Understanding Clothing Poverty & The Donation Economy with Sharewear Clothing Scheme

Understanding Clothing Poverty & The Donation Economy with Sharewear Clothing Scheme

Louise Cooke Friday, 20 March 2020

We see it all too often now; unwanted clothes that were exported overseas to developing nations so that we didn't have to deal with them, are now clogging up landfills, destroying soil, releasing toxic gases and affecting local skills and economies. There are ways that we can extend the life of our clothing so that it stays in use for longer, yet if we still don't want them, then there are many people right here on our doorstep that would love what you have.

In this one-hour long Q&A (that we hosted live), you’ll have the chance to learn directly from CEO and founder Louise Cooke about how and why she set up Sharewear Clothing Scheme in 2014, what clothing poverty is and looks like, the community volunteer scheme that keeps the organisation churning and what the future holds for how fashion businesses can get involved with this valuable work.

Los Angeles
Thursday Mar 19th, 2020 - 17:00pm
Friday Mar 20th, 2020 - 00:00am
Friday Mar 20th, 2020 - 05:30am
Friday Mar 20th, 2020 - 11:00am

In this webinar, we'll discuss and learn about:

  • why Sharewear was founded and about the issue it aims to find solutions for
  • what clothing poverty is
  • how Sharewear's referral system works
  • the quality and amount of clothing donations
  • working with brand partners for deadstock
  • their volunteer scheme and community building
  • Sharewear's work with schools to encourage the value of clothing
  • their collaboration with Savannah Rags for unusable donations

You may not think of clothing poverty as an immediate issue, and yet, especially in winter, we all know too well how uncomfortable it can be if we're not wearing enough. Clothing provides not only the security of warmth and comfort, but affords dignity in having quality clothing to be presentable for work, to feel confident with your children, to actually feel mentally and physically stable... Nottingham-based registered charity Sharewear Clothing Scheme was founded to provide high quality clothing, bedding, shoes and bath towels to people in need free of charge through public donations. All recipients have been referred to Sharewear through partners, for reasons including debt and low income, suffering with poor mental health, recent discharges from hospital and victims of crime and abuse.

For the majority of us, we have too many clothes. And we discard primarily without considering the true value of that item beyond its materials. For many unseen or even disregarded people, clothing is a lifeline and a necessity, rather than something disposable.

Guest expert: Louise Cooke

Louise Cooke is the CEO and founder of Sharewear Clothing Scheme, a registered charity that helps clothe people in need. She is immensely passionate about her role to educate, and energised by the immediate effect Sharewear has on lives. We were thrilled to meet Louise in person, and excited to have this opportunity to further learn from her.

Website: Sharewear
Instagram: @sharewearclothingscheme
Facebook: @SharewearNottm
Twitter: @SharewearNotts

Key Takeaways

Extending the life of clothing and textiles is a topic across the fashion industry that involves both consumers and brands. So, in this month’s Masterclass, we have been diving in to elements of this topic that affect both people and planet in order to better understand what we can do individually and also as a community to lessen our impact.

Clothing production has doubled in the last 15 years, so we’re buying double, but wearing the garments less and discarding more quickly. We therefore have all of these clothes, but clothing poverty still exists. We plunge in to this webinar with Louise Cooke, the founder and CEO of Sharewear Clothing Scheme to understand what clothing poverty looks like in the UK, and how the donation economy can work sustainably for people and planet.

Q. Can you tell us Louise about what Sharewear Clothing Scheme is, and what clothing poverty actually is and how it affects people?

A. It’s a no brainer. When in the UK we’re throwing 300,000 tonnes of clothing away every year, a lot of this clothing can be used to good effect to transform lives of those that may have fallen into persistent poverty for various reasons: we like to think of ourselves as the space where clothing poverty meets clothing waste.

See the pinned Tweet for a 2 minute video that explains what Sharewear is and does.

Q: Brands have clothing that is cheap, so why does clothing poverty exist?

