The shifting nature of charity shops

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I’ve written a lot about how much I like charity shops, both here and as an Oxfam Fashion Blogger. I even did a PhD on second-hand consumption although not precisely about charity shops. In particular, I’ve written about how charity shopping provides the ultimate guilt free shopping experience; reusing goods is environmentally sustainable, inexpensive, and every purchase delivers a donation to a good cause. It’s seems a win-win (for a more in-depth look at some of the contentious aspects of charity retailing, see Andrew Brooks’ work), but it’s easy to forget that charity shops are a very British affair. Whilst the US do garage sales and Europe have flea markets, no other country has the same kind of high street charity shops we do. Every year charity shops raise over £270m for a range of causes in the UK, so how did they start? And how has their purpose changed?

Charity retailing is the most conspicuously placed form of second-hand consumption with much fuss made over how they’ve increasingly encroached on the UK high street (they are exempt from the business rates that hold back many small retailers). Charity retailing can be traced back to the late nineteenth-century, when William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army organised for donated goods to be collected from well-off Victorian homes to then be sold at ‘salvage stores’ across London (Horne and Maddrell 2002). The primary purpose of this was to provide household goods and clothing to the poorest families, it was in itself a form of charity, but the idea has since been appropriated as a fundraising activity and way for charities to increase their public presence. The first of these sort of shops was opened by Oxfam in 1947.

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Charity shops as they exist today boomed in the 1980s and there are now estimated to be over 11,000 shops in the UK linked to a whole host of local and national charities. Stores have become more professionalised and more closely aligned to first cycle sites of exchange, borrowing many standard retail practices such as size ordering of clothes, mannequin displays, online sales and selling new goods such as Fairtrade food, cards and batch items donated by major high street brands. A significant way in which charity shops are run differently to other retail outlets however is their strong reliance on volunteers. It has previously been estimated that charity shop volunteers alone contribute approximately £150 million worth of labour annually, calculated at the UK national minimum wage (Goodall 2000).

Although the primary purpose of charity shops is to raise funds for the charity concerned, there is still a suggestion that these types of shops have a duty to provide for the less well-off in society. The shift to more professionalised services however, has led others to muse over the prices of charity shop goods. I remember seeing a worn Primark dress in a London charity shop for £9. It seemed steep, but the volunteers expected it to sell to an overseas shopper, unaware of the Atmosphere label. Is this ethical? Where should the shop’s priorities lie? Do you think they should do whatever they can to fundraise for the charity or do they also have a moral obligation to serve the local community? The charity sector have little reason to change their model because it works. Despite the easy availability to inexpensive new goods, and the growth in online second-hand economies, the British love affair with charity shops shows little sign of waning.

Goodall, R. (2000). “Organising Cultures: Voluntarism and Professionalism in the UK Charity Shops.” Voluntary Action 3(1): 43-57.
Horne, S. and A. Maddrell, A. (2002). Charity Shops; Retailing, Consumption and Society. London, Routledge

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“Dead White Man’s Clothes”

Did you see the ‘Secret Life of Your Clothes’ last night? The BBC2 This World documentary followed the fate of your charity shop donations, showing that most of your old clothes don’t end up on the rails of your local Oxfam at all, but thousands of miles away in Africa. This has never been something charities wanted to admit but it is a massive business. It’s also something I had mixed feelings about – charity shop prices aren’t that cheap anymore, they always seem to be begging for donations, and to think that they have all this surplus that they are shipping out to the poorest countries of the world not in aid but to sell to them (the bales are always tightly packed and wrapped so it’s pot luck what traders end up buying).

In the programme Ade Adepitan follows the trail to Ghana, the biggest importer of our castoffs. One million pounds’ worth of our old clothes arrive here every week. Ade meets the people who making a living from our old castoffs, from wholesalers and markets traders to the importers raking in a staggering £25,000 a day. They call them ‘dead white man’s clothes’. The documentary really did show a story of two-halves. On the one hand, people are building businesses selling second-hand clothes (the size of the markets were astonishing) and trade is booming; but on the other hand, local traditional textile businesses are struggling to compete on the low prices of second-hand fast fashion. The second-hand clothes are simply much cheaper, and not only that but many young Ghanaians want to wear Western clothing. It shows that they ‘know what’s out there’.

