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29th Mar 2021

Anne-Marie Tomchak: “The pandemic has put the ecological crisis and climate change on people’s radar”

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“On the days I decide to wear something other than a pair of joggers, I approach the day with a different mentality.”

For years now, fast fashion has been a point of contention – sustainability, buying pre-loved, and secondhand, the way forward.

Elsewhere, keeping on top of our mental health has become more important than ever. The ability to ask for help when you need it has always been desirable, but with the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic came the very real threat of being confronted with what we have ignored for so long.

It’s rare that the two issues would ever cross so evidently, but earlier this year, they did.

Back in January, journalist Anne-Marie Tomchak launched ShareJoy, a social enterprise aimed at supporting young people who may be struggling during the pandemic. The concept behind ShareJoy is simple – people donate pre-loved items of clothing which are then re-sold on Depop. The money made from each purchase then goes directly towards supporting Pieta House.

Within the first two weeks of ShareJoy being live, over €13,000 had been raised for mental health services from direct donations and sales from the Depop shop. Anne-Marie says that although it’s not surprising that the idea took off, “we could not have anticipated just how positively it would be received.”

“Irish people are known for being unbelievably generous and the concept of sharing with others and telling stories comes so naturally to us,” she tells Her.

“Covid-19 presents a very visible public health issue. But, arguably, there is also a less visible mental health issue that is really being put to the test. The charity sector has been hit hard by a decrease in donations and fundraising activities despite the fact that demand for their services has actually gone up.

“ShareJoy wants to try to use its activities and platform to proactively support young people’s mental health and to help charities like Pieta as it’s clear these services are needed.”

Last year, Pieta reported receiving 50,000 texts to its text support line. The majority of the charity’s funding comes from public supports, which have seen an expected decline over the past year due to the lack of in person fundraising events permitted under the country’s Covid restrictions.

But ShareJoy isn’t just about selling clothes and raising money. Instead, Anne-Marie wants to build something that impacts consumer attitudes and changes the way people buy and sell their clothes.

“The message about the circular economy – which, in fashion terms, is what’s already in your wardrobe – and the behaviour of consumers towards preloved fashion is just as important,” she says. “Having an impact on consumer attitudes and how widely accepted and embraced resale is – that, in my view, is also an indicator of impact.

“All of the work we are doing in the area of technology and wellbeing is also a big part of how we see impact. If we share something on our page that even one person finds useful towards their mental health, then we have achieved something significant.”

For years, people have been using sport and entertainment as a means of raising awareness, and raising money, for an array of charities including those focused on mental health.

Often, these kinds of initiatives will draw a link between the product and the solution. A charity football match? Encourage men to speak out if they’re struggling. A concert fundraiser? Showcase the link between community and creativity. So why fashion? And why, more specifically, sustainable fashion?

“There is no doubt that fashion is performative,” Anne-Marie says. “A big part of fashion is about being seen and those who aren’t invested in it might say that fashion preys on people’s insecurities or is exploitative or extractive of different social and economic groups. There are also many widely recognised challenges that the fashion industry is currently grappling with around its sustainability credentials.

“But there are major positive changes afoot on that front and fashion plays an undeniably important role in how we express ourselves and how we feel. I know that on the days I decide to wear something other than a pair of joggers, I approach the day with a different mentality. And that counts for something.”

But it’s not just our wellbeing that can be affected by fashion and how we engage with it. Our decisions around our purchases and the kinds of companies we chose to spend our money with can have significant effects on the climate, waste levels, and the types of labour that are considered acceptable, and more importantly, unacceptable.

“The pandemic has really thrown the issue of the ecological crisis and climate change on people’s radar in a way that we might not have noticed had we all still been running around on hamster wheels,” says Anne-Marie. “But there is still a lot of work to be done in landing the message about how damaging fashion’s  ‘cult of new’ can be.

“For example, if you bulk-buy from a fast fashion brand only to send most of it back, you probably don’t realise that a lot of returned items end up in landfill. They don’t go to another customer. Some of these items are not even recyclable. This might make people think twice about clicking ‘add to cart’ and consider other options such as rental or resale if having something ‘new’ is a non-negotiable.”

The issue with mass returns is not cited to “stir up eco-guilt,” says Anne-Marie, but to educate shoppers about where their clothes are likely to go when they send them back, and of course, where they came from in the first place.

You can find out more about ShareJoy here.