Sali Hughes on a year of persuading big brands to donate to people in need
Last year, while filming a report on homelessness for the BBC, I noticed a small box under the front desk of a homeless shelter. In it were single tampons, disposable razors, mini toothpaste tubes and mismatched tablets of soap. These, I discovered, were brought in by members of staff and volunteers, so that when homeless clients had a job or a housing interview, a health appointment, a period, they could access the hygiene essentials most of us are able to toss into a shopping trolley with scarcely a thought. I texted a photograph of the understocked crate to a friend and colleague, Jo Jones, and within 48 hours, we had launched Beauty Banks.
Jo and I had been talking about this acute need for some time. A number of our friends are teachers, who were routinely buying toiletries for their pupils. They told us boys were failing to make friends because they couldn’t afford deodorant, and that girls were fashioning sanitary towels from newspaper or toilet roll. We had read the alarming statistics published by the Trussell Trust, a food bank network that this year will distribute some 1.3m three-day emergency food supplies to Britons (a third of them children) in crisis.
We all have to make choices, but those faced by people living in poverty can be incredibly stark. Invariably, people in this position would choose to eat rather than stay clean; the other essentials – toothbrushes, soap, razors – can gradually slip out of reach. People who struggle to maintain →
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a basic level of hygiene often find their confidence, self-esteem and prospects suffer as a result. Men and women are unable to make themselves presentable for job interviews or work shifts; thousands of girls skip school because they can’t afford sanitary protection. We felt no one should have to forgo washing in order to feed their children – especially when, between us, we had access to the world’s biggest toiletries brands and a huge community of beauty fans with an impressive track record in fundraising (my readers had recently sponsored my rough sleeping in aid of Centrepoint, to the tune of £40,000, the biggest single amount raised in 2017). What if we asked them to donate products? Our mission is straightforward: to provide essential supplies to people who can’t afford them, via partner charities across the UK. Beauty Banks isn’t a physical “bank” as such; instead we supply local organisations who may not have our contacts.
The reaction has been overwhelming. In week one, Jo’s office was crammed with deliveries. By our second month, we were using three separate storage facilities. Friends and family were (and still are) driving toiletries to the north, south, east and west. Celebrity hairdresser Sam McKnight auctioned off his clothes to pay for couriers; Cate Blanchett’s makeup artist, Mary Greenwell, helped out, packing and taping cardboard boxes on her hands and knees. Some of my readers’ children spent their birthday money on toothpaste. Among my favourites was a donation from Daisy, who sent toiletries bought with cash she’d originally earmarked to buy slime, saying she’d decided to help people “smell nice and feel good about themselves” instead. My sons divide sanitary towels from tampons in front of the telly.
Our learning curve has been steep. We had to get to grips with logistics, warehousing and the law, with the way regional charities and voluntary groups work, with scaling up distribution and scaling down packaging waste. Lawyers and web designers have stepped in to help, donating their time. Almost a year in, we have delivered to food banks, homeless shelters, NHS trusts, schools, family centres and churches all over the UK. The scheme has even been raised in the House of Commons, by Labour MP Carolyn Harris, during a debate on poverty – a somewhat surreal moment. Lobbying has become a big focus for us, alongside the ongoing grunt work involved in getting toiletries to places where they’re desperately needed. We had a lot to learn but, throughout, Jo and I have had one another – as well as an extraordinarily giving community of readers and social media followers.
There are four ways you can join in. First, you could box up any unused toiletries, baby products and period protection (all unopened), including minis from hotels and planes (the homeless community, in particular, is in need of portable sizes), and send them to us at Beauty Banks, c/o The Communications Store, 2 Kensington Square, London W8 5EP. If the cost of postage is prohibitive, you can shop our wishlist on the independent online cash’n’carry easho.co.uk/ beauty-bank. html, which doesn’t charge postage; it also dramatically cuts Cate Blanchett’s makeup artist, Mary Greenwell, is one of those donating their time to pack boxes
36 06 October 2018 | The Guardian Weekend packaging, petrol and carbon by loading toiletries directly on to pallets and delivering to us once weekly. If you live in Manchester, you can take your products to Superdrug in Piccadilly, Arndale or Salford, where a pilot drop-off scheme is up and running. If it proves popular, the chain will roll it out nationwide.
If none of this appeals, you can simply cut us out of the equation and take your products to your local food bank – they will still find their way to those who need them. While you do that, rest assured that Jo and I are working hard on the beauty industry, negotiating large bulk donations of shower gel, deodorant, shampoo, combs, sanitary protection, suncare, baby products and anything else we can get our hands on, direct from factories and retailers. Beauty brands, retailers and PR firms have been extraordinarily generous, providing couriers, sending huge pallets of products – and asking for nothing in return. But there are some huge multinationals we believe could still step in and change lives overnight.
We’ve had a stream of cards and letters from people who tell us that, because of Beauty Banks, they or their clients feel more confident and better able to cope with life. It’s frustrating and often infuriating that we are needed at all, of course – just as it is for the headteachers, doctors, vicars and volunteers we supply. Recently, one schoolchild wrote to thank us for a tube of shower gel, saying, “Thank you so much for making me feel clean and special.” But the dignity of cleanliness shouldn’t be special; a shower shouldn’t be a luxury, but a basic human right
A child wrote to us about a shower gel: ‘Thank you for making me feel special.’ But it should be a basic right
Above: Sali Hughes and Jo Jones unpack donations, under the watchful eye of Sali’s dog, Sylvie