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Bags of Enthusiasm

Meet Dave Linton, who started bag company, Madlug to help children in care

What is Madlug and how did it come about?

Madlug stands for ‘make a difference luggage’ because for every bag we sell, a bag is donated to a child in care.

I’ve had a 22-year career in youth work, my wife and I are adoptive parents and we’ve also been foster carers so it’s a cause close to my heart.

In 2014 my wife and I were attending a fostering course and we were shown a video of a young girl talking about her experience of the care system, moving from place to place. She said that sometimes local authorities lend suitcases, “but quite often we have to put our belongings in black bin bags and we lose our dignity”. As soon as I heard that I thought of nothing else and it was the start of Madlug.

Why is a bag important

There are bigger issues to fix in the care system but for me this was the thing I heard and it broke my heart. It might seem like a small thing but the reality is it’s huge. Letting kids use a bin bag to move their belongings reinforces a message to those who feel lost in the care system, who feel perhaps undervalued, worthless – rubbish. We say ‘life goes inside’ – meaning that for a child in care, it is their life that goes inside that bag and it’s important.

Tell us about your bags

We have a range of quality, affordable and classically-designed bags – classic, roll-top, laptop and outdoor-style backpacks, duffle bags and shoulder bags – in a huge choice of colours. The cost of every bag covers a free bag for a child in care but they get one designed for their needs.

We consulted a focus group of kids and they told us that bin bags were often used because bags take up a lot of space and in a residential home they might only have access to one drawer. They also told us that being given a huge bag can reinforce that they have very little. The children said they didn’t want to be stigmatised as a child in care so they wanted a non-branded bag but they loved our catchphrase: ‘Value. Worth. Dignity’.

We’ve created a pack-away bag with these words on the outside but when you open it up into a bag they’re hidden. It fits into a sock drawer but kids can have multiple bags if they need. On the label it also says: “You are incredible”.

Why a social enterprise?

Years ago I saw the founder of TOMS shoes speak at a conference about his buy-one-give-one model. I remember thinking – ‘wow, what a great idea’ – but then I forgot all about it.

It would have been easy to get people to donate bags but then what? You need to get more. I didn’t want to start a charity because there was already great work being done for kids in care and I didn’t want to take a slice of that pie.

I’d always loved the idea of business and management, I was just never hungry enough to chase money. I rang up the local business advice service and said: “I want to start a business but I want to give all the profits away,” and they told me about social enterprises.

What have been the challenges

Local authorities are now 100% behind us but we had to make it clear that we weren’t there to criticise. What we do is empower and enable them to deliver on policies that are already in place.

Our first 100 bags went to Barnardos Northern Ireland, who we approached. We then spoke to another charity who introduced us to local authorities. Today there is such a demand for our bags that we get requests from them.

How did you build the brand

Back in 2015 organic marketing worked on Facebook so I stood in front of a camera, talked with passion and it got some traction.

In 2016 we were chosen as one of The Observer’s 50 New Radicals – a list of businesses or individuals changing society for the better. That was a great help!

A year later I entered a competition: ‘Win a £1000 and brunch with Richard Branson’. We didn’t win – we didn’t raise the most in the first 72 hours of a four-week crowdfund – but the company that did win didn’t raise another penny where as we raised a massive £24,500 by the end of the campaign. I got to have brunch with Richard in the end too!

In 2018 we got a boost from an influencer, Part-time Working Mummy. She posted a picture of herself and her kids sporting Madlug bags on Instagram and shared her story of using bin bags in care and why Madlug was so important. We sold all our products out within two hours of that post going live.

What's the feedback like?

Both care-experienced adults and kids love Madlug. One summer I was at a festival selling bags when I met Jay, a 17 year-old who’d spent ten years in care. He told me that during a two-week period he’d moved 15 times, with his belongings in bin bags. He said: ”What you’re doing is amazing,” and I got really choked up. When I could reply I told him: “What’s really amazing, Jay, is that there are over 300 young people at this festival who chose to buy Madlug bags over Nike, Adidas and lots of other brands. Why? Because every one of them believes you are incredible.”

He went off smiling and later contacted us to say he was donating all his 18th birthday money to us. This is the power of Madlug – to tell young people in care that they matter. When you wear Madlug you are a non-verbal communicator of your belief in them.

What's next?

To date we’ve given 20,000 bags to children in care. For the next three years we’ll continue to focus on the UK but there are children in care all around the world and our aim is to eventually make our impact global.

What’s your advice for others wanting to start a social enterprise?

Find your ‘black bin bag story’. It’s easy to have a desire to help a cause, whether it’s kids in care or homelessness, but you need your ‘bin bag’ – your razor-sharp focus. And don’t be afraid of failure because failing is learning.

Show a kid in care that you care

Make packing for your next holiday feel extra good and pick up a Madlug backpack, shoulder or duffel bag in your favourite colour.

This is a feature from Issue 1 of Charitable Traveller. Click to read more from this issue.