A: It’s similar to food banks - if you’re struggling financially in any way, if you need to clothe your entire family, especially if the quality of those garments is rubbish and they wear out quickly, then it isn’t sustainable to shop in normal shops. It’s a more sensible solution all round to use good quality preloved clothing, rather than driving fast fashion.

Q: How many people have you helped so far?

A: It is our 6th Birthday this year. Last year we supported 7000 people, which is the highest number of people each year. We’re now in our 4th premises, all in Nottinghamshire, though we’re trying to branch out more regionally and nationally. 7000 people is the tip of the iceberg of people who need help getting out of clothing poverty, maybe because they don’t know we exist yet.

Q: You mention high quality clothing - how do people donate to you, and how do you sort it?

A: If we wouldn’t wear it ourselves or want to see a member of our family in it, we don’t accept it and offer it on our rails. I am shocked in charity shops of the high pricing relative to the quality - I see things that I wouldn’t even use. Sharewear is a leg up - not a handout - when you need it most in your life. The clothing needs to be serviceable and appropriate for whatever situation.

Q: Is there anything in particular you see often with donated clothing that we should be more conscious of? When we discard clothes we have no idea of where our clothing goes. What can we do so that this donated clothing is of benefit?

A: Investigate ways in which you can support us or charities like us. There are smaller projects around the country such as the Cleveland project inspired by us. We are in talks with several retailers about collaborations or partnerships or sponsorships so that we can extend our offering across the UK where there is a need for clothing. There is a need for clothing banks like there is a need for food banks. When you’re donating clothing seek out organisations where you know the clothes’ life will actually be extended again and again until it’s fit for purpose no more.

Q: Could retailers use their returned stock as donations to you, rather than incinerating their stock as has been in the press recently?

A: We’re working with small online brands who don’t really have surplus waste stock. With bigger brands we’re looking at what they do with returns and primarily their end of line, when they’re creating so much and can’t sell it on.

Q: Can you explain your referral system?

A: It’s a referral like at food banks, where people are referred from over 100 agencies across Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, such as adult social care, child social care, doctors, schools, health visitors, from NHS staff and community midwives, food banks, debt advice, Citizen’s Advice Bureau, British Red Cross. That’s just one branch of our referral system: they come with a voucher to access clothing from their rails - exactly like a shop, and they may bring a friend for opinion.

When people have been referred, with their permission we give them ongoing support so that as their needs change over time they can keep coming back for support. A common example is of a woman fleeing domestic violence, who ends up in hospital so has bedding for that time but no additional clothing. Her immediate need is clothing, but when she gets housed she’ll need bedding. Another example is of the street homeless who need appropriate clothing, and then if they become housed and then have job interviews, they’ll need a succession of outfits but not all at the same time. Beneficiaries work closely with us so that these people can responsibly come back to the system until we can help lift people out of their crisis.

Q: How do your volunteers come to you?

A: A third of our volunteers are supporters, who have had clothing themselves, and they come to volunteer as a way of lifting themselves out of their crisis, by building skills and it can integrate them into society. We’ve never had to recruit volunteers, because once people know what we do, they stick around.

Referrals is one branch of how people access our donations, but 60% of who we support are brought to us through outreach. We deliver, not to houses for safeguarding, but to organisations who support these people. We have limited opening hours, so we take specific orders from outreach partners and deliver the clothing or bedding to them. We work with the Nottingham University Hospital Trust delivering to 15 wards across their two sites to elderly people who have no friends or a family support network.

There have been studies on PJ paralysis - the feeling that if you’re in your pyjamas you don’t feel well, so access to clothing uplifts the person allowing them to get out of their bed. The ward will feed back stories. We also work with the refugee forum in Nottingham, as well as homeless shelters. We’re now also part of the British Red Cross Emergency Response Unit for all of Central England for fire and flood.

We also won the Big Issue award Top 100 Change Makers in the UK.

Q: Are you involved then in our current crisis (Covid-19)?

A: Yesterday we signed up as Nottingham City Council’s official response to the virus. It is an essential service across whole county; those who need to access clothing will likely need access to food too, but won’t be able to get out to buy either. With job losses or reduced hours on the horizon, poverty levels are likely to rise in the short term at the back end of this crisis.

