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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Thesis online: The social, cultural and economic role of NCT nearly new sales

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My entire PhD thesis is available online so if you are interested you can take a look here: THE SOCIAL, CULTURAL AND ECONOMIC ROLE OF NCT NEARLY NEW SALES: Second-hand consumption and middle-class mothering

Many thanks to the participants and NCT branch volunteers who supported and contributed to the research. The project was funded by the ESRC’s Retail Industry Business Engagement Network and sponsored by NCT.

Happy reading!

Second-hand childrenswear at an NCT sale

Second-hand childrenswear at an NCT sale

Abstract: NCT nearly new sales are held across the UK as a service for local parents to buy and sell second-hand or used baby clothes, toys and equipment. This thesis investigates the social structures influencing participation, individual consumption practice at the sales (and of mothers at home) and the social role of the sales. With an emphasis on mothers as co-consumers, the study utilised a mixed-method approach of participant observation, interviewing and a quantitative survey across 13 sales/branches in the UK.

Findings suggest that the typical middle-class demographic participating in the sales are not financially or socially excluded from conventional first-cycle retail but rather attend the sales in order to get the best value for money and to buy extra, non-essential baby goods, as well as for social and moral reasons of reciprocity. The thesis explores the tensions and responsibilities of motherhood as enacted through consumption practice and structured by the themes of social class, thrift and co-consumption. As a diverse retail space, attendees with higher levels of social and cultural capital benefit most from the sales and are able to mobilise the sales for both material and social/cultural resources as a space of bonding and learning. Whilst not common, the sales can encourage further involvement with NCT as a parenting charity and in local parenting networks.

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Shopping for ethical wood flooring

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When I moved into my flat nearly three years ago the excitement of having my own place to decorate and do up was overshadowed by a lack of time and money to really do what I wanted to it. I got a new kitchen but it was cheap, and now my oven has broken and so has the cupboard door. I’m also still waiting to have it tiled (although I have recently purchased the tiles!). However, I did find ways to put my stamp on the place, and for me that meant a lot of second-hand furniture. Your home should be an extension of yourself, so for me that means trying to live in a healthy and ethical environment, warm but admittedly a little bit shabby. Buying second-hand furniture let me ‘save’ proper solid wood pieces from landfill and give them a new home.

Part of the second-hand magic is not really knowing where that item has come from. Right now I’m sat at my 1950s desk typing this blog. Who else has been sat at this desk? What did they write? Would did they have to say? It’s mindboggling! Of course, the unknown isn’t always desirable. When I buy anything new I want the exact opposite. I want to know where that item has come from and who made it. And often that’s tricky to find out.

What’s FSC wood?

If you’re buying new furniture, wood flooring, decking or kitchen worktops you can sleep soundly at night by choosing FSC certified products. FSC stands for Forest Stewardship Council, an international non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting responsible and sustainable forestry. Founded twenty years ago, FSC work with forest owners, businesses and communities to ensure forested areas remain environmentally and socially sustainable. They provide principles for managing forests well, helping communities benefit from the land whilst ensuring that harvested trees are replaced or allowed to rejuvenate naturally.

The FSC audit forests through trusted partners such as the Soil Association, putting their name and logo to wood that meets their ethical principles. The certified chain of custody tracks timber through the supply chain so we, as consumers, can trust wood and paper products with the FSC logo as having been produced in a responsible manner. It is the only forestry scheme endorsed by major charities like WWF and Greenpeace and as such has become a desirable certification for retailers to acquire.

A great one-stop shop for FSC certified wood flooring, decking and wooden kitchen worktops is www.woodandbeyond.com. Sourced straight from the manufacturer, Wood and Beyond are able to offer a wide range of quality, ethical wood flooring at competitive prices. If you need advice on the best wood flooring options for your home, check out this simple guide.

How else can you make your home ‘ethical’?

It’s important to me to live in a healthy, sustainable environment. Another thing I looked into when I redecorated my flat was environmentally friendly and healthy paint. According to the Guardian the constituents of conventional paints may include formaldehyde, heavy metals and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. None of those things are particularly good but luckily there are plenty of alternatives available from the likes of Ecos Organics Paints and earthborn. Plus, if you can’t live without Farrow and Ball, they do eco paint too!

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