I think we’ve actually become used to seeing Africans wear Western clothing, haven’t we? Where did we think they came from? At one point Ade visits a professional factory that have specialised in uniforms and exporting garments to the US. The factory manager describes how Africa has become a dumping ground for stuff – ‘when will it end?’ she says. I understand her frustrations but it’s hard to deny that the second-hand economy is thriving and these are clothes that still have plenty of life left in them. Yes we should be consuming more sustainably in the West but part of me is pleased that these clothes can be loved and used after we’ve discarded them.

Ade makes the point that these clothes go full circle – from being manufactured by some of the poorest people in the world they come back to some of the poorest people in the world, via a few months in our UK wardrobes. In Ghana it’s so difficult for their own factories to stay afloat they have to specialise (funeral wear was the example they gave) and/or export. In the UK we import African-produced products via fair trade groups and Western-based social enterprises/businesses who sell their wears to the middle-class ethics conscious consumer looking to divert from the fast fashion mainstream. These networks of trade are astonishing, clothing perhaps more than any other product really do link the world together within this evitable thing we call globalisation.

You can catch up with the show here.
If you are interested in the academic debates on this topic I recommend the work of Dr Andrew Brooks.

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Diverse Economies and Alternative Channels of Consumption

A couple of months ago I went to a fascinating conference/workshop organised by the Geography department at the University of Leicester. It was called ‘Diverse Alternatives: living, working and playing differently in the capitalist mainstream’ and followed the department’s distinguished annual lecture by Professor Katherine Gibson (of J-K Gibson Graham) which was held the previous evening. J.K. Gibson-Graham is a pen name shared by feminist economic geographers – Katherine Gibson and the late Julie Graham. Their first book ‘The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy’ was published in 1996 and I read it last year – much of it over a fieldwork weekend in Newcastle, sat very contently in various coffee shops around the city.

My discovery of J-K Gibson Graham came at the perfect time as I’d be struggling to conceptualise what second-hand shopping (specifically the nearly new sales I study for my PhD) was. Was it an alternative form of consumption? Informal consumption? Inconspicuous consumption? Ordinary consumption? Whilst shopping as an activity and economic action has been studied now extensively by academics, second-hand consumption had been studied only a little. It had been pushed aside, yet it’s so common (isn’t it?). It’s fairly ordinary, yet so complex – perhaps that is what made it difficult to study. J-K Gibson Graham came to the rescue with their map of the diverse economy, the concept of which inspired the workshop I presented at in Leicester.

Gibson-Graham argue that whilst capitalist firms, wage labour, and market-oriented production produce the dominant discourse of the economy, a whole host of hidden labours and systems of exchange construct everyday life. The iceberg economy visualised here makes visible all other economic relations beyond wage labour and economic exchange.

The Iceberg Economy reproduced from Graham, J. (2001) Imagining and Enacting Noncapitalist Futures. Socialist Review, 28 (3 + 4): 93-135.

The Iceberg Economy reproduced from Graham, J. (2001) Imagining and Enacting Noncapitalist Futures. Socialist Review, 28 (3 + 4): 93-135.

So much work goes into maintaining the capitalist economy and it often goes unrecognised. The work of Gibson-Graham calls for a new way to look at the economy – everyday people in everyday places can be part of re-thinking and re-enacting economies. A diverse economy might be a voluntary run community cafe, a car sharing website or clothes swapping parties. Second-hand shopping or the general procuring of used goods is often considered ‘alternative’. How though, I ask, is the daily provisioning of a mother for her family ‘alternative’? And how is people passing on used clothes ‘alternative’ when we’ve been doing it for hundreds of years? If we’re talking about what’s novel historically, going to the shops every Saturday to buy a new dress would have been impossible for most people just a century ago. Shopping should be seen as ‘alternative’. Calling such diverse economies alternative (like second-hand stuff) just means they are alternative to the capitalist system. And capitalism is just that – a system, or an institution. It’s not life, it’s not the only way, it’s just one way. For this reason I really like the term diverse; it’s less loaded than alternative. The nearly new sales I study are a diverse economy.

