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The Body Shop is bringing youth perspective to the boardroom. Should you?

Scrutiny of corporate boardroom diversity, particularly when it comes to gender and race, has intensified over the past two years. But those aren’t the only voices deserving of more representation within the C-suites of both large and small companies. 

That’s why British personal care company The Body Shop is supporting a relatively unique effort, dubbed The Body Shop Youth Collective, to bring another group of stakeholders to the decision-making table: youth under 30, a generation that has had little to do with creating the climate crisis but who will live longest with its impact. 

The initiative was inspired by the B Lab U.K.’s Boardroom 2030 program, which challenges businesses to imagine what corporate boards might look like in a more inclusive future at the end of this decade and to experiment with inviting different participants into strategy discussions than might otherwise participate. Roughly two dozen companies, including The Body Shop and London-based Coutts Bank, have participated in Boardroom 2030 “activations” that encourage companies to begin developing the frameworks for such engagement.

The Body Shop hosted its initial Boardroom 2030 meeting publicly, in November during COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, with seven participants under 30 — three employee representatives, two research fellows, a climate activist and a manager from another Certified B Corporation. The 90-minute session also included the personal care company’s CEO and two facilitators; an audience of journalists, activists, consultants and other executives was invited to observe the conversation. 

“We are facing a crisis; things have to be done differently,” reflected The Body Shop CEO David Boynton during that gathering, which I attended. “We need different voices in the room, and we need to be made a little bit uncomfortable.”

I think we’re missing a trick here; we should be working together and pushing each other up … Activism is so important, but so are the people on the inside.

During the Glasgow discussion, framed and led primarily by Chris Davis, director of activism and sustainability at The Body Shop, the youth panel offered feedback on three primary agenda items: the role of product packaging, particularly the company’s refill program; the efficacy and value of including carbon footprint information on specific product labels; and what younger generations are seeking out of a “purpose-led” company, both as consumers as well as potential employees. The feedback from that initial meeting is still under consideration, but the encounter informed the official launch of the collective. 

“You can’t have a business model that is not founded on purpose, if you want to have the best people,” said Glasgow youth panel participant Celeste Leverton, associate director and sustainability manager at Coutts. “If you want to have a longstanding business, you have to take sustainability seriously.”

One of Leverton’s primary concerns about today’s business climate, she said during the Glasgow discussion, is the extreme polarization between many climate activists and the companies they are trying to steer in another strategic direction. “I think we’re missing a trick here; we should be working together and pushing each other up … Activism is so important, but so are the people on the inside,” Leverton said.

Making it official

At the end of the Glasgow gathering, The Body Shop executives pledged to create a more formal structure for continued discussions. The shape of those plans became clearer in May, when the company launched the three-year “Be Seen Be Heard” campaign in collaboration with the Office of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, advocating for deeper youth participation in “public life.” At the heart of that effort was research fielded by The Body Shop in December, covering more than 27,000 people in 26 countries, about half of whom were under 30. The research found that three-quarters of the respondents believe politicians and business leaders had “messed things up” when it came to both human well-being and planetary sustainability. Approximately two-thirds felt that voting ages (where people had that right) should be lowered from 18 to 16, and that young people should be included more explicitly in decision-making of all types.

For perspective, almost one-half of the world’s population is under 30, but that age group makes up just 2.6 percent of parliamentarians, according to data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union. More than one-third of parliaments around the world don’t have a single member under 30; and fewer than 1 percent are women, according to research compiled by the organization. 

Notably, the survey supported by The Body Shop showed that interest in including more youth in decision-making is cross-generational: The data show that people across all age groups believe including more young voices and perspectives in policy development would improve political systems, according to The Body Shop’s Davis.

“The thinking, and the people who created this problem in historic seats of power, are not the thinking and the people who are going to solve this problem,” noted activist Clover Hogan during The Body Shop’s initial meeting at COP. “That would be my first provocation. We need to sit in a transformative place. And, in fact, that is an incredible invitation because it is an opportunity to rethink so much of how we live, breathe and exist in the 21st century.”

Observed Boynton: “The critical thing is we don’t want to be in an echo chamber, right?”

