How a Bangor Eco Mum came up with an ingenious idea to recycle school uniforms and save her fellow parents cash, too. Audrey Watson reports
When Marianne Kennerley’s five-year-old son grew too big for his school trousers not long after starting primary school, the Bangor mum-of-two and part-time student realised that she probably wasn’t the only parent whose child was growing out of items of clothing quicker than they could wear them out.
And with parents in Northern Ireland spending around £5,000 on school uniforms and sports kits over the course of 11 years, expensive times lay ahead.
Realising this, Marianne, who is currently studying for an MA in Multidisciplinary Design at the University of Ulster, began researching methods of recycling school uniforms in a way that would benefit parents, schools and the environment.
After studying fashion design and spending more than a decade working in the clothing manufacturing industry in England and at home, she had developed a passion for sustainable and eco-fashion and immediately wondered if more use could be obtained from clothes that would only fit each child for one year, or even less.
The result of this research was UniCycle — an award-winning social enterprise that has already been adopted by two schools in the province. UniCycle not only helps the environment and eases the financial burden on parents, it also acts as a fundraiser for schools as well.
Marianne explains: “When my son, Peter, grew out of his school trousers, still within their 100-day guarantee, I had no-one to hand them on to. With a younger daughter, Cerys, a year behind, parts of his school uniform had simply nowhere to go.
“Standing in the playground one day I realised that children grow at different rates, and within a short space of time there can soon be a surplus of barely worn uniforms that could and should be re-used.
“My MA course involved researching how garments can be re-used and through this research I discovered that, although people wouldn’t buy second-hand school uniforms from charity shops, they would be prepared to buy them from schools and this could save around 50% of the cost.
“I was also keen that schools themselves would benefit in some way and that any scheme would make parents and children aware of the importance of recycling.”
So how does UniCycle actually work? When a child has outgrown their uniform, but there is still life in it, what actually happens?
“Everything is explained on the website (www.uniform-recycle.org.uk) and it really is very simple,” says Marianne.
“A parent or group of parents can approach the school, or the school can run it themselves.
“The ball gets rolling with a donation day during which unwanted uniforms and sports kits are brought into the school.
“The PTA then sort everything into various items and sizes and a short time later, the school hosts a ‘pop-up’ shop where everything is sold at reduced prices and any money made goes back to the school.
“Initially, the project is aimed at primary schools because young children are less likely to question where their clothing has come from and are more accepting of the perception of hand-me-downs.
“And with the growing popularity of vintage fashion and clothes swapping events, parents are becoming more accepting as well, as there is less stigma. Schools can organise donation days and pop-up shops as often as they choose.
“The end of the year is obviously a great time as clothing that is too small is often discarded and parents are thinking of the next year’s garments. UniCycle could also tie in with other school events such as summer barbecues and Christmas fairs.
“I have two schools involved now — Ballyholme Primary and Bangor Central — and I would really love to hear from more all over the province.
“In the future, I would like to make the scheme into a complete package and visit classrooms myself to explain what UniCycle is about and also tell pupils about the benefits of recycling and making discarded items into something else.
Marianne has the full support of her family and husband Scott in the venture.
“I’m doing my MA part-time over three years. This way (and with a lot of support from my family), I can balance home, study and UniCycle.
“Scott works for the Consumer Council and, although he is not involved at present, he has had a lot of input into how this project could develop into a much-wider educational resource for both primary and secondary schools.
“At the minute, he is more of a sounding board — as many husbands are,” she laughs.
Although UniCycle has only been going for a short time, it’s already won a major award.
Says Marianne: “During the European Week for Waste Reduction 2011, which took place in November, I launched the website and at the European Waste Reduction Awards in January 2012, UniCycle was recognised for innovation. It was a lovely way to start the New Year.”
For information about UniCycle, log on to: www.uniform-recycle.com