One positive thing from the crisis though, is that people are in their houses and can have a clear out, getting kids involved for an educational activity. During the crisis we are offering contactless pavement bag collections with clothing then washed at high temperatures and quarantined for a couple weeks before use.

Q: It must be a very delicate line to walk to help people in need without offending them or damaging their pride, and the stigmas that come with accepting help. How do you handle this sensitive nature of what you do for the people you support?

A: The word stigma is why we don’t know how many people are in clothing poverty, because the stigma is what prevents them from speaking out. Staff in outreach get around the stigma by being upfront with those in need, but the people who are referred to our base come with a feeling of trust from whomever referred them. So if a person reaches out to their social worker, then the one-to-one conversation allows the social worker to refer them to us, easing the barrier between them coming to us for help or not.

Often people arrive with their eyes cast down, or anxious. At our base it’s an unthreatening atmosphere that breaks down barriers of what charity looks like; volunteers aren’t dressed in a particular way so it’s approachable. I’m trying to model something that I saw in South America.

Q: Can you explain then why you started Sharewear, what did you see?

A: I volunteered for a few weeks in the favelas of Sao Paulo with CAFOD. It was a horizontal model where everyone is in it together, supporting one another. They also re-use everything because they need to; it’s against our Western model. There is no stigma, and as I knew a lot about the charity sector in the UK on my return I was trying to find something that emulated that model. Nothing existed, until my son who was volunteering in our local food bank mentioned that families were wanting clothes but charity shops weren’t able to provide a full range of clothing for a whole family even if they could afford it. So my son planted the seed. Sharewear started as a social experiment with the family in the back of a church, and we’re now 6 years on.

Q: In London, we’re seeing people coming together to support each other, offering to help those vulnerable or to uplift small businesses.

A: There is an uprise in the community-minded model, but the challenge wherever we are is what we do when the crisis has passed over: how can we continue this community spirit for a sharing economy, as this is what will keep the world going forward sustainably.

Q: What happens to the clothing that you can’t actually accept donations for?

A: We work with Savannah Rags in Mansfield who collect sub-standard clothing from all retailers in the north of England, as well as from clothes banks . They sort the clothing and process them as rags if unacceptable, but I do believe that some clothing is being exported. Savannah Rags is the only company of its kind that we’ve found that will come and collect bulk clothing and use it, even if there is room for improvement.

The new element of our organisation, which is a growth area too, gives a small income stream because we have no major funding. So we’ve been making things:
~ a lined make up bag made from a pair of curtains
~ a journal or ipad pouch all from materials in our base
~ peg bags made from 8XL boxers that went wrong in production from a local luxury basics high end retailer who gives us their returns and end of line stock

Q: So working with small brands or fashion students could be a way that people could support you?

A: This is an example of a beach bag and a patchwork jeans bag that could be made at home (right now during the crisis) and could be donated to us and added to our income stream.

Q: Are you actively looking for funding?

A: We have been in receipt of small grants, but for 4 of the 6 years we’ve been around we did raffles, coffee mornings, clothes swaps with entry money and leftover clothes donated, but in the last 2 years once we’ve been more established and trusted (and a registered charity) we’ve received funds from the Postcode Lottery and Comic Relief. It’s always a small amount that lasts for maybe 6 months or so, so we’re constantly applying for grants like Big Lottery, and through current Coronavirus grants. We have just launched our Employability Program from Nottingham City Council, which helps volunteers at the same time too.

Q: You also work with schools on increasing the value of clothing.

A: This is Sharewear Schools - schools sign up and promise to host a fundraising event once a year, or a clothing drive during the curriculum (it’s never an add on) and in return we’ll do assemblies or workshops on where clothes go, who makes clothes. I love the resources from War On Want and Labour Behind The Label. We recently showed a school the handmade products we’ve been making, as in their Design Technology lessons the kids were making stuff out of their own old clothes.

