Suzy Hutomo co-founded The Body Shop Indonesia with her husband in 1992, where she is now Chairwoman. Parallel to her successful career in business, she is a committed environmental activist. Suzy is a presenter in Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, and serves as a member on various boards of reputable NGOs such as Greenpeace South East Asia , Yayasan KEHATI , Yayasan Lensa Masyarat Nusantara and Yayasan Kopernik . For Suzy, the well-being of the environment, threatened by climate change, lies at the interface of her identities as a businesswoman and activist. Her goal is to help and inspire others to develop a green and sustainable lifestyle whilst also proving that being mindful of the environment can be easy, fun and effortless.
AGS: When you co-founded The Body Shop were you already a committed environmentalist or is that something which happened as a result of coming in contact with The Body Shop philosophy?
SH: In fact it began quite early. My parents were from Makassar which is both close to the sea and the mountains, so any free time we had was always devoted to going to the mountains or the ocean. It was the same with my brother and sister, mostly we were going fishing or looking for clams or stuff like that. We didn’t have much money but in my memories as a child we were always going out into nature.
Jakarta was still beautiful when we moved there and again we went up to the Puncak tea plantations and these were the happy family events which forged my connection with nature early on. Then I learned what was happening to those places that I loved and when I came back from school and read all the data and found out about the mining–it was the 70’s so not yet the palm oil plantations- but then that started with trees being cut down and the use of pesticides and I learned about DDT and the dangers it caused and it was really scary. And yes that’s what made me an environmentalist, but not active yet at that time.
Eventually what happened was that my mother had an organic farm so we began to understand what’s wrong with the farming system and it all came together and I was already on that journey, already feeling I had to do something. Then I met Anita (Roddick, founder of The Body Shop) and the two pieces of the puzzle came together, to discover that as a business person I could actually make an impact with The Body Shop.
AGS: How is The Body Shop doing in Indonesia now? Has the whole Covid pandemic which has had such a negative impact on retail sales, affected you too? Will mall based retail every recover?
SH: Well, it has been very challenging because we were basically 93% offline and when everything closed down that was a really big deal and it really hurt us a lot. But we made a decision, we won’t let any full-time employees go as much as possible. That’s going to be drawing the line in the sand and happily, we managed to do that. So we’ve managed to survive. I think the whole point of 2020 was we managed to survive and come back for another day. That was the biggest objective we had. So during the lockdown, together with our employees we set up a new “WhatsApp” business within two weeks. They really worked really hard while we all went, obviously working from home and from where my husband and I sent many messages encouraging everybody.
Our CEO was working day and night online, and we got advisors and consultants telling us what we must do. We just pulled out all the stops to make sure that our employees felt we were going to survive and that we understand how to navigate through this with the cash situation, with the closures, and now we’re progressing to become an online retailer, if you will, to make sure that our online channels are just as strong as our offline. So that’s how it transitioned. And that’s why I think we’re surviving. But it’s taking a while to come back, obviously in the bottom line. Sales wise obviously we’ve suffered the same decline that most people have. Our online’s gone up, but hasn’t quite gone up as quickly as we would have hoped because we were basically an offline retailer. So now we’re fixing that to become both online and offline.
AGS: Your shop presentations were always good and people liked to look at the products but I’m sure this can also be done well online. But let’s talk about you as a woman entrepreneur and environmentalist. What challenges have you faced, if any, being a woman in Indonesia?
SH: I think in the beginning, there was always a challenge because when you’re younger and you don’t have a strong sense of self it’s difficult because men are so much more used to just feeling it’s their right to say things to make themselves heard. It’s like, how do you know? It’s a normal thing. Whereas women, you feel like, “should I make myself heard? Is it my time to say something?” You know I felt that a lot when going to a meeting with a lot of men, or going to NGO things, you feel like “is it my turn yet?” As I got older I became very much more clear about what I stand for, the stories that I had to tell and the things that I can have impact on. It became much easier because I know what I’m going to talk about.
And I can see the opportunities where I can contribute and probably say a lot more things that the men. They’re not seeing as much as I am. So why do I have the feeling that I don’t have a right to be on this table? So that’s a bit of a challenge. You have to process as a woman because as an Asian you are brought up to bring harmony. I mean in I my culture, because my father was an entrepreneur, he didn’t really expect a woman to pander to men, but he does. I mean, we were brought up to know that a woman’s place was to bring harmony not to give an impression that something is wrong or something like that.
Afterwards we can talk to people to smooth things out, but in public, you don’t necessarily become somebody who has identity. So that was the biggest barrier: to then understand men don’t feel that way. And because we’re women, we can tap into a way of saying things that can be just as important, but not necessarily bringing about a lot of contention. So that’s the challenge that I have come across in the early days when you’re always being underestimated unless they knew who you were, which I don’t really like, because in Indonesia status alone means a lot.
