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Shriti Malhotra: The beauty bottler

The CEO of The Body Shop India talks about the Indian personal care market, sustainable packaging, and her desire to grow a wood-rose shrub

Shriti Malhotra, CEO, The Body Shop India
Shriti Malhotra, CEO, The Body Shop India

Shriti Malhotra drops the cultivated correctness of a corporate leader only when she talks about her love for plants. Her face lights up as she describes her home in Delhi, which, going by her description, is the indoor version of the Amazon rainforest.

“I grow them inside my drawing room too and people are quite sick of them...the whole house has hanging plants. You bump into them everywhere," Malhotra says, laughing. “I have no decoration except plants." Besides house plants, Malhotra has a terrace garden and is part of a community-farming project to grow vegetables in Gurugram; this is also her “retirement plan".

More about Shriti Malhotra
More about Shriti Malhotra

“It’s not about gardening as much as that I find solace outside in nature," she says. “Everyone will agree gardening is therapeutic. I started growing dhania (coriander), pudina (mint) and palak (spinach) on the windowsill and the joy of watching them grow, plucking and putting (them) in food…. The purity of that garnishing is something to be experienced. My biggest joy is a flowering plant."

Seated at Vista at Taj Lands End in Mumbai, 49-year-old Malhotra is measured as she considers each question before responding. The CEO of Body Shop India, who has been with the company since 2007 and became its CEO in 2010, has just arrived in the city, on a brief visit for a commercial shoot with actor and brand ambassador Shraddha Kapoor.

The gardening hobby gels well with some of Malhotra’s life philosophies, including those of the company she works for—The Body Shop, the skincare, make-up and fragrance brand, was one of the first to take a stand on animal testing in the cosmetics industry. Malhotra turned vegan about eight months ago, after being a vegetarian for about 30 years, because it just seemed the right thing to do.

As the hotel guests begin to shuffle in for the buffet lunch, Malhotra orders a black coffee, but barely pays attention to it when it arrives. A by-product of her diet change is a reduction in the intake of hot beverages because there are only that many black coffees or teas one can have.

Having grown up in Ranchi, Jharkhand, Malhotra moved to Delhi for college, graduating in history from Miranda House before heading to the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), where her interest in retail developed. It also seemed the right time to get into the business of fashion, which was on the rise post-liberalization. Besides Benetton, her first job, she worked with Nike and Puma and did licencing and distribution for brands like Callaway (golf), Spalding (basketball) and Wilson (tennis).

“In small towns, you really have nothing to do," she says about her interest in sport. So, growing up, she followed every discipline and idolized cricketers Ian Botham, Dennis Lillee and tennis super brat John McEnroe.

She prefers working in companies that are “disruptive", like The Body Shop, set up by animal rights activist and environmentalist Anita Roddick in the UK in 1976. “She had her own way of upsetting the status quo," says Malhotra of Roddick, who died in 2007. “It attracted a lot of people, including me. The fact that it has a voice—sometimes strong, sometimes weak—that resides within a set of cultural values. It was an extension of what I wanted."

She always found consumers interesting, right from the time she was at NIFT two-and-a-half decades ago, even though a lot of her colleagues went to work for fashion houses. She believes retail is a tough profession because it’s consumer facing all the time. “It puts you out there and you get the brickbats as well."

The Body Shop attracted a lot of brickbats when it was sold to cosmetics giant L’Oreal in 2006 because animal rights groups opposed the French company’s testing methods. While L’Oreal had its shares of challenges with The Body Shop (in turn selling it to Brazil’s Natura Cosméticos for $1.12 billion, around 8,000 crore now, in 2017), competition also came from other brands like Boots in the UK and Lush, and e-commerce more recently.

With nearly 200 stores across 70-odd cities, India is now among the top 10 markets for the global beauty brand, though Malhotra aims to get into the top 5. India has its own home-grown brands and traditional practices like Ayurveda, which makes any newcomer battle for the attention of the consumer. “The essence of Ayurveda is strong, with 5,000 years of tradition," says Malhotra. “Our strong tradition of natural ingredients has made it an easy connect with Indians. Our appeal is wider...but each has its own path."

She finds the Indian consumer discerning, curious to know the stories behind their products, and with a deep social concern. “We (Indians) have opinions, read a lot and consume a lot of information. The segment we deal with has a definite point of view, are vocal about it. They read the fine print."

Malhotra knows that 70-80% of consumers are searching for “green" and “natural" in personal grooming. For religious or other reasons, people are conscious of what lipstick they use, for example.

“There are a few principles The Body Shop is based on and I am happy to talk about it. Don’t hurt anyone for vanity because business should not cause harm to anyone. If you have to test, use science, as there is little similarity between humans and animals, so those tests are not that accurate anyway. When the whole world was making musk from deer, we made it from synthetic," says Malhotra.

In 1987, Roddick introduced an initiative called Community Trade, under which ingredients are produced by small, mostly women-led, communities. “For instance, one of our top selling ranges, Tea Tree Oil, which is sold every 2 seconds globally, is produced by a small cooperative of 500 farmers in Kenya supplying to the world," says Malhotra.

Interestingly, one of the first Community Trade initiatives was implemented in India, with the sourcing of handcrafted wooden bath accessories from a small outfit in Madurai. The Body Shop does not have production facilities in India (because it’s an international brand with global factories and sources, says Malhotra) though it does source some ingredients from the country, like mango seed oil from Chhattisgarh.

Last year, the company launched a Community Trade recycled plastic programme for its 250ml haircare bottles. The plan is to scale the initiative to buying 900 tons of recycled plastic in three years, working with non-governmental organization Hasiru Dala in Bengaluru.

But the obvious question is, why use plastic packaging at all?

“I don’t know and I am not qualified on how to eliminate it altogether. It’s everywhere. What we can do is be responsible for what’s out there. The idea is to recycle, repurpose and reuse. I am sure there will be more scientific advancement, which will help find alternatives to plastic."

Prior to Kapoor, who was signed up as brand ambassador last year, actor Jacqueline Fernandez was The Body Shop’s brand ambassador in India. Though the company was briefly associated with three women cricketers in 2018, long-term engagement continues with movie stars. Last year, the company also did its first television commercial, a first for the company globally, with Kapoor. Is Bollywood the only representative of beauty in the country?

“Globally we don’t have a communication angle like this. But India is so fragmented, it resides in all places, not just big cities," says Malhotra. “It’s too complex. Smaller towns have aspirations, want brands and don’t have them. We understood there is a part of India outside big cities. Bollywood is not the only symbol of beauty but we need a large brand voice. We started with Bollywood because it gets your voice out. We are updating our choices of spokespersons."

About 25% of The Body Shop customers happen to be men, she explains, but they don’t record men’s sales separately because the same products work for all genders—other than, of course, specific ranges for men like shaving products. “The whole store is there for you," she says, laughing.

She used to read a lot, Malhotra says, emphasizing the past tense, because it’s increasingly difficult to do so now. “If I have nothing else to do, I just open Wikipedia and look for information."

I return to the subject of plants, asking for her favourite or what she would like to grow next. Wood rose (Argyreia nervosa), she says, laughing, describing a green plant that bursts into yellow flowers and a (seemingly) wooden rose. She scans through her phone to show me some pictures of the plant, which is indigenous to India and South America.

“It used to grow in Ranchi," she says. “I contacted a grower in Texas and planted the seeds. It grew for three years, gave me one rose and died, because it needs to go deep and I didn’t have enough space."

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.

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