When I spoke with Davis about the new campaign — and the related Youth Collective — he underscored that both efforts are very much works in progress, subject to evolution based on the input of the generation they are meant to serve and embrace. 

“This is about inspiring governments across the world to take action to include young people. We would like to create change,” said Davis, who has had “activism” in his title for about 18 years, long before most companies began linking their corporate social responsibility or sustainability efforts to involvement in policy development. Since that time, he said, The Body Shop has helped influence policy change on many fronts. As a specific example, the company worked from 2009 to 2012 to collect more than 7 million customer signatures in support of legislation to stop trafficking of children and young people, later passed in 24 countries.

Antonia Tony-Fadipe

Welcome to the boardroom 

The Body Shop Youth Collective is one piece of the company’s broader effort to include the perspective of young people more explicitly in business decisions being made by senior leadership, with a particular focus on climate and sustainability agenda items. “We accept the fact that we need to be challenged by those who believe businesses are part of the solution,” Davis said.

The first official collective — which includes five individuals from within The Body Shop and five from other Certified B Corporations — will last 18 months (at least that’s the plan for now), meeting at least two times officially with The Body Shop executives each year, Davis said. To create the group, The Body Shop invited applications from around the world. The individuals were chosen for their enthusiasm, their knowledge of business and their passion in seeing the company become a “better business” as it grows. The committee selected participants using the same process it would follow for general appointments, Davis added.

“It’s not every day that young people are called to important spaces to influence the decision-makers of an established business,” said Antonia Tony-Fadipe, The Body Shop’s inclusive hiring lead, in a written response to my questions about the Youth Collective, of which she is a member. “My passion, motivators and ways of thinking differ to everyone on the Collective, and I was really encouraged by the recruitment process and how bias was removed from the process and diversity of thought a priority. When an opportunity like this presents itself, you must make the most of it to truly make an impact in the local and wider communities.” 

Intention and impact should be clearly outlined for any Youth Collective (and I hope this will inspire many), such that both the business and the collective are aligned on priorities.

The governance component of the group will be particularly important: deciding where to focus and then connecting the Youth Collective with internal specialists who can turn ideas into concrete action will be critically important for credibility and success. “If we were going to take things on, we will need to be able to explain why. And if we are not going to take things on, we also need to explain why. It is our duty to be transparent,” Davis said.

Should you follow their lead?

It’s also the company’s intention to share what it learns with other Certified B Corporations so that they might be able to emulate this process. 

“Being an annexed member of The Body Shop and part of an ambitious young cohort has already afforded me so many learnings, resources and ideas,” noted Collective participant, Abigail Noel Davidson, communications specialist, U.S., at the “slave free” confectionary company Tony’s Chocolonely. “From The Body Shop, I’m taking away valuable presentation/communication skills and a broader perspective on how other businesses operate. Through my peers, I have an inspiring new network of bright and highly talented individuals who I can’t wait to find ways to collaborate with.”

In their written responses, both Tony-Fadipe and Davidson shared a sense of optimism about the initial engagements and the intentionality with which The Body Shop’s executive leadership team has engaged the Youth Collective. However, they both cautioned companies seeking to establish similar initiatives that governance will be incredibly important to avoid the perception of “youthwashing.” It’s worth noting, for example, that the Youth Collective isn’t officially part of The Body’s Shop’s board — although it is the beneficiary of their perspective. It’s still a separate initiative.

Noted Tony-Fadipe: “Initiatives like this should be centered around young people, not centered around the business. What will the young person get from the experience, how will they be a force for good, what skill will they develop for the future? This isn’t about helping the business become more innovative and in tune, but it’s about cultivating a group of future leaders that need a space to grow.”

Added Davidson: “Intention and impact should be clearly outlined for any Youth Collective (and I hope this will inspire many), such that both the business and the collective are aligned on priorities. If businesses venture to create initiatives like this, they need to be open to really listening. Young people are sharper than they’re often given credit for, and they can see through vanity projects. Lastly, it’s imperative that these initiatives benefit both the business and the members of the collective. Too often, the balance is off, especially on the part of the youth who are vulnerable to being taken advantage of.”

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