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Tackling second-hand stigma — language matters, but project design matters more.

When you’re comfortable, and you’ve got plenty of choices about how to get hold of the things you need, second-hand can seem like an attractive option. Fun even.

You might well enjoy browsing in second-hand shops. It’s possible you go as far as telling your friends on your night out that you got your outfit on ebay.

But you’ll do all that knowing that if you don’t manage to find something second-hand, you’ll just go out and buy something new. It can feel a bit different if you’re living in poverty.


Now I’m not going to pretend I know what it’s like to be struggling to put food on the table in 2022. Living with 9% inflation — which is in reality is probably closer to double that for people on low incomes, with wages nowhere near keeping up with that, and with the long-term erosion of State support for when we need it. But I do remember growing up with little money. There were plenty of people worse off in Liverpool in the 1980s. But I remember my mum counting every penny — and the weekly trips to the Post Office to collect the Family Allowance —cash in hand that put food on the table every week. It’s why I think one of the greatest public figures in this country’s history is Liverpool’s very own Eleanor Rathbone.

Campaigner for the Family Allowance — amongst so many other things. Read more about her here.


So I have some lived experience of this, and the truth is it never leaves you. Yet I don’t assume I know what it’s like to be living in poverty in 2022 — in a society where so many of the safety nets that were there for my generation have been hacked away at or no longer exist. But it’s one of the reasons that I do what I do in my work. Our social enterprise works with people to design projects that have big environmental and social impacts. We take inspiration from Doughnut Economics, and the need to build a future where people have what they need to live a good life — whilst living within planetary limits. You can’t have one without the other.

Maybe the best example of how we try to do this is Leeds School Uniform Exchange. In the first few months of COVID-19, working with key stakeholders in the city, including Leeds City Council and Leeds Community Foundation, we came up with the idea for a network of hyper-local exchanges, run by local people, local community organisations and local schools.

Alongside our city-wide Facebook group, there are Facebook groups based around schools, run by parents. Others are pop-ups run by trusted local community organisations. Schools run some too, usually starting with the mountain of unclaimed lost property left at the end of each half-term. BBC Look North visited exchanges in Morley and Harehills last yearThere’s a map of exchanges on our website, so you can find your nearest opportunity to offer or ask for uniform.

Over 90% of schools are now covered by an exchange — and we’re busy working to fill those final gaps.


Tackling stigma

One of the main themes in discussions during the design phase of the project was: How do we tackle stigma around second hand uniform? It’s a massive issue. And particularly when we’re talking about children and young people. And whilst we don’t think we’re anywhere near to completely solving that problem, we thought carefully about how to tackle it in the design of the project. We thought about the visual design. We wanted it to look good, something you’d want to be involved with. So it encouraged people to share it online — vital for building a project quickly on a shoestring budget.

We thought about the words that we use. And we’re still thinking about them — because they really matter, and we don’t think we’ve got them all right yet. So we really emphasise *good quality*. We go on and on about the fact that children grow out of uniform quickly — so it’s often still in really good condition.

This was particularly the case during lockdown, when kids weren’t at school for months and there was loads of good quality uniform sat in drawers. Why wouldn’t you pass it on? Why would you buy new? We do mostly use the term “second-hand”. We rarely talk about “pre-loved” or any of the other terms that are often used instead. We’re not wholly convinced that saying pre-loved rather than second hand makes that much of a difference in itself. We get where people are coming from on that. But we’ve decided to talk about second-hand — but always alongside “good quality”. Because language undoubtedly matters. It was a theme that was explored by a number of people in this excellent Children’s Society webinar on increasing the affordability of school uniform.

New legislation is on its way around affordability of school uniform. Making it as easy as possible for people to get hold of affordable (free is even better) school uniform is clearly more important than ever right now. And thanks to the work of Mike Amesbury MP alongside organisations like the Children’s Society and Child Poverty Action Group, new legislation will come into force later this year which will require schools to put greater emphasis on ensuring that school uniform is affordable. That includes making it easier for people to get hold of second hand school uniform.

A screenshot from the Department for Education presentation at the Children’s Society webinar


This is where our Leeds School Uniform Exchange model really comes into its own. It’s been designed to be hyperlocal. A network of exchanges based around schools or local communities. No forms to fill in. No questions asked. No hoops to jump through. Today you might be asking for uniform for your child. But in six months time, you might well be offering stuff that they’ve grown out of. It’s about sharing. Mutual support. Generosity. It’s also about circularity. Waste reduction. A practical response to the Climate Emergency — in a city where it’s estimated we throw away 4000 tonnes of clothing every year. We give people an easy way to pass on good quality uniform, instead of binning it. Many great ideas are simple ideas. They are no less great for being simple. We are convinced our approach to making it really easy to share good quality, second-hand school uniform is one of those great, simple ideas. And we think it’s an important way of tackling some of the issues that undoubtedly exist around second-hand stigma. It’s about local people working together, to do something that just makes sense. Sharing good quality uniform. Today, offering what you no longer need. Next month, asking for something you need. Mutual support, generosity, circularity, community, call it what you like. But let’s have more of it. If you’d like to support our work in Leeds, or if you’d like us to work with you to set something similar up where you are, please get in touch.

A version of this post was originally published on our co-director Rob Greenland's blog.

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