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.


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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Ethical High Street Spotters: I need YOU!

You may have noticed that I have a new project. I haven’t talked about it much until recently, but it’s got to the point where I can’t shut-up about it now. I already had a vague idea when I went to the Innocent Inspires entrepreneurship event at the end of July, but it was Innocent co-founder Richard Reed’s simple advice ‘just start’ that got me going. Just take one step and things will start rolling forward (what d’ya know, it was true!). For me, that one step was to contact a web developer to find out if my idea had legs. It does, and I’ve done a lot over the last few weeks although I don’t feel like I have much to show for it yet.

I want to create an online resource to help consumers navigate everyday shops with more of an ethical conscience. I’ve been involved with ethical fashion for the last few years and have seen it grow exponentially but am astonished when I talk to some people that it still has hippie connotations. Shoppers think ethical fashion is expensive, unattractive and not easily accessible. They just don’t know where to start. People often tell me that I should start an ethical brand, but I think the market is saturated right now. Until more people are going out looking for that thing, we need to go back to basics.

Most of our shopping is done in the same chain stores and supermarkets, so rather than have this them-and-us divide I want to fill the gap in the middle. I think it’s better to get 50 people to make one change rather than one person change their entire life. Not least because over time those 50 people will hopefully go on to make one more change, and another, and another. I want to encourage shoppers back to independent stores with a bricks and mortar street presence, because ethical stuff shouldn’t just be online. I want to tell people that it’s ok to buy things from chain stores if you’re thoughtful about it. I want to give shoppers easy to understand and positive information about retailers rather than focusing on the politics of ethical consumption. And I want to do this across the whole high street, not just for fashion but for home and gifts too. Oh, and I want it to be stylish, not like some of those other ‘green’ websites.

There is plenty I can do with Ethical High Street; I’d like news features, shopping guides and an interactive community. I’ve since met up with another developer who had some really exciting ideas. I have a pen and notebook glued to me right now, but there is a load to do. This is where I need your help. I can’t be in ten places at once so I need all of you lovely people to keep your eye out for great products. If you’re reading this then you’re already part of those ‘in the know’. A fashion chain has launched a charity tee? A stationer has started selling recycled cards? A new ethical indie has opened in your town? Please let me know! I need a team of spotters who can tweet me or email me (pictures!) so we can start sharing tips as a community. I am also looking for contributors to write for Ethical High Street so if this is you then please get in touch.

Want to be an Ethical High Street spotter? Want to blog? Email me:
Or Tweet: @EthicalHighSt

Still shopping; but better.

PS. Have you seen my competition? It’s not very often I just give things away you know . . .

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High Street Futures: 2nd Expert Scoping Panel Workshop

Mary Portas put the British high street on the general public’s radar when she was commissioned by the government to produce the ‘The Portas Review: An independent review into the future of our high streets’ in 2011. As part of the government’s Growth Agenda, the purpose of the review was to explore new business models for high street management and look at ways in which town centres can encourage economic growth, job creation and improved quality of life for communities. Everyone knows that the high street is struggling. In 2012 Peacocks, La Senza, Comet, Game and JJB Sports were just a handful of the retailers who entered administration leading to store closures. Following on from the Portas Review, The University of Southampton’s Prof. Neil Wrigley and Prof. Michelle Lowe were awarded ESRC funding for the High Street Futures project which aimed to produce a forward-looking and agenda-setting academic study which evaluated alternative visions of the future of UK high street.

Oxford City Centre

On the 7th Feb. 2013 the High Street Futures team hosted an invitation only expert scoping panel to discuss the future of the high street. I was really pleased to have the opportunity to go along to the event which was attended by retail consultants, town centre planners, retailers and academics. Presentations were offered by the likes of Kantar Retail, Accessible Retail and the Association of Town Centre Management. It was a really thought-provoking day and reignited my excitement for retail, which, as I’ve become more and more interested in ethical consumption has waned. Why has it waned? Well, because retailers want to sell us stuff and in the main, we all have enough stuff! I would never now be comfortable working for certain retailers, yet there’s sense in the idea that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. The high street is full of multinational retailers; they can offer us what we need and at a good price. I am conflicted by the desire to see a healthy economy and thriving high street, with the knowledge that we shouldn’t be encouraged to buy yet more mass-produced things, yet the high street of the future as envisaged by experts on the day doesn’t focus solely on retail and shopping, but on other ways to breathe life back into towns.

What went wrong?

We know the story of the recession – spending and borrowing was out of control. Hundreds of well known retailers grew to epic heights by cashing in on our materialist desires. Then the economy went belly-up, consumers slowed down their spending and suddenly retailers had to work harder to win our hearts over the competition. Furthermore, the competition was made tougher by the growth of supermarkets, out-of-town shopping centres and online shopping. Now, towns on average across the UK have non-occupancy rates of 15%. When Woolies went under, the country mourned (even though most people hadn’t stepped inside for years), but it was our fault in a way, as shoppers. Retailing is a democratic industry, we vote with our feet, and increasingly we are heading to Tesco and Amazon rather than long-standing high street stores. Generally the retailers we’ve lost have been bad retailers having failed to evolve, adapt or offer good customer service – a retail Darwinism if you will. Branded goods and retailers with a strong target market, as well as discount stores, have been some of the best performers over the last few years.

What needs to happen in the future?

The day wasn’t as bleak as you might think. The high street can survive as long as it adapts and all parties work together – retailers, landlords, councils and communities. Household spending may be flat but the economy is set to rise marginally this year. Town centres need to become places not just to shop, but to dwell, to live and to enjoy. I live in Southampton but only go into the city centre when I really need something, and even then often it is the bank, or to meet someone rather than to shop. But, I go to Winchester for no other reason than to wander and have an enjoyable time. What is it about Winchester that attracts me? It’s the aesthetics, the culture, the fact that you can sit in the cathedral grounds as a break from shopping, the up-market stores that make for great aspirational shopping, and the charity shops which sell cast-offs from the affluent residents. Winchester has the whole package. If I need serious shopping I might go to Gunwharf Quays or Westfields a couple of times a year because local high streets can’t compete with these mega malls and discount outlets.

Local towns need a USP and this comes from ambiance, events and independent shops. Indeed, indies should be encouraged to thrive and there was little, if any, representation from indies at the panel day, despite experts saying that towns need to offer something a bit different. Coffee shop culture is booming. You can’t walk far without seeing a Costa or Starbucks in most local towns and if this brings people in then all well and good. Town centres should be meeting places and encourage people to hang around rather than rush in and out. Parking and transport is obviously is an issue, and although free parking rarely seems viable or environmentally agreeable, I do think town centres should offer half an hour’s free parking if they want to encourage spending back from the convenience of the supermarkets.

We seem to be aware of the issues now at least, and lots of people are working on research and planning to keep town centres from crumbling anymore. The future of the high street lies with everyone – the retailers, planners, councils and of course, all of us consumers*.

For more information on the project:

*Disclaimer – I would only ever encourage ethical consumption

Me with Gerard Dericks (LSE) and Paul Newton (Sainsburys)

Me with Gerard Dericks (LSE) and Paul Newton (Sainsburys)

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