Aged 30, she became a board member at Harvey Nichols before founding her creative consultancy Portas. Mary has since worked with Save the Children to reinvent charity shops, written three books, and is co-chair of the Better Business Act.
She has also created a number of successful podcast series, including The Kindness Economy which featured Triodos Bank CEO Bevis Watts in 2021.
We spoke to Mary, a Triodos customer, to learn more about her journey to sustainability and activism.
What inspired you to become such a powerful changemaker?
It started with realising that I was ‘successful’, but I didn’t feel fulfilled even though I’d got the status, the salary, the home. I wanted to know why I felt that way so I started reading and researching and I realised over the next few years that what I'd been told to aspire to was all out of balance.
For a long time now, business has just been about more, more, more in financial terms. But this obsession with short-term profit doesn’t create the kind of long-term growth we need for our planet and the people on it. We have to do better, be better, to play a part in creating the kind of change we need.
So, the team and I at Portas started with our own business. We looked at how we worked, the values we were structured around, and the work we wanted to do with the companies we partner with as a creative consultancy.
We call it 'The Business of Beautiful Business'. And we’ve reshaped our entire offer around this goal over the past few years. When a business is desirable, culturally magnetic and a powerful force for good that’s beautiful business. And we know that not only will they be the ones winning in the future, they’ll be bettering it too.
When we started out on this, it was pretty lonely. But there’s been a huge shift in the past couple of years and now we’re working with partners who really share our vision.
Why is it important to you that businesses take responsibility for social and environmental issues?
Listen. There are loads of old dinosaur businesses still clinging on to the past. But post-Covid, everyone without exception has undergone a fundamental emotional shift and that is the future. A mass re-examination and re-evaluation of the way we want to live, buy, and sell happened and we all know what’s driving that. We are in the midst of the greatest challenge that humanity has ever faced.
People are becoming conscious, not just as ‘consumers’ – but as citizens. This is a very important shift to understand. Business needs to step up and be part of that. So much bad behaviour is driven by the fact that companies are only legally responsible to their shareholders – and making profit. We’re calling for a simple change to the law that will make companies responsible to people and planet too.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing businesses seeking to have a positive impact on people and planet?
The ambition of their vision. And the awareness that whatever they say, they must also do. There’s a lot of lip service right now but not so much translation into real behaviours. And the role of business today is to help our world not just go round, but forward. Along with politics, business can be a powerful lever of change. And I think we all know that we can’t rely on the politicians right now.
Tapping back into creativity is also going to be fundamental. We’ve lost our way in recent decades, our obsession with data stifling true business creativity. It's scary but let me tell you - the real innovative, creative people are the ones leading the way. They’re creating like the world is watching, they’re understanding and embracing the shift in our collective consciousness.
Why do you think kindness is important in the business world?
‘Kindness’ no longer feels like a nice to have. It’s become a necessity. It’s a deeply humanising force that will enable us to move from lone ‘consumers’ gorging on stuff to a community of people mindfully, consciously, choosing better. It’s also a commercial imperative. It’s where the economy is going, not just our hearts.
And beauty is a philosophy that goes so much deeper than a Corporate Social Responsibility initiative or marketing promise. It’s something the business lives and breathes day in, day out.
It’s everything. It’s behaviours. It’s atmosphere. It’s language. It's leadership.It’s rituals.
The late theologian and poet John O’Donoghue talked about ‘integrating a sense of soul and beauty into leadership and their imagination about the people and businesses with whom they work.’ I love that idea. That’s what has to get put at the heart of our organisations.
At Triodos, we’re working towards a better future for all. Can you tell us what gives you hope for the future?
The hope I see among so many ordinary people.
It’s not hope in a wishful, apathetic way. It’s more of a refusal to accept that the world has to be the way we have lived under for so many years. It’s a hope that says I am going to give my all, my intelligence, my best to create a different way.
There is a collective feeling that ‘enough is enough’ and people are starting with themselves by becoming more aware, more conscious, and driving change in their own lives that will filter outwards. I’m a big believer that individual actions can knit into a larger whole. I’m starting to see it play out all around me. We can each light a flame that joins together to become a truly collective – and powerful - moment. That’s what gives me hope.