No Wear to Run, by Louise Cooke; CEO of Sharewear Clothing Scheme

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If there’s one feeling that has bound everyone together in the last year it’s that sense of metaphorically having nowhere to run. The pandemic crisis has left us all feeling pretty trapped – in our homes, in our heads. Yet for millions of people in the UK the sensation of having no-one to turn to and nowhere to run is not a new phenomenon. The pandemic is merely the icing on the cake for those who already suffer from poor mental health. The introduction of social prescribing and ‘green prescriptions’ are both strategies to support people in taking steps to improve their own mental health, and both are giving the same message to patients: “Get outside, practice simple activity in your local area, like going for a jog or a walk. The great outdoors is free of charge!” Unfortunately, this simply isn’t true.

If you don’t own appropriate clothing to take up this brilliant advice, and you can’t afford to buy it, what are you supposed to do? If this were you, wouldn’t you feel completely trapped? Wouldn’t you feel like you had nowhere to run? Wouldn’t your mental health issues worsen? For the 14 million people living in poverty in the UK, this is a stark reality. We aren’t talking about the affordability of specialist activewear here. We simply mean not being able to afford the very basics to take up this beneficial ‘free of charge’ activity: a pair of trainers; a pair of joggers or leggings; decent shoes strong enough to walk in; a fleece or a coat. These staples are beyond the reach of all those living in clothing poverty.

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With seven years experience of alleviating clothing poverty in the East Midlands, all of us at Sharewear Clothing Scheme are both proud and devastated that in 2021 we have opened a second major centre. As a registered charity, we are excited to now be able to offer our unique service to people across Yorkshire from our new Sheffield centre, replicating our hugely successful Nottingham and East Midlands model. It’s a devastating fact that for 14 million people in the UK, access to clothing for themselves and their families is as far beyond their reach as the affordability of food, hygiene and period products, and the cost of heating are. How can this be happening when 300,000 tonnes of clothing go into landfill each year and £180 million worth of unworn clothing hangs uselessly in UK wardrobes? This is where we come in, as the space where clothing poverty meets clothing waste.

We have the experiential evidence to prove that poor mental health is closely entwined with clothing poverty, as both a cause and effect. When people are absent from work for repeated periods due to battling with mental health problems, it can sadly lead to them losing their job –forcing them into general poverty, including clothing poverty. Conversely, those who have never had issues with their mental health previously can develop a variety of emotional, psychological and anxiety-based problems as a result of living in poverty. Lack of access to basic clothing traps people in persistent poverty, and becoming entrenched in this situation can have a devastating effect on mental health. It’s a cruel, and very vicious, circle.

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When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, aged just 43, it seemed my lifelong ambition of walking at least part of Spain’s Camino de Santiago would never be fulfilled, and that the plans to open Sharewear Clothing Scheme wouldn’t be either. Both were. Sharewear served its first beneficiaries in March 2014, and in September 2019 my husband supported me to walk the last 140km of El Camino. The impact of being able to train for and complete that challenge was, and remains, enormous for my wellbeing. Every year thousands of people surmount even worse physical health issues to complete even more difficult challenges than this. How awful it is then, that so many of those who want to surmount mental health issues can’t do – just for the want of basic clothing.

In 2021, and for the years ahead, we at Sharewear will be asking you to join us in saying ‘NO’ to this situation. It’s simply not right that people who could benefit enormously from basic outdoors exercise, and take ‘easy’ steps to work on their own mental health, cannot do so simply due to lack of access to basic clothing. No one who feels like they have nowhere to run should literally have #noWeartorun.

Louise Cooke

Founder and CEO Sharewear Clothing Scheme