“As a child, I treasured my plushies. Each had its own very individual personality. They joined me on childhood adventures and snuggled me safely through times of stress. As a 12-year-old, I bought a teddy bear with a beating heart for my beloved Grandma to snuggle up to, as she spent her final days in a hospice. I never imagined my childhood plushies would inspire me to start a now-thriving business, which aims to help save our planet by offering a different way of buying soft toys, and invites people to rethink some common assumptions about being old, or physically less than perfect.
It all started while I was working in a London charity shop. As a 20-year-old who could never have dreamed of parting with her plushies, I was struck by the number of people donating soft toys. Many told me that because of a change in their life circumstances they no longer had space to keep them, and they had no one to pass them on to. They felt very sad about parting with old friends, and had brought them to a charity shop because they wanted to feel their loss was bringing some benefit to others.
I recall the shock with which I first watched shop staff examining their day’s donations. Plushies deemed ‘fit to sell’ were seen as low-value items to be sold for pennies, sometimes as dog toys, and tossed together into a large plushie bin. ‘But, what happens to the others?’ I asked, and was answered with a simple nod toward the rubbish bin. My heart sank, and I went home that night and started to research the fate of that unwanted group of plushies. I discovered at best, they might end up in textile recycling bins, but the majority were destined for landfill. I held on to the thought some had been deemed good enough to sell.
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But for those too, I found it painful to think the lives, the stories, and the characters of these worn, but much-cherished friends who had been donated in such good faith, were being lost forever in that moment. I knew I had to do something to change all of this. And to change what I could see laid behind it, which is the way we seem nowadays—so ready to discard and devalue things which are old and look less than perfect. Over the next couple of weeks, my walls were covered with sketches and Post-it Notes, in which I jotted down the ideas going around my head. I was looking for some practical way to remind people that far from losing its value with age and damage, a toy once loved is made even more special by the love and life it has experienced.
This is how I came up with ‘Loved Before,’ a one-of-a-kind soft-toy adoption agency. The idea was when it’s time to part with your plushies, you give them to Loved Before, telling us a bit about their life and personality on little cards, which potential adopters look at when choosing the best match for their family. The plushies would need to be cleaned, of course, just for hygiene reasons. But the point of Loved Before was it didn’t matter if they were old, scruffy, or missing parts—this was just proof of the lives they had lived, and made them even more special.
I took my idea to the charity’s managers. They liked it, and most donors loved the idea of telling potential adopters just what made their own plushies so special. I found it really moving to help people who weren’t at ease writing, or felt unsure just what to say to complete their cards. I will never forget the elderly lady who calmly explained since being a child, she had not spent a single day apart from the bedraggled-looking teddy bears she sat down in front of me. She was unwell and it was time to part ways, but she had no relatives she could pass them on to. A friend had told her about Loved Before and she had come in desperation, hoping we could find a loving home for her plushies.
Fired up by stories that would melt any heart, I booked stalls at local events, and spent hectic weekends transporting plushies between them, in each place meeting children and adults fascinated by the plushies and stories on display, and excited by the idea of adopting. I had taken the elderly lady’s details, and she cried with joy when I showed her a photo of her beloved teddy bears being hugged by two obviously delighted girls and their smiling mother, getting ready to take them home.
A few months in and just before I was due to graduate, an employer I was very keen to work for offered me an internship. But I couldn’t stop thinking about my vision for Loved Before. ‘What if I could really make a difference? What if I could truly change the game?’ I spent sleepless nights trying to decide if I would really be able to put in the time and energy needed to turn my internship into a permanent job, while at the same time doing what was needed to take Loved Before to a level where it could have the impact I wanted. My head told me I should put all my energy into the internship. But I listened to my heart, which told me I could not possibly abandon my vision for Loved Before.
So I accepted the internship, but spent the weekend before I was due to report for duty preparing for the next stage of Loved Before. I created a website and a social media presence for the large number of donated plushies I was still looking after, showcasing their past lives and personalities, and the lives they were enjoying now at Loved Before ‘HQ.’ Which, from that point on, is what my home was to become! I was fresh out of college, with no business experience at all, just a vision of where I wanted to take Loved Before and a determination to give it my very best shot.
And that’s what I did. I spent long days working hard on my internship (which, after three months, was made into a permanent job), and spent my evenings and weekends doing what was needed to take Loved Before beyond its reliance on stalls at local events. I explored how plushies and adopters from a range of countries might be matched using the internet, and how best to arrange delivery to their new homes. I designed the packaging and publicity materials we would need and explored possible suppliers. Plushie-obsessed friends helped me clean the soft toys for their online photography, and then package them for me to take to a post office for delivery.