Renowned geographer David Harvey has published a new book ‘Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism’. In it he says ‘the economic engine of capitalism is plainly in much difficulty.’ I haven’t read it yet but there is a section entitled ‘capitalism as a process or thing?’ and he calls for the need of an open forum ‘a global assembly, as it were — to consider where capital is, where it might be going and what should be done about it.’ Can anything be done about it? I don’t know. I’m not anti-capitalism, I just don’t think it should rule, but where capitalism is no other alternative gets a real look in. We just need to regain control of it as a system, not a way of life.

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Twenties Night at the Candlelight Club: My free outfit

The Candlelight Club host 1920s nights across London – a “clandestine pop-up cocktail bar in a secret London venue, a stunning, tucked-away den with a 1920s speakeasy flavour, completely lit by candles.”

I went to their Christmas extravaganza last night, it was beautiful. It was in a wood panelled ballroom near Paddington; there was jazz music, Charleston dancing and amazing Christmas-themed cocktails. Of course, a 1920s night called for a 1920s outfit and half the fun of the night came from people watching. It amazed me just how many different and beautiful outfits there were. My own outfit was very cheap and chic, in fact most of it didn’t cost me anything. I had looked around the high street but the only dresses I liked were super expensive (this one by Ted Baker was quite nice), plus it seemed a shame to buy something new when I knew I could find the real deal in a vintage shop. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time or money either to find a great vintage dress but with a little bit of thought I put together an outfit which didn’t cost me a penny (apart from the shoes which I wanted to buy anyway).

twenties

I wore a Zara dress borrowed from a friend who had bought it herself from a charity shop for a similar 1920s themed party. I teamed it with a necklace that I picked up from the last University of Southampton Swap Shop and a bag I already owned. Around my head I tied a piece of ribbon/trim that came in a bag of textile knick-knacks bought from an antique shop in Brighton. The gloves were borrowed on the night. I wondered how other guests had pulled their outfits together. I know one of my friends had found a dress in a charity shop, another had bought one new. Charity shops are the perfect starting point for themed nights like this – they are treasure troves of random pieces. And don’t forget to ask around and borrow from friends too, just be prepared to repay the favour!

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Oxfam Posts: Three Key Reasons for Second-Hand Shopping

Clothes rail

For my last three blog posts for Oxfam Fashion I looked at why we might choose to buy second-hand clothes and accessories. Reasons and motives are more complex than you might first think and vary depending on an individual’s priorities and circumstances. I used an academic study as my basis and fed in elements of my own research (I should write a PhD update at some point). I then pulled the reasons into three key points:

Buying clothes second-hand (with a focus of charity shopping):
Saves money
Is more ethical/sustainable
Is fun!

If you want to read more about these reasons click on the links above to the respective posts. I’m always keen to hear about why people choose to buy things second-hand and what you buy, so let me know by leaving a comment or tweeting me @EmsWaight

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Oxfam Posts: Three Key Reasons for Second-Hand Shopping

Clothes rail

For my last three blog posts for Oxfam Fashion I looked at why we might choose to buy second-hand clothes and accessories. Reasons and motives are more complex than you might first think and vary depending on an individual’s priorities and circumstances. I used an academic study as my basis and fed in elements of my own research (I should write a PhD update at some point). I then pulled the reasons into three key points:

Buying clothes second-hand (with a focus of charity shopping):
Saves money
Is more ethical/sustainable
Is fun!

If you want to read more about these reasons click on the links above to the respective posts. I’m always keen to hear about why people choose to buy things second-hand and what you buy, so let me know by leaving a comment or tweeting me @EmsWaight

Post to Twitter