Mary Portas: ‘I had no idea consumerism was killing the planet’

The former ‘queen of shops’ says people ‘have been shown the wrong ideas on how to live’

Mary Portas – her ‘brand’  sharply cut red hair style has been replaced by a softer, natural cut of blond shot with grey.

Mary Portas – her ‘brand’ sharply cut red hair style has been replaced by a softer, natural cut of blond shot with grey.

 

Mary Portas loosely divides the world into the “give-a-f**ks” and the “don’t-give-a-f**ks”. Once she might have found herself sashaying around the latter camp like a monarch of money but she has more recently found herself lining out resolutely with the “give-a-f**ks”.

Although the journey she has taken from a stellar ingenue executive and creative director at British upmarket department store Harvey Nichols to the ballsy, take no prisoners TV role as Queen of Shops to her new role as the conscience of capitalism and a duchess of decency may seem unlikely, it’s not far from how she was reared.

As the child of Irish parents who had moved from Northern Ireland to Watford in the UK in the 1950s, she was brought up in a world of make-do and mend, a long way from the dedicated followers of fast fashion and rampant consumerism she first bought into but now rails against.

I had no idea that consumerism was killing the planet, I had no idea. We didn’t have a bloody clue

Her new book, Rebuild: How to Thrive in the New Kindness Economy, views the world through a post-Covid prism and while the past 18 months of pandemic have been almost relentlessly bleak, she is full of optimism that “from despair comes hope”.

But first what some people might consider to be the elephant in the room. Her hair. For years, her bright orange or fire-engine red bob was an integral part of the Portas “brand” – her word. It is gone now, another victim of the lockdowns across the Irish Sea. Instead her hair is longer and blonder with streaks of grey.

As a sign of a changed approach, it is as good as any.

Her new book is full of signs of change too. In it she writes that the Covid era “offers us a huge opportunity for transformation, growth and the righting of a system that has only skewed further and further off course in recent decades”.

She says the “hamster wheel of consumerism” is “turning faster and faster. Even the words we use to describe the products sound relentless: the must-have, must-buy, must-get bag/dress/coat of the moment. For the consumer, it’s about the pursuit, the thrill of the chase, then finally the catch. And, crucially, the prices have risen and risen as appetite has grown”.

Mary Portas in a former role – as presenter of Secret Shopper, her Channel 4 TV series
Mary Portas in a former role – as presenter of Secret Shopper, her Channel 4 TV series

She believes the “central tenet of rampant consumerism has been killing our planet. It has been exploiting vast numbers of people. It has been draining the only resources we will ever have. And, in its relentless drive to make us sate our anxiety by consuming more and more, it has been killing our collective wellbeing”.

And she says people “have been shown the wrong ideas on how to live” and is now of the view that Covid times present a “real chance to rebuild something from scratch, something that is better for all of us, but we need education on what better means”.

While her words are stirring, it would be remiss not to point out that, over the course of a working life that started on the shop floor of John Lewis and led to the executive floor of Harvey Nichols, to a high-profile role as a retail tsar for David Cameron’s Tory government and her multiple TV programmes, Portas is surely in part responsible for the “rampant consumerism” she now decries.

She takes the implied criticism on the chin and says for a long time she felt “a huge amount of guilt” but stresses she “had to be a bit accepting of myself. I had no idea that consumerism was killing the planet, I had no idea. We didn’t have a bloody clue.

I grew up in second-hand clothes. I didn’t have anything new until I was 11. I remember bin liners of my cousins’ clothes would come

“The tenets of success that we have been fed in my lifetime are power, money, fame and that’s it. If you’ve got those or any one of those, then you are on the road.”

She believes her knowledge of how fashion and retail work, and what makes consumers tick, is a strength rather than a weakness. “All I can say is I’ve tried through my 26 charity shops and what I’m doing now, to say I am going to do something about this, because the other option was to do nothing about it. I’m going to use that skill and I am going to use that knowledge to make change here.”

Portas says after her Tyrone-born Catholic mother and Belfast-born Protestant father got married they were “just like let’s get out of here”. With family in the North through the 1970s and 1980s, the Troubles were never far from her parents’ minds, and she recalls her “mother getting really upset” when hearing about bombings. “There was always the fear of what was happening,” she says. “I didn’t feel it so much, maybe I was too young.”

