Toiletries Amnesty Founder Karen Harvey On Receiving An MBE

By Charlie Colville

3 weeks ago

Harvey was recently listed in the King’s Birthday Honours


In just 10 years,  Toiletries Amnesty has become one of the beauty industry’s biggest game changers. The award-winning NGO has been working to end hygiene poverty and divert beauty industry waste since 2014, giving millions of people access to toiletries while preventing millions of tonnes of cosmetic waste from hitting landfill. At the helm of it all is Karen Harvey, a woman who always seems to have a project on the go – ‘I can’t help it!’ – and who recently made it onto the King’s Birthday Honours list, receiving an MBE for her work with Toiletries Amnesty. We caught up with Harvey to find out a little bit more about Toiletries Amnesty, her long-time goals for the NGO and what it was like to get that letter from Buckingham Palace.

Q&A With Karen Harvey, Founder Of Toiletries Amnesty

Karen Harvey

Karen Harvey

Hi Karen, how’s life going right now?

Good! Busy, but good! I always have lots of projects on the go, I can’t help it! At the moment I am curating an exhibition of over 100 photographers in France, working on a couple of books, training for an endurance race and developing an artist’s residency space in an underground bunker.

Wow, you definitely are busy! For those who don’t know you, can you kick us off by telling us about yourself?

I’m Karen Harvey. In trying to label myself succinctly, I often use the term ‘Creative Director’, but really I am a little bit of many things – curator, collaborator, consultant, photographer, writer, publisher, social entrepreneur, charity patron, racing driver… list maker!

I’m the founder and director of the NGO Toiletries Amnesty, as well as of the AUTO PHOTO Awards, and Shutter Hub, supporting creative photographers worldwide.

Tell us a bit more about Toiletries Amnesty – what does it do?

Toiletries Amnesty is an award-winning NGO working to end hygiene poverty and divert beauty industry waste. We provide our services for free, supporting over 800 locations around the world, and in 2023 we gave access to toiletries and hygiene products to 4 million people.

We support charities and organisations, creating positive and practical solutions for beauty industry waste and sustainability issues, and connecting communities and consumers who want to see a change for good. As a social, ethical and environmental organisation, our mission is to alleviate hygiene poverty while reducing waste wherever possible.

And what led you to found it back in 2014?

I had two bottles of shampoo that I couldn’t use. I didn’t want to waste them, and I thought that a homeless shelter might be able to use them. I thought it would be a bit ‘off’ if I turned up with just two items, so after checking with a homeless shelter in Cambridge (to make sure they could use the items), I put a call out on my blog asking people to gather together any toiletries or beauty products that they didn’t need, so we could pass them on to other people to enjoy and use.

The response was incredible, there were so many donations that we were able to provide for two homeless shelters with the first collection. Things started to snowball from there. At first I set up a kind-of directory on my blog, but soon I was receiving hundreds of messages each week from people asking where they could donate to, and others asking if their organisation could receive items.

It wasn’t easy juggling everything (especially as this was just a ‘small’ side project) but then I was lucky to win the X Foundation Award for Innovation, and used the prize money to build the first website and Toiletries Amnesty directory.

Yours is the only public directory that allows donors to see exactly what happens with their donations. How important is it for donors to see how they’re making a difference?

I think transparency is really important, not only so people can see where their products or financial support is going, but also so we can all learn together. Many of our directory members welcome donations in person, and this is a wonderful way for people to connect with charities and groups in their local communities and to understand their needs.

All our experiences of life are so varied, and if you’re lucky enough to have never had to think about hygiene poverty then now could be the time to find out more, to share your excess items, consider your consumption and environmental impact, and support other people at the same time.

There’s also the sustainability aspect of Toiletries Amnesty, as it helps close the loop on beauty industry waste. Can you tell us a bit more about this?

The environmental impact of what we do has always been at the heart of our purpose. For decades, beauty brands have been sending their returned and surplus products straight to landfill or incineration, and consumers haven’t had the option to share their spares. We want people to know there’s another way, and that way is not just good for the planet but it’s good for people too.

When we began our work ten years ago, people didn’t really know the term ‘hygiene poverty’. Food banks were much less prevalent, and the fast-fashion industry had barely begun to be exposed. Things have changed, much for the worse, sadly, but some for the good – everyone knows what greenwashing is, and so many consumers are choosing to step away from companies that mislead them with their promises, and purchase with purpose. We are glad to be able to provide an option for not just closing the loop on waste, but also doing it with kindness and a far reaching positive impact.

You were recently listed in the King’s Birthday Honours and received an MBE for services to people living in hygiene poverty, to considerate consumption and to the environment – congratulations! How did you feel when you first heard the news?

I had recently been given a Points of Light award from the government, so when the letter came through I thought it was a certificate from Rishi Sunak and I didn’t open it at first. It was such a surprise to read the words, ‘would I like to accept the award from the King?’… erm, yes, please and thank you! I was sworn to secrecy for around a month, before the announcement was made, so when it did become public knowledge I wasn’t really sure who to tell or how.

One amazing thing that happened though, on the Monday after the King’s birthday, was that a Trust got into touch to say they’d heard about us on the news and would like to make a financial donation towards our work. I’ve been pretty much self-funding our work for the past decade, so not only was this offer hugely appreciated, it also felt like a tangible substantiation of what the award means for us as an NGO.

Is this something you imagined could happen when you set up Toiletries Amnesty?

Not at all. To be honest, I didn’t think much beyond those two bottles of shampoo.

It’s been 10 years since you founded Toiletries Amnesty – where would you like to see it in 10 years’ time?

People used to ask me, ‘what will you do when there’s no more hygiene poverty?’ I think this was because they hoped we were going to solve the problem. I don’t think we will ever live in a world where everyone has fair access to anything, the system isn’t designed to allow that, but I do hope that we’ve helped to create something that enables a more sharing, considerate and circular economy for communities across the world.

There’s no excuse for burying or burning any product that could be used and it’s packaging recycled (although I’ve probably heard every excuse in the book), and I’d love to see the beauty industry take full responsibility for its waste, whether it’s in their own hands or the hands of their consumers.

We work with some wonderful businesses, such as Irene Forte Skincare, who really understand our mission and don’t waste a thing, and it would be great to see more brands following their lead.

How do you live a life in balance?

I don’t think I do. I am always juggling things, and my brain never stops. If you look at my Instagram feed you might be tricked into thinking I live a serene existence – the reality is, I use photography to capture the sense of calm. I think photography is the best form of communication, something we can all understand and read, and in sharing those gentle moments of everyday delight I hope other people can feel a sense of peace too.

And, lastly, any parting words for our readers?

There are so many things that are wrong with the world, sometimes we can feel paralysed by the overwhelming sense of the enormity of it all. But, if we’re lucky enough to have the freedom to take positive action, then we should, in any way we can. ⁠

You might not realise the impact you can have, but collectively our small steps have great power. Do good things, do whatever you can. And if you feel the same way as I do, I’d love to hear from you.

EXPLORE

You can keep up with Karen Harvey on her website, karen-harvey.co.uk, and see what she’s up to at Toiletries Amnesty via toiletriesamnesty.org.