By finding new homes for old teddies, the agency reduces waste and saves cuddly toys from an inglorious trip to landfill
Charlotte Liebling was volunteering in a charity shop, when she realised that many soft toys end up in landfill or as chew toys for dogs. Treasured teddies that are a bit grubby or have an eye or two missing? They don’t even make it to the sales floor.
“I had always cherished my own soft toys, and to learn that others like them – with their own history and stories – were going straight in the bin was shocking,” Liebling says.
So, she set up Loved Before: a social enterprise adoption agency for unwanted soft toys of any kind. Donations are washed, restored if necessary, and photographed before a profile is added to the website in the hope of finding them a new home.
Listings at the time of going to press include a handknitted scarecrow with a slightly wonky nose called Skipper, and a bow tie-wearing teddy bear named Odie, who looks as good as new. Most are priced in the £8–£14 range.
“There is very little we won’t accept,” notes Liebling. “We don’t take plastic toys or any with mechanical or electronic inner parts, but otherwise they can have missing limbs and missing eyes, and be worn from hugs.”
Each toy goes through a “spa process,” as Liebling describes it, but she doesn’t try to make them ‘as new’. “We are about embracing imperfection. And in a way, they are even more valuable when you can see the love they have experienced.”
Toys from popular brands sell quickly, but equally, “if a toy arrives with a good story, it will be gone in seconds,” reports Liebling. “Some look a bit quirky, and people might wonder: ‘who might want a toy like that?’ But someone will relate to them.”
The company uses recyclable or biodegradable packaging and has donated 50 per cent of its profits to charity since it was established in 2019.
Liebling is currently caring for more than 10,000 soft toys and shares their “journeys” on social media. She suggests that new adoptees donate a toy at the same time, to try to ensure that fewer toys end up in landfill.
I’m not going to fix climate change by reselling bears, but I can show younger generations what sustainability looks like
And while she acknowledges the scale of the challenge – people spent £370m on new toys in the UK in 2018 alone – she is convinced that Loved Before is helping to make a difference.
“This isn’t just a one-off project,” Liebling says. “I see it as changing the world one soft toy at a time. I’m not going to ‘fix’ climate change by reselling bears, but what I can do is show younger generations what secondhand and sustainability looks like.”
Three other organisations toying with change
Big brands like Lego and Mattel now offer toy recycling schemes. Lego Replay encourages families in the US and Canada to print free shipping labels and send back bricks they no longer use to be redistributed to children in need. Mattel PlayBack collects unwanted toys, then recovers the materials and reuses them in new toys.
Image: Xavi Cabrera
Maxine Sault and Charlotte Stokes, the duo behind UK business Toys 4 Life, realised the need for a recycling process for toys when they noticed how quickly children grow out of their playthings. They collect plastic toys – for free – and export them to developing countries and socially deprived areas.
Image: Park Troopers
Primary school teacher Jane Garfield knew some children had more toys than others, and that schools often lack the funds to buy resources. Along with Angela Donovan, she formed The TOY Project charity in response. The duo collect unwanted toys and redistribute them to people who are in need. They also run a shop in Archway, London, stocked with preloved toys.
Image: Jason Leung
Main image: Oxana Lyashenko