Spotlight on - Louise Cooke
At Spotlight, we got the opportunity to talk to Louise Cooke Founder and CEO of Sharewear Clothing Scheme. Chatting about doing something you are passionate about, the stamina of working for yourself and reminding yourself to ‘try to put yourself in other people’s shoes’.
In 2012 I was lucky enough to spend two weeks volunteering in the favelas of São Paulo, Brazil with the overseas development agency CAFOD. The horizontal, non-hierarchical approach to charity I experienced there blew my mind, as well as the fact that the people in the favelas had next to nothing, but what they did have they shared with others. On my return, I knew I wanted to get involved in something using the same model here in Nottingham, where we have a really impressive charity and voluntary sector. At this same time, my 17-year-old son kept returning from his food bank volunteering shift with tales of families who had been desperately seeking free clothes... After some research into the need and checking that it wasn’t being fully met elsewhere by others, I gathered some friends around me and we acquired a free space in which to run what we thought would be a very local, short-term ‘project’.
I am a languages teacher by profession, who stumbled into what I am doing now. Still working out if that was by accident or through fate! I’m the mother of two adult children, who were both instrumental in setting up the Registered Charity Sharewear Clothing Scheme, which provides high-quality pre-loved and new clothes and bedding, using a referral system, to people in the economic crisis in Nottinghamshire and surrounding counties. Those referred to us can browse for and choose whatever clothing they need, of every type, for age newborn to ninety. Alongside this, we also make bulk outreach deliveries to major organisations and smaller groups across the region, so that they are able to provide clothing and bedding directly to the people they serve, rather than them having to travel to our base. These include 13 wards and units at NUH Trust hospitals, The British Red Cross Emergency Response Unit for Central England, Nottingham and Notts Refugee Forum, Probation Services and Framework.
Challenge and setbacks
Just as we were about to get the ball rolling on setting up referral sessions I was diagnosed with invasive Breast Cancer. Although the small team of people I’d built around me could have carried on without me, they waited for the outcome of my treatment and future prognosis. I was very anxious we would lose momentum and all our preparation plans would come to nothing.
I had to practice the knack of letting go what you can’t control, to conserve energy for the things you can. In a way, this setback ironically became the driver for all that followed. I suppose, looking back, I used the adversity as a motivator for my determination to bring Sharewear to life. The waiting time, while I had and recovered from treatment, was actually beneficial as a period of reflection and fine-tuning ideas.
Passion, drive and determination
In November 2019 our board adopted a 3 - 5-year development plan for growth. We are determined to alleviate clothing poverty across England using a combination of fashion industry waste and people’s own ‘wardrobe waste.’ During 2020 we’ve upscaled our pre-existing bulk outreach delivery service to serve more organisations in south Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. From this work, we’ve learned that there’s a desperate need for our service in Sheffield, and so with the help of Aviva UK, we are currently running an exciting all or nothing crowdfunding to get a Sheffield base off the ground. Several local small businesses who were supported by their local communities to be able to survive through the pandemic are giving something back by joining us as initial investors into this new base – the first of many we plan to have in England by 2025.
Not everyone ‘gets’ you or what you are trying to do. When you attract a lot of support and it begins to snowball, it’s easy to forget this. Not everyone is on the same page as you, or their book bears no resemblance to yours. And that’s ok, there’s never any point in trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
Looking to lead?
Don’t aim to lead. Aim to serve. True leaders serve their community – whether that community is their customers, their colleagues, their wider community or specific stakeholder groups. If you serve, you will naturally attract great and loyal colleagues to your team.
It’s not so much advice as something I’ve learnt from my Reiki Master (I am also a Reiki practitioner). And it’s about conserving energy. It sounds the simplest of things to do, but it’s actually a really challenging skill to learn. So much mental energy is wasted on things that are beyond our control. It’s a matter of trying to develop the art of practising acceptance of the things you can’t change, having the courage to change the things you can – and the wisdom to know the difference.
The best and worst part of business
Seeing the transformative impact clothes of all kinds can have on people’s lives. They can help get people back into work or education, children back into the classroom, people with poor mental health exercising for wellbeing, people stuck in hospital able to rehabilitate with day clothes for recovery, and generally rebuild lives for people affected by any kind of crisis situation.
Knowing that millions of other people around the UK are living in clothing poverty and not getting the support they need – even though 300,000 tonnes of clothing go to landfill each year in the UK and £140million worth of clothes hang unworn in UK wardrobes.
Business during COVID-19
We’ve supported 300% more people than usual with just 10% of our team. We’ve reached them by upscaling our pre-existing bulk delivery system and by taking advanced orders for clothes, passed out at the door to social workers and other support workers for the people they are supporting. We exist to support people who are going through uncertain times in their own lives, so uncertainty and adversity is no stranger to us, especially as I founded Sharewear out of adversity in the first place.