Pins Brown

Sustainability and fairness drive Pins

Pins Brown (MML 1992) has long had an interest in fairness, which has translated into her role as Head of Ethical and Sustainable Sourcing at The Body Shop. She shares her story.

Why did you study at Fitzwilliam?

I applied to Caius, because I was studying French and Italian, and they had an Italian tutor, which Fitz didn’t. I was rejected and pooled. The Master of Fitz, Robert Lethbridge, was a linguist, and fished people out of the pool. Of my crop of linguists at Fitz, I think about four out of the 10 of us had applied to other colleges. He was very proud of the fact that Fitz had a particularly good record in terms of results in modern languages and, of the four from the pool in my year, at least three of us got firsts. He used to find this particularly amusing! 

My grandfather, Clement Brown, attended Fitz when it was still Fitzwilliam House and for those who couldn’t afford college fees. It felt circular that that’s where I ended up. According to my Dad, I’m a lot like him – there are definite parallels. He was a cotton geneticist, and he went to SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies, in London), to learn Arabic. He lived in Egypt for 25 years, then in Israel and Guyana. He was an agricultural specialist, wrote a seminal book on Egyptian cotton – he was partly responsible for the long-grain Egyptian cotton which is still famous – he was also interested in international relations, moral questions and poetry (which I love). He used to sit in church, but he was not religious – I used to sit in John’s chapel, and I’m not religious at all, but I took peace from that side of Cambridge.

What was your experience at Fitzwilliam like?

It didn’t meet the stereotype of a Cambridge college. It was far more forward-looking and had a history of a more egalitarian approach to life. I think that was reflected in the student body and the attitudes of the students and staff, less hierarchical and less elitist. Although most of my teaching wasn’t in College, my friendships were strong. I did a lot of rowing, including with Sarah Winckless very briefly. When I was sitting my finals I decided I needed physical exercise to balance out all of the revision, so I went back to rowing in the last term – I rowed every year at Fitz. A lot of my memories of Cambridge are about my Italian degree. I did Italian from scratch and had very good teaching. I lived in Florence for a year, worked in a bar, did lots of rowing and ice-cream eating, and spoke lots of Italian. Florence has an institute of Italian Renaissance studies, just outside the city. I did a dissertation on the symbolism of the garden in the Decameron, a particular Italian book a bit like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and the setting of that book was in the village where I Tatti is, a garden overlooking Florence. 

John Leigh at Fitz taught Voltaire to my cohort and Voltaire’s message that we should all engage with the world stuck with me as did many other things. In terms of history, we studied books on crime and punishment, the Italian social history of Italy during the war, Mussolini, Machiavelli, which is always relevant – I find Voltaire and Machiavelli useful in my day-to-day work now. 

Please tell us about your career path to your current position.

I was only 17 when I left school. Too young for university, so I spent a gap year working and then volunteering and travelling, a lot of it in southern Africa. When I was a student at Cambridge, I carried on that interest in travel and trade. I went to Kenya for three months and Ghana for three months in summer holidays. By the time I graduated, I decided I wanted to work in development, so I went to SOAS and did a Masters there in International Law, Development and Diplomacy. During that time, I realised it was rights and justice I was interested in – fighting to change the things we shouldn’t accept, not the other way around. I got a job at a child sponsorship agency Plan International then the UN Refugee Agency, and then briefly at The Body Shop, 20 years ago, when it was run by Anita and Gordon Roddick. That was at the time of people looking at the role of business, not just governments, campaigning by Oxfam on the coffee trade. The Body Shop at that time was the only company worldwide making a big noise, so it was always of interest to me. About two years ago, a Brazilian company called Natura bought The Body Shop from L’Oreal and I was approached, having been working on business and human rights for some time. 

Pins Brown cotton
Pins Brown, second right, with the Malian Cotton Marketing Board

It was a time of change for The Body Shop, returning to those roots on human rights and business as a force for good. It has a long history on ethical trade, looking at manufacturing and supply chains, and that’s my area of work, and I wanted the chance to do more on climate crisis and animal rights too; Natura has long advocated sustainable development too. I work in the sourcing department, buying and selling as part of the business. We are quite transparent and there’s lots of information about what our issues are and what we’re doing about them, and we do a lot of advocacy on business models, recently becoming a B-Corp

We need to use less plastic, but we’re also keen to promote organisations like Plastics for Change. They are based in Bengaluru, India (but spreading elsewhere) and via them and Hasiru Dala, plastic collected by waste-pickers finds its way to The Body Shop’s shampoo bottles. We’re not presenting everything as perfect, but we give concrete examples of something we’re doing well, and not holding it as some exclusive deal. We want more businesses to be buying plastic from waste pickers in India at a fair price. The Body Shop had a refill scheme which stopped in the early 90s because not enough customers were using it, but now we’re piloting it again. Globally people are getting far more interested in those issues. 

Pins Brown tree
Pins Brown with a shea tree seedling while working with the Global Shea Alliance

What drives you?

I have two children – daughters aged 10 and 14 – and two step sons, so that keeps me facing the future. My 14-year-old daughter has been on the climate protests and has been interested in understanding party politics and Brexit, and what that means for her generation. 

It sounds trite, but I want to see justice and equality, be it on wages, or climate. I don’t like unfairness and I don’t like hypocrisy. There’s a lot of that in the business world, as elsewhere. I never recover from that every time I travel, whether that is here in the UK or overseas – I can’t understand unfairness, and why we have excess in one place and not enough of what people need in another place. A sustainability architect in Brighton (where I live) says there’s no such thing as waste, it’s just stuff in the wrong place. Trade is so powerful and everyone can understand what it means to swop one thing for another. I can make a small difference in my daily life, but what I can do by influencing decision -making at The Body Shop and getting The Body Shop to influence other businesses and people is more impactful. And when the going gets tough, I rely on Gramsci, Italian philosopher – ‘pessimism of the spirit, optimism of the will’. And a glass of whisky for the good times and the bad.