Mary Portas – it’s not just shopping

Kinky Knickers - the pants that will save the nation. Or at least a town in the North of England.

I have a shameful confession to make. I’d never thought much of Mary Portas. Oh, I love that we have an older queer woman on TV – who advises David Cameron, no less – and it’s true that I covet her hairstyle. But listen to her speak? About shopping? Not my thing, sorry. Luckily for me, she was part of a trifecta that kickstarted Day 2 of #WOW2012 along with Shami Chakrabti and Baroness Helena Kennedy QC.

She talked about her new collection, Kinky Knickers, aimed at reviving the British manufacturing industry. She opened a factory in Middleton, just outside of Manchester, where the factory that was the bedrock of the community had closed down a few decades earlier. Bringing on board two of the seamstresses who had lost their jobs when it closed, she trained eight young apprentices – teenagers in the community who had never had a job and were used to getting up at 2pm and drinking from 5, “because it makes the day go faster.”

I realised then that Portas does more than talk shoes and shopping, and that her amibiton to revitalise Britain’s high streets was less to do with commerce and more to do with community. In fact, she slammed the rampant consumerism that we all got used to during the boom years – “who bloody needs ‘buy three and get one free’?” – and argued the case for shopping with a conscience. If 80% of the world’s shoppers are female, then that gives us immense power – we don’t have to support the chain stores and designer labels who make a whopping profit off the backs of sweatshops, we can choose to support companies who treat their employees fairly, not ones who care more about money than they do about people.

I’d never really considered what the decline in British manufacturing really meant until I heard her speak. And I’d never imagined that just by choosing where I shopped, I could contribute to improving the lives of people whose lives have been devastated by the recession. For this first time – and the last – I’m going to buy underwear with a man in mind – the factory worker who, when Portas asked how he was finding adjusting to employment for the first time, told her “I walk differently now.”

We can make a difference in the most unlikely ways, and women we’d never given much thought to can turn out to be inspirations. And they’re really nice knickers.


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