I loved what I was doing but it left me exhausted, which was less than good for the loving relationship I had up until then with my long-term partner. After a while, he realized if he was going to get to spend any time with me, he would need to join in with my mission! He jumped in head first, giving me a trusted companion to bounce ideas off, and someone with the technical skills I lacked at those frustrating times when our IT systems went down at a crucial moment, and an ability to physically build what was needed to accommodate all the donated plushies staying with us at HQ.
We had, up to this point, continued to run Loved Before as an offshoot of the charity in which I had first started it. But we could see the charity’s need to focus on its own very worthwhile mission was making it hard for them to buy into the future I visualized for Loved Before. We knew it was time to part ways, and to develop Loved Before as an independent company. The pledge we made from the start to give 50% of its profits to charity has always been very important to us, so we started straight away to explore which charity might fit best with our mission. When we came across Make-A-Wish UK, we just knew it was the one.
If we could help save the planet by saving cuddly toys from landfill, find people who would get pleasure from adopting them, encourage our audience to look in a different way at concepts like ‘old’ and ‘imperfect,’ and at the same time help grant wishes to seriously ill children, we knew we’d be running a very special business indeed. I reached out to Make-A-Wish UK and we built the foundations of what has turned out to be a brilliant relationship.
But while independence felt great, we had lost the reliable stream of donations we’d been getting from our previous charity partner. My lunch breaks in London were spent sprinting around charity shops, pitching our idea, and letting them know we could be here for any toys they had no room for, or were unable to sell. Meanwhile, we continued to build our social media presence, sharing the laughter and mayhem of our life with the plushies at HQ and gaining friends, followers, and more donors along the way. Bit by bit, we began to identify and learn the skills we needed to grow our small business.
We improved our internet site, learned how to make ads, and rebranded our packaging and publicity materials to reflect Loved Before’s new start as a fully-independent business. It was exhausting but hugely rewarding, and the two of us trusted that with determination, hard work, and a shared willingness to put luxuries like sleep and a social life on hold, we would somehow find ways to achieve our vision. Just as it seemed we were getting into our stride, COVID-19 arrived and before we knew it, the world was locked down. We had to stop the van trips we had been making to pick up large donations from across the UK. People worried about whether it was safe to welcome toys others had been touching into their own homes.
The widespread increase in delivery services created a global shortage of the cardboard and other material we used to package our plushies for delivery, and suppliers put back the orders of small businesses like ours to prioritize their biggest customers. We dealt with all this by being open and very honest with our online community about what was happening, and how we were trying to deal with it. We made it a top priority to constantly check reliable COVID-related advice, and to make sure this was built into the process we used for receiving, cleaning, handling, and sending out our plushies.
Loved Before’s followers were delighted by one aspect of this, shown to them in photos of plushies enjoying a luxurious spa session, in which their fur was thoroughly steam-cleaned and brushed. This was the time we really started to build our Loved Before community. It was inspiring to hear by phone, post, and social media from people who followed our adventures and mishaps at HQ, and told us we were bringing sunshine into their lives during some very dark times, and how much they looked forward to each Sunday’s release of new plushies for adoption.
With our increased visibility on Google and our very positive reviews, more and more people trusted their plushies to us, in the confidence that they would be cherished and enjoy their new adventures. We always went the extra mile to accommodate special requests and found it very satisfying, for example, to track down an exact replica of a lost plushie which had been important to a bereaved child, to do a custom clean for a plushie which was to be passed on within the same family, and to re-home an enormous eight-foot teddy bear. Adopters were keen to let the Loved Before community know how their adopted plushies were taking to life in their family, and sent so many wonderful photos that we created a ‘Loved Again’ section on our website to display them.
In the summer of 2020, we acquired our first office space. We still run almost entirely from our home-based HQ, but we use this extra space for the packaging materials which previously surrounded us at home, and to parcel up orders. On the day we took the keys to our new office, I can remember lying on the floor there and crying, with a mixture of relief, exhaustion, and pride in what we were building. Fast forward to today, and we are shipping around 600 cuddly friends around the world each month, and receiving hundreds of donations each week. Every box that arrives is treated with the same love and excitement as the first, as we tear back the tape to read the cards and notes from donors, and peek at the newbies inside.
From plushies with labels still attached that have never been much played with, to 100-year-old friends with missing eyes and sad smiles, all are welcome. We both still have other, full time jobs. The number of plushies staying in our home leaves little space to move, and despite the continued support of a small team of friends who help us with unpacking and sending, we have forgotten what free time means. Friendly neighbors who witness the constant arrival and departure of boxes and our plushie photoshoots around HQ tell us smilingly we’re insane. Maybe we are! But while Loved Before continues to help the planet, embrace the imperfect, support incredible charities, and spread some sunshine, we’ll be here and we’ll be giving it our all.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Charlotte Liebling of Bushey, Hertfordshire.
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