In praise of charity shops

“Rethink, reuse, recycle”

Prior to going to university, I wouldn’t have been seen dead in a charity shop, let alone alive. During those days I was stupendously and embarrassingly vain and insecure about image and what people thought of my image.

That mindset swung in completely the opposite direction during my university years – in particular when I found out about some of the huge injustices that were – and still are – occurring all over the world. The transition towards charity shop hunting was driven by a number of things:

  • a higher education culture that made it acceptable – desirable even, to purchase things from charity shops
  • changing financial circumstances that meant buying from the high street became less and less affordable
  • becoming aware of how goods are made in this consumerist culture – and the abuses that go on
  • becoming bored and dissatisfied with the general blandness of the high street
  • the sense of satisfaction from finding something that was particularly nice to wear (clothes), a book that was particularly interesting or some music that I had been searching for but had not yet found – remember this was pre iTunes days
  • the sense of ‘I’ve done something to help other people’ in the process
My years in Brighton between 1999-2002 were characterised by regular charity shop trawls. They are where much of my book collection came from – and most of my clothing wardrobe too. In fact, more often than not I was dependent on them because getting things from normal shops was beyond my financial means. Until mid-2004, this trend continued – in particular as I struggled to find a meaningful job and career. During some of those years I was working part time and, old-skool style received a pay packet with cash in and small statements saying how much the deductions were (for tax and NI – the joys of being a temp at a high street shop).

One of the things I realised when joining the civil service was that I’d need to make the transition from mayhem at the students’ union from to settling down into a career. This meant that spending habits changed as my income rose. However, I still made sure I regularly donated clothes, books and music no longer wanted or needed. One of the things I wanted to do was to ‘cleanse’ my wardrobe of everything from my pre-civil service days because of the struggles between 1999-2004 that they constantly reminded me of. But what was no longer wanted by me was more than likely to be wanted and needed by someone else – someone in a position that I was once in – struggling to make ends meet.

Ironically my move down to London – and the jump in income that this lead to – did not mean things became more comfortable financially. They did not. But part of that was down to spending choices that I made, as well as the general costs of living in London. That said, I was still keeping an eye out on charity shops for those hidden bargains and hard-to-find books. Technology however, was changing – and rapidly. Ten years ago charity shops would be full of cassettes and LPs. Today, charity shops selling tapes are much harder to come by – as are those selling videos. DVDs and computer games are much more to the forefront.

The clothes are still there – and I still donate regularly – especially as over the past few years my body size and shape have changed. Yes, the prospect of knowing that you’ll never be able to fit into a 32in waist or a 15in collared shirt does come as a shock to the system. (Especially if you have items of clothing of those fittings). I guess part of growing up and growing old involves letting go of the stuff that you like but that will no longer be of use to you. Rather than consign it to landfill, I’d rather have those items having a second life. Not because of a ‘look at me, I’m being nice!’ mindset – it’s more basic than that. My take is that our planet cannot cope with the ‘throwaway’ culture we have with clothing. In 2008 The Times reported 74% of clothing bought ended up in landfill. That statistic is painful. The rise of clothing appearing in landfill also makes for painful reading.

It’s one of the reasons why I started looking at the labels inside the garments – & familiarising myself with what the descriptions meant. What is the item made of? What is the quality of the fabric and manufacture? Where was the item made? What reputation does the manufacturer have? What are the washing instructions? I still do exactly the same thing in normal shops as I do in charity shops. Hence finding a very nice leather jacket for little more than a fiver in Oxfam. Problem was that it stank of tobacco and the dry cleaning bill to get the stench out is setting me back almost £50 (and is going to take ages as it has to be sent off to a specialist).

Mill Road and Burleigh Street in Cambridge are where many of the charity shops in Cambridge can be found. George Street in Hove and the area around Waitrose on Western Road & also around North Laine in Brighton were my stomping grounds for charity shops during my university days. In more recent years, Marchmont Street near Russell Square tube station was somewhere where I regularly frequented – and still do when I’m in London. Some charity shops have started selling items online – Oxfam being one of the pioneers of this.

I’m not going to use this blog post to tell people to shop in charity shops – or that if they don’t, that they are somehow ‘bad’ people. (How many times have you heard the “If you are a [insert description], then you will do X and if you do not then you are bad!” phrase being bandied about in anger?) Ultimately as with all shops, if they do not stock what you’re looking for you won’t go there. You may also have charities who you choose to support and those that you do not – for whatever reasons. Please be aware that they are there and that, for those things that you no longer need there are people out there who do. I was one of them and – if I remain out of work for an extended period of time there is a risk that I could become one again.

There’s no shame in that by the way. Part of the deal with being a positive and constructive part of society I think is being able to contribute towards helping those less fortunate when in the good times, and feeling able to accept that help during the bad. Hence why I worry that social stigma can prevent people in need from seeking out and/or accepting the help that actually they are entitled to/that people are willing to provide.

I will follow this article up in due course on the need for charities – and regulators and policy makers to tighten up on a number of things. But for this article, I’ll leave it at this.

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5 Responses to In praise of charity shops

  1. Cool post.
    Absolutely nothing against charity shops, but I heard a rumour they often don’t make money – they break even, and get the charity’s name out there. Maybe inspire people to have a chat with the staff about what the charity’s doing these days. It’s obviously worth it overall, and I think they’re getting smarter about pricing, especially when they stumble across valuable books etc. You’ve done something much better than shopping at chain stores with dubious manufacturing policies and advertising messages, anyway :)

  2. Oh and I look forward to a piece about the need for charities :)

  3. Radegund says:

    @sevenhelz well it is a bit of a problem if they are not making money and only breaking even. Charities recieve all kinds of tax breaks and if they are running at a loss without these they are denying people the oppertunity to make money, which leads to paid jobs (how many workers in charity shops are paid?). God I sound like a socialist. The bottom line is charities should focus on what they are good at, what their donners want them, to do. I am not sure retailing is one of these things.

    I must declare an interest I spend a disproportionate of time in charity shops relative to the time I spend in other shops (but this probably benefits me not the charity).

  4. charity shop raider says:

    You can always give the charity shop more money if they are under pricing a garment! (It does seem to be a common problem….)

  5. It’s also worth pointing out that certain charities will take things that couldn’t be sold in their shops and put them to use elsewhere. I take bags of slightly overworn clothes to Oxfam because they can send it abroad for the fabric to be re-used, for example.

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