She bristles at the way the clothes business has gone, and reaches into her past to explain why.

“Good value is knowing where something is made and buying less and buying better and I know people will say that is easy for you to say in your north London lovely home, but when I grew up we did not have the pressure of society demanding that we buy more. I grew up in second-hand clothes. I didn’t have anything new until I was 11; it was always hand-me-downs from my auntie Cathy, and I remember bin liners of my cousins’ clothes would come.”

We’ve been told that new is good incessantly, and we’ve been told I can also get a lot of clothes so cheaply that it’s not worth recycling it

And she was happy to get them. “Cheap also means it probably hasn’t been produced with the best ethics. You cannot produce something that cheap without someone being affected.”

Portas is 61 and has three three children, two with her husband, Graham Portas and a third with her wife, Melanie Rickey.

She recalls offering the hardly worn baby clothes of her youngest child to a pregnant friend. “She was like ‘oh no, it’s okay I’m gonna buy my own’. And I just thought oh my God, this is how the world has changed? There’s nothing wrong with these, he’s been in them for a month and I’ve washed them numerous times.

“But we’ve been told that new is good incessantly and it is all about you and where you are, and we’ve been told I can also get a lot of clothes so cheaply that it’s not worth recycling it.”

In her book, Portas doesn’t want to lecture or scold but bring people with her on a journey to a better place. She uses an Alice Walker quote to make a point about power. “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any”, but she says everyone “has the power to create change. History has shown us that. Shifts happen when enough individual people knit together to create a larger force”.

She references the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter and the climate protests spearheaded by Greta Thunberg. “All of these movements really made change happen,” she says. “The next step is businesses changing. We can change as consumers, but unless businesses change we’ll still be buying into the same system.

“This doesn’t mean capitalism can’t continue; this is capitalism with a conscience and decency at heart. I’m not an anti-capitalist, but I don’t believe in us at the expense of the planet or at the expense of humanity.”

She says when lockdowns trapped people in their homes and shut off the outside world “we realised how little we need to buy and we realised the power of community and the importance of local and how so much was really completely out of our hands and we had no control.

“But out of despair comes enlightenment, that’s the only way we grow, when things get broke we rise again. We don’t grow from bobbing along and having a lovely life. We just don’t.”

Portas believes people will be spending about a third more time in or close to their homes in a post-pandemic world, which is going to make local more important 

She believes the book serves three purposes. “On one hand it’s a business book and on the other it is for us as people going ‘how can I live better and how should I be thinking about this and how do I do it?’”

She also thinks it might be “a manifesto for me, me saying actually I really believe in this stuff, and if it means I’m not gonna work with businesses who I thought I would work for and have a happy retirement with my feet up, then so bloody be it.”

Portas is nothing if not self-aware. From her mea culpas about her role in the rampant consumerism that has blighted the planet for the past 30 years, to her acknowledgment of her place of privilege in the world, she addresses complex situations with common sense.

And she is acutely aware of the risks associated with proselyting. “We must guard against our beliefs becoming weaponised in the way that they so often are,” she says in the book. “This is not the righteous economy. There is no need to waste energy criticising the choices of others, attempting to make your argument the loudest or judging others for falling short. It’s an essential truth that united we stand, divided we fall. We cannot allow the bigger picture to be hijacked by mobilising one person against another in the pursuit of moral supremacy.”

As to the future, Portas believes people will be spending about a third more time in or close to their homes in a post-pandemic world, which is going to make local more important than it has been for generations.

“What happened with local retailers is that they grew more sophisticated and realised they had to be digital and online. I’ve seen my local greengrocers transformed and my local bookseller. Covid gave them a kick up the a***, it made them think we can’t just be here pottering around hoping that people will come in to us.”

She says there is likely to be a radical transformation of city centres. “They are going to have to become different destinations.” She extols the virtues of the 15-minute city, a concept that suggests everything we need should be within 15 minutes’ walk or cycle from home. “It is accepting that the rhythm of life has changed and we need to create a new way of living.”

She eviscerates the concept of the retail park and wonders who could possible think “shopping in a retail park is better than shopping locally; that could only come from some bloke sitting in an office, let me tell you. Retail parks! Oh my God”.

And with that she is gone, a whirlwind of righteous energy trying to change the world, one shop at a time.

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