That is something that we have to understand. I just don’t like people to label me due to my status. I want people to understand what I have to say and what I stand for rather than because I am “so and so” or doctor or whatever. I don’t like that stuff personally. So I always come in as somebody with something to say, a stakeholder. I believe in stakeholdership, I come in as a stakeholder and this is who I am, and this is what I have to say. And I’d like to persuade you to my point of view or whatever I have to say. In the old days, I must be frank. I always brought a man with me, my husband or my staff, who’s pretty senior, and who looks like he was important. And he would do a little introduction because I felt that it was easier that way. It took a long time for me to lean in, but today I’m much older, so I don’t need that. But in the old days, I felt I had to because men generally like to listen to men, if the men say, okay, now you would like to speak then, they’ll listen. Oh, if I come in with the big hair and the big bang, and then they’ll listen, but I don’t like that.
AGS: Now you’ve got the opportunity also to make that difference in The Body Shop. How are you addressing the whole business of gender equality?
SH: Well we we’ve signed on recently to the UN Women Representative for UN Women. We already, from our early days have unwritten policies about women. Like if a child is sick, you have to go home and nobody’s going to ask you any questions. That’s just an unspoken rule. And we don’t like meetings after six-you could go over an hour, but that’s it, because a lot of our employees are women. 93% are women, so women have to go home. It’s just an unwritten rule for us. We’ve recruited some senior women who actually said, I will only join you if you have no meetings at night, and I said, “Thank God. Because we don’t like meetings at night”.
In the past when we had very old fashioned men, and when there weren’t very many women who were qualified and we had this head of operation, who always had meetings at 10 o’clock and that was just terrible for women. So I said, no, we don’t want that anymore. So that’s one. We have obviously things like facilities for breastfeeding, but now that we are now looking at the women’s empowerment and our HR department, which is run by a woman is now looking into implementing 10 more policies for women, including having a hotline for any complaints about harassment and so on.
And the other thing I would say is we have a huge campaign out right now. We’re collecting petitions in order to pass the law to eradicate sexual violence in Indonesia, this is a very important point. We surveyed our employees to say, how many percent of you have heard or experienced sexual violence? And the answer is 96%. This is a huge issue in Indonesian society. And in this pandemic time, the calls coming into the counseling hotline has risen three to four times. It was just more pressure, more stress, so more violence against women. So this is a big campaign running right now. And your readers can all go to our website, thebodyshop.com, TBS, or sisters.co.id. to find out more.
AGS: Yes. I think you’re absolutely right. This is one of the things that we are addressing in this section, the way journalists and the media also address gender inequality. So often the victim turns into the perpetrator And we also want to try and help to change the way in which the media always seems to end up saying “she dressed sexily, therefore she deserves to have been raped”. I mean that sort of statement, we are absolutely called appalled by that.
SH: Exactly. I’m glad you were spreading that message. That victim blaming is one of the key things we try to eradicate.
AGS: One of the things that I admire about you is the fact that you say. It’s easy to be sustainable. It’s easy, effortless, and fun!
SH: So if you’re onto my site and my Instagram actually you see me doing all these sort of fun things. And that’s because I am basically also a communicator. And because I felt more people had to understand about the environment. I tried to do it in this way because I’ve got a very young production team, very young, my daughter and my niece, and also two other young people. So they tell me that you have to be doing tick-tock style or What’s App! And I follow them because I want to connect with young people who are the future.
However, for business, that’s a totally different thing. As you may know, this whole debate on responsibility in business has moved to sustainability with the three areas, you know they call it profit, people and planet.
For me, it’s always been the other way around for me. It’s always been planet, people and then profit. The reason is that there can be no profit on a dead planet. None of us have realized how can you ever make profit on a planet that’s dead?. Come on, give me a break. In 50 years time this is going to be the biggest problem we’re facing.
AGS: So what do you think is the most important thing you’ve done in your drive for sustainability?
SH: I think the most important is that our recycling of our bottles has been the entry point to the consciousness about responsible consumption and therefore the environment for the 10 or 15 years, that we’ve been doing this. You know, originally we always collected bottles, but we never rewarded people, we just gave them a little flower or something. Now we know that didn’t work. This is a lesson. It works, when it’s all three: you have to touch, you have to touch the imagination, you have to touch the reward. We have to make it worth it for the consumer to do anything about it.
AGS: Hopefully people will listen to this because the whole point is building on the experience of women in business, and you have built a fantastic franchise with responsibility built in. Ibu Suzy you have been a great inspiration to us, thank you very much for being with us today on this now Jakarta Bali MVB interview. We thank you for all of the work you’re doing, a woman who’s made things happen and hasn’t stopped yet. Thank you very much.