We are building a generation of people that aren’t greenwashing; sustainability is a lifestyle choice infiltrating every aspect of our life.

Q: We had a networking evening on childrenswear, and Little Hands Design in North London have Sustainability Ambassadors; children will put what they’re learning in school into practice in their everyday lives.

A: Children will be with parents for a long time at home now, so there can be lots of discussions within the home on our existing stuff.

Q: You were due to launch your newest campaign tomorrow, all about getting people outdoors, which has come at a time when actually we’re stuck indoors.

A: It’s been well documented that free activities like walking and running can help people with their mental health. But what if you don’t have suitable clothing: it’s not specialist gear, just the basics like sweatpants, trainers, a coat. People in clothing poverty don’t have these clothes so they’re not going to go and get out. The campaign is called “No Wear To Run; psychologically if you’re in poverty, you feel like you have nowhere to run, as well as not actually having the clothing to do so.

Instead of the campaign launch due to social distancing, we are taking part in an international virtual festival hosted by groweatgive.com. The Hope Fest will have various tents from charity to crafting, storytelling, music, and cookery. We have been invited to have a tent ourselves in the crafting tent about what we’re making, and in the charity tent talking about our work towards combatting clothing poverty.

Q: You’re wearing the Nothing To Wear t-shirt, which was the precursor to No Wear To Run.

A: People generally think that clothing poverty only really affects people in the winter, so to get what we’re doing into the media, we launched the campaign “Nothing To wear”; it’s something people flippantly say. These t-shirts are available to purchase to help support our income stream, but also be a conversation starter, which is why celebrities got involved with it.

We were in the national press, and we’re on regional TV and radio regularly. From this we’ll have a 36 hour flurry, but it rarely comes to anything: we need to sustain the conversation. During the virus when people are having virtual conversations with each other, we need to use this thoughtful time. It’s an opportunity and a threat, as the media will talk about clothing poverty but the challenge is not letting the media spin it as a virus thing. How do we get that 300,000 tonnes of clothing on to people’s backs? Sharewear wants to be at the centre of the conversation, and believe we have already started that conversation.

We’re in talks with John Lewis, Bambu Clothing, Frugi and Gumbis UK. Bambu clothing want to use an incentive scheme. They’re online only, so they’ll put in a slip with each order saying “please send it on to Sharewear when you’re done” and then they can redeem a code for their next purchase with Bambu. Each brand can work in any way that suits; we’re flexible if they’re a good fit.

Q: Incentives give brands an idea of the flow of the garment. Brands are starting to implement QR codes or labels with information of composition, origin, care and end of life - would that be something useful to a donating scheme?

A: When we were on the panel at Pure London with Kerry about closing the circle, we talked about work on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, where raw materials come from, where clothing is being produced etc etc but there’s still a gap where the clothing is no longer of use and it’s next life. We want to be in that gap.

Q: How do you envision Sharewear being at the centre. What can brands do right now?

A: Give us their returns and end of line stock, implement incentive schemes, but really what would help right now is supporting us financially. This will help us have additional local branches so that we can roll out our work elsewhere in the country.

We are 5 3/4 years into a 6 year model that has run solely on volunteers . Anything can be run with volunteers initially, so brands can help with premises.

Q: Just this week amidst talks of the current crisis we were discussing the statistics of volunteers in the UK, with something like 270 million volunteers in the UK, showing that people need their community.

A: Volunteers keep the world going round. Austerity measures means that there are funding cuts to local authorities so the public sector is unable to provide funds for charitable and not-for-profit organisations. Plus, the private sector is very cut throat. There’s a hole in the middle where people can’t access support from either of those communities, and that’s where volunteers fit.

Q: What can the normal population do at home?

A: Start by clearing out clothing and talking to your kids about what you’re doing. Support the scheme or something similar. Get involved in making things at home to donate. When the crisis is over, become a collection point for clothing. Mobilise in groups.

There’s no need with clothing waste being what it is, for people to suffer and not improve their situation. Lack of access affects every part of our lives. Talk to people, get them sharing. Let’s use this time productively.