple. The only obstacle is imagination, there's such a poverty of imagination. Think of all the money we spent on that phoney war. It's a disgrace."

But she also reckons that charities in America are sexier than in the UK. "They're damn sexy. They can corral, they can articulate, they seem to home in on their members far better than we do. We're too dull. I think that's a lot to do with the Charity Commission, that place has to be shaken up."

She likes the word 'sexy' - she uses it in lectures to convince students to become activists. "I tell them nothing is sexy about grabbing your hair and looking for the split ends, or worrying about your boob size.

Nothing is sexy about just sitting back with your arms folded. What is sexy is getting out and standing up, being part of a movement, a protest, being part of a passion that explodes. It's cool to stand up and protest.

It's creative. The World Social Forum stuff is very exciting, the grass-roots movement is coming up with really creative economic and human rights solutions. It's more creative than anything IBM or Microsoft could ever be."

There's another quotation that Roddick is fond of using - in fact she likes it so much it is painted on Body Shop trucks: "If you think you are too small to be effective, you have never been to bed with a mosquito." There must be plenty of people with a vested self-interest that would like to swat this particular bug, but she's not going anywhere. As she says: "Motivation, when it comes from the heart and with a sense of outrage, is unstoppable."

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