Mary Portas on the new kindness economy

“When you look at the last 30 years… businesses fed the beast of consumerism,” says Mary Portas. However, there is a huge shift away from fast fashion - something that the pandemic has accelerated. 

Issues such as reducing plastics and food waste have become a mainstream for consumers. “I like profit, I like new clothes every so often. This isn’t going to stop. But the way we market it and the way we sell it is changing.” She says, speaking at World Retail Congress 2020. “Gucci is absolutely redefining its business. They have stood up and gone ‘We’ve watched the world burning and we’ve added to it. Guilty! We’ve all done it. I’ve made businesses make more money and erode part of this planet… So now we’re saying: how can we do this in a different way?”

Brands need to rediscover their authenticity and communicate in genuine ways, particularly as consumers no longer want the hard sell promise that an item is going to change their lives. Gone are the days of boards comprising middle aged men second guessing how people want to live and buy.

The Body Shop is a good example of a brand that has rediscovered its voice. “If you think what the Body Shop was when Anita Roddick had it, she was doing all the stuff I’m talking about now, in the 70s. [She] built a retail chain of 4,000 stores across the globe. Then it gets bought out by L'Oréal and they take the soul out and they put in the systems and we lose the magic,” she says. “Now they are bringing that back and doing a great job.”

Inclusive capitalism 

She also cites the example of American retailer Zappos setting up a helpline during the pandemic for customers to call and talk about anything. “Who’d have thought a retail brand would be doing that in 2020?”

Another big area is the secondhand market. Portas set up Mary's Living and Giving shops with Save the Children 10 years ago, she says her 26 stores are some of the most successful shops on high streets. And she believes retailers could soon be dedicating floors to people wanting to up-cycle and recycle items.

Clothing retailer Cos has opened up a market place online, so you can buy and resell their items - something else that would have been unheard of until recently, as retailers were preoccupied with margins. 

“I think we are going to be looking at new business models where the industry will say: here is a design, a suit we’re putting out. We’ll take your orders now and [produce] according to the orders. [The next] generation is buying into that and will respond to that.”

The next few years will see a fundamental reshaping of how the industry operates, with fewer physical stores but more multifunctional social interactions. 

“We are going to see spaces that will be given over to the arts… as the new anchors are not about what we sell but how we sell it.” The division between digital and physical brands will also disappear. “And the most important space that any brand can take up will be in peoples’ hearts.”