It all started with the black bin bag story. A few years ago, I attended a workshop in my capacity as a youth worker, a job I loved doing for 22 years. One of the stories we heard was about a girl in a wheelchair leaving care with all her worldly belongings in a black bin bag. She said that she felt carrying her life in a bin bag contributed to her feelings of loss of dignity. On further investigation, I discovered that lots of kids move around the system with only their black bin bag. I heard of one child who was moved every two days for two months.
Kids in care face a wealth of problems – no continuity in education, anxiety, trauma, abandonment issues, inconsistent access to support services. They’re simply moved from one label to another as they move through their lives, as some become homeless after leaving care. I’m always amazed by how little the public knows about the problems these young people face daily. Where I thought I could make a difference was on the bin bag issue. Social workers and foster carers might lend bags to these kids, or source second-hand bags, but most children just have a bin bag. What does this tell them about the society we live in? Where is the dignity and respect?
Madlug was born out of the black bin bag story. Standing for ‘Make a Difference Luggage’, I started the company in 2015 with no experience in the luggage industry and £480 in my pocket. I knew that kids I worked with mainly used backpacks so I started with those, doing research on designs and colours with the young people I had come to know.
The Madlug business model is simple: buy one, give one. I was already aware of TOMS, which does a similar thing in the US with shoes. But no one else in the world has this model for bags. Each time a customer purchases one of our backpacks, gym bags, messenger bags, bum bags, laptop cases or luggage, we give a bag to a child in care. The bag we hand out to health authorities to pass onto the care leavers is high quality but unbranded, discreet and pack-away, and each one reminds its owner ‘You are incredible’ and that they have value, worth and dignity. This message is just so important.
It took a while to get the backpack range just right, but as we did, we started to expand our range of bags. As with all these things, business started slowly but, thanks to a comment on an Instagram influencer’s post, interest started to pick up. In our first year we were featured as one of the Observer’s New Radicals, and the following year I found myself at an event sitting next to Richard Branson! Then we ran a crowdfunding campaign where we raised £24.5k. The business has just grown and grown since.
The biggest challenge I had was persuading the local authorities in Northern Ireland, where the company is based, to let us help them. They had a policy of giving bags to children in care, but no one was following up on this policy or ensuring it was enforced. So I met with senior executives and started to build trust. Once I was able to meet with them, it was just a case of getting them to understand that we were supporting them and their policy, not competing against it. We started small, sending just a few bags to local authorities. It was never my plan to be a campaigner or a big stick. I just want to do this quietly and in a way supportive of the young people I had spent so long working with.
We have also introduced accessories into our range. The accessories don’t send bags to kids in care, but they’re natural add-on purchases for people buying bags. We support Jerry Bottle, a social enterprise which gives 100% of its profits to fund water projects in India and Tanzania, where over 800 million people don’t have access to safe drinking water and 2.3 billion don’t have access to sanitisation. All of the profits of our pins, lunch coolers and pencil cases go to help children in care. And we’re in the process of introducing a clothing line, including sweatshirts and t-shirts. We’re pulling this all together now, so you’ll start seeing the new products on the website soon.
In the future we will be setting up the Madlug Charitable Foundation, which will allow us to contribute much more to those in care that need it the most. This will allow us to ramp up the commercial side of the business, so donations are transferred through the foundation, and we’ll be able to fundraise for interns, as well as accepting gift aid. I also want to provide work and career opportunities for people coming out of care, including full training, increasing their skill set.
There are over 90,000 people in care in the UK and Ireland, with 10,000-12,000 young people leaving care each year, but one child moves into care every 15 minutes. Our aim is for every child in care to have one of our bags, and to make sure there is ready stock to pass to people coming into care. We have been approached by people all over the world to set up similar enterprises in other countries but we’re not ready for that yet. We want our impact to be local: it’s about our impact, not size. We want to stay true to the black bin bag story, and although we send our commercial bags all over the world, it’s important to us to get kids in the UK and Ireland sorted first.
As of March 2020, we have sent 20,000 bags to organisations supporting children in care all over the UK and Ireland. Although we’ve done a good job reaching out to organisations about these bags, if you’re a foster carer, social worker or local authority that would like to get hold of one of our care leaver bags, you can contact us through our website. No child should carry their life in a bin bag.