Mary Portas on a kinder way of doing business

Mary Portas

Mary Portas - Credit: Josh Shinner

Mary Portas has well and truly turned her back on old-school consumerism, and is encouraging us to look at a better way of doing business – using kindness, respectfulness and creativity.

Broadcaster, author, and high-street hero Mary Portas is highly respected for her business expertise. She’s equally respected for her honesty in admitting that a whole raft of commercial practices she espoused during her earlier career are simply wrong. As she puts it, ‘I’ve fuelled the fire’. 

In her latest book, Rebuild: How to thrive in the new Kindness Economy, she describes one telling vignette. In the 90s, as creative director for Harvey Nichols, her job was to encourage people to splurge on in-fashion luxury. Mary knew she was succeeding when she caught a junior accountant staring lovingly at her new Gucci bag. ‘That’s the moment I should have stopped, shuddered and seen the light,’ she writes; here was a young woman spending hundreds on an accessory she could barely afford. 

Today, out-of-control consumerism is not only hurting pockets but killing the planet. It’s time for a new way of doing business – successful business – using kindness, principles, respectfulness and creativity. 

Speaking out is often difficult; keeping quiet is more so. ‘Covid really, really brought it home. We had time for solitude, internalising and reflection. Once that had gone deeply into who I am, there was no way I could not do this.’ 

What’s more, the new democracy is in our hands. ‘As I said in my TED talk, every pound you spend is a vote on how you want to live.’ 

Rebuild: How to thrive in the new Kindness Economy, by Mary Portas

Rebuild: How to thrive in the new Kindness Economy, by Mary Portas - Credit: Bantam Press

Mary, what needs to change in business practice – and why? 
The way we live is all about ideas that are created, invariably, by the patriarchy - and we’ve bought into this blindly and accepted this is the way business is. It’s taken the near old death of our planet to waken us to go, ‘We’ve really been doing this wrong’. And we have been doing it wrong. The key tenets of success over the past 50/60 years have been: power; money; fame. That’s it. 

Why does business have to be so alpha and so cut-throat? And why do so few women end up at the top? It’s not because they aren’t capable; it’s because of what we have created: behaviours that do not put people at the heart. 

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We need to shift all those on – and it’s happening. I loved it when the European Cup was on. I was sitting with my nine-year-old son, remembering watching the European Cup when my elder son, who’s 26, was much his age. All people were talking about then was what diamond earring Beckham was wearing. All about the look, the image, the money he’d made. 

This time, you had Gareth Southgate hugging his team with open vulnerability. You had Marcus Rashford fighting for school dinners. We had Black Lives Matter; kneeling down. A major shift is starting to happen. We need to keep embracing it. 

If I were to précis your message, it would be: much of business has, up to now, been about the short-term ‘pleasure’ of consuming; happiness is about the long-term state of the planet and its people. 
When I first went into business in the 80s, working in Harvey Nic’s, the message was: I shop, therefore I am. What I buy says that I’ve achieved. What I buy says I have money. What I buy says I have fame, power. We need to change that message. 

This isn’t about not doing business; this is about doing better business. We will all want clothes; we will all still want to eat; we will all want stuff to put into our home. But if we are aware; if we can make businesses question what they are doing, then we will start to make progress. 

Mary Portas joins the circus with Nell Gifford.

Mary Portas, pictured with Nell Gifford of Giffords Circus in May 2019. Nell sadly passed away December 2019 - Credit: Andrew Higgins©Thousand Word Me

You’re a figure with power and influence: it must still be a challenge to have the mettle to say, ‘So much of what I originally stood for I now think is wrong’. 
I don’t know why I’m so late to it but I’m currently reading Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Once you’re on this path of understanding what it is that’s deeply important in the world and society – and, therefore, in business – it’s very difficult to be quiet on it. Just after I’d written Work Like a Woman [her 2018 ‘manifesto’ on future ways of working], I was a keynote speaker for some really big businesses and organisations. Alan Sugar was also performing. They asked us both: What one thing would you say to any business leader to take away today? Alan Sugar said, ‘Keep your eye on the bottom line’. But I knew I had to talk about kindness and respect. And it’s not easy when you’re thinking: Am I going to sound a complete and utter lightweight? But I said it. 

When I talked about community and connection in my high street report [the Portas Review, 2011, commissioned by the Department for Business], I was ridiculed by the Daily Mail. I remember opening up the papers and reading this bashing – and it really hurts. But, somehow, because I was lucky enough to have discovered truly a deeper meaning of how we should live, I was able to think: OK, this too shall pass. 

Do we use the wisdom of our older generations enough? Some of the simpler ways they lived are lessons for today’s world. 
In every other country, age is seen as wisdom. How do you connect with that wisdom and learn from it today, along with the tenets of success? When I did my charity shops [Mary's Living and Giving for Save the Children], I saw people – predominantly women – in their 70s and 80s turning up to work in these shops. At the heart of it, I realised, was this sense of duty that we didn’t have; a sense of giving back. 

Which businesses around your Gloucestershire home do you most admire? 
I love Yellow-Lighted Bookshop run by Hereward: great knowledge and joy. Caroline in The Canteen. Libs and her shop Domestic Science. [All based in Nailsworth.] And Claire and her shop Made in Stroud [Kendrick Street, Stroud].  

It’s as much about the people and their joy running their businesses as it is what they sell. Funny that.  

Mary Portas was one of the speakers at the 2021 Stroud Book Festival: stroudbookfestival.org.uk