Thrift labours: Charity shops in the austerity economy

This post is by Dr Alida Payson, and reposted from Journalism, Media & Culture: the Official JOMEC Blog – commentary, debate and opinion 2019

For the past six months, I have been going to a lot of charity shops. This is not so unusual for me, an avid thrifter who grew up trawling cavernous Goodwill and Salvation Army warehouse stores in strip malls across the US.

I’ve relished charity shops here in the UK for years. But I have been going to more shops than usual lately, and venturing farther afield. And I have been browsing with sharper attention, snapping photos of shop windows, trying to remember every quirky detail before scuttling off to type up my notes.

I have often been overwhelmed at the variety and quantity of stuff: a child’s hairdressing doll staring balefully from under a towering blonde rat’s nest; an immaculate 1930s hand-crank Singer sewing machine; tattered polka and soul and 80s pop records; a blue porcelain soup tureen; at least 17 copies of Love Actually; acres of polyester tops and dresses from the same ten brands; a museum’s worth of slow cookers and sherry glasses; packs of new pants and socks next to mugs celebrating the Queen’s various jubilees, or shaped like a football or a hippopotamus, or printed with a periodic table of obscenities.

Charity shops are apparently everywhere because they are everywhere. According to the Charity Retail Association, the number of charity shops in the UK has nearly doubled every decade since the mid-90s, and has been hovering around 11,700 since 2017.

Used by many and loved by some, charity shops recirculate thousands of tons of castoff material culture – winter coats and glittery heels, plastic toys and vintage teapots, vinyl records and DVDs, school uniforms and sofas.

But as precarity and poverty worsen and public services recede under austerity, charity shops have also come to play an expanding role in what Patricia Mooney Nickel (2016: 173) calls the ‘welfare mix’: the loose array of agencies, organisations and relationships on which people actually rely for their everyday livelihoods.

So if overwhelmed and sometimes wearied by the avalanche of stuff in charity shops, I have been surprised and intrigued by what people are doing here. While I am sure some shops get ‘ransacked’ by style-hungry shoppers, as Angela McRobbie (1989) described it, picked over by middle-class young women hunting (as I do, sometimes) for dresses, in most of the shops I have visited people seem to be up to something different.

That difference is part of what I’m interested in: what kinds of work or labour are happening in these spaces, and in particular, how people are using them to get by, make do and live together as inequalities and social welfare cuts deepen. (Elsewhere in this three-year research project on charity shops under the austerity economy, I also explore how charity shops appear in the news, public discourse, and popular culture, from Mary, Queen of Charity Shops (BBC2, 2009), to the mockumentary web series Charity Shop Sue (YouTube, 2019).

Delyth Edwards and Lisanne Gibson (2017) argue that charity shops are not only sites of consumption, but used like libraries, as sites of local connection and resources, and as craft supply stores. Jen Ayres (2017) tracks the creative ways shoppers pick through thrift stores as independent income-generating ventures in precarious times. Triona Fitton (2013) describes the ‘quiet’ connections of charity retail to other, perhaps unexpected sectors: social services, for-profit retailers, the police, prison and probation systems. Ruben Flores (2014) writes about the emotional side of the care work that volunteers do, framed as labours of compassion.

In the seminar this week, I explore how charity shops serve as important sites of different forms of cultural labour typical of the austerity economy. Drawing on debates in feminist economics, cultural studies, and cultural geography, as well as recent fieldwork, I identify three forms of labour in particular: 1) ‘provisioning’, or the everyday, often collective, relational work people do to get by and make a living; 2) a mix of re-fashioning, reselling, rehabilitative and hope labour I am calling makeover labour; and 3) the work of navigating charity shops as sites of welfare governance and carceral space. Arguing that all three of these forms of labour are characteristic of the austerity economy, I explore how thinking about charity shops can help us to understand more about how a shifting, caustic present is lived and felt.

Charity Shops: Between a rock and a kind face

Re-post from Kent Philanthropy: A Blog about Philanthropy Research

This post is written by Dr Triona Fitton, lecturer and former Pears Philanthropy Fellow at the University of Kent, and co-organiser of the Secondhand Cultures in Unsettled Times Virtual Symposium 15-16 June 2021 (click here to register)

A recent report published by the True and Fair Foundation (TFF) into income generation in the charity sector has once again brought to public attention the dilemma facing charitable organisations with a retail arm:

What are charity shops really for?

The report highlights the low profit margins of charity shops, averaging 17%, with some large charities such as Scope making only a 5% profit margin in their shops; 13% less than high street giant Next, using for-profit retailers as a benchmark for charity shop success. Recommendations for a reduction in charity shop mandatory rate relief (they currently pay 80% less than other high street retailers, with the option for local councils to grant a discretionary 100% rate relief) also suggests that charity shops should not be treated any differently to for-profit shops. The comparisons in the report treats charities as ‘for-profits in disguise’, to paraphrase Burton Weisbrod; where their commercial output is more important than their charitable cause.

The TFF report has been criticised for its misrepresentation of statistics and flawed analysis, with several umbrella bodies and charities featured in the report such as Sue Ryder and Guide Dogs for the Blind speaking out against inaccuracies that undermine the work of their charity shops. Nevertheless, I would argue that the problem with the report goes beyond that of misrepresentation or poor quality research. Crucially, the report has fundamentally misunderstood the value of charity shops.

Firstly, charity shops are an important resource for those on low incomes for everyday items, as well as for second-hand bargain hunters in search of unique purchases. In spite of claims that they are becoming prohibitively expensive, Avril Maddrell and Susan Horne argue in their book Charity Shops: Retailing, Consumption and Society that many charity shops price their goods dependent upon what local people can afford, ensuring they don’t price themselves out of their local market. My own research into charity shops also found that a smaller shop without the pressure of competition within a chain of shops was more likely to price goods down rather than up. Also, haggling prices down or ‘letting people off’ a few pounds continues to occur.

Secondly, a charity shop provides some welcome relief from consumerism and its malcontents. The tendency towards ‘fast fashion’ and the disposal of items before they are at the end of their use is balanced by the donation of these goods to charity. The Giving Something Back report by Demos reports that the reuse of goods sold in charity shops reduce CO2 emissions by roughly 3.7 million tonnes a year – a figure similar to the entire carbon footprint of Iceland. Charity shops are, according to a report by WRAP UK, the most common source for pre-owned clothing in the UK, which goes some way towards reducing the £140m worth of clothing that ends up in landfill each year.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, charity shops are the public face of a charity on the British high street. They raise awareness of smaller organisations that do not already have a high public profile; they work to embed a charity within a community through recruitment of volunteers and involvement in local events; and they provide a friendly, welcoming environment where browsing and chatting is encouraged. They are also a gateway point for entry into the local job market, with people of all ages learning skills and progressing to paid roles through volunteering in a charity shop.

Whilst charities more generally have been subject to a great deal of scrutiny in the past year for their fundraising practices and executive salaries; charity retail has, until now, emerged mostly unscathed. In response to this form of criticism, charity shops have an opportunity to defend the valuable asset they are to society; not only as an income source for charities but as an employability resource, a recycling site and as the ‘kind face’ of the UK high street.

Symposium Flier

Secondhand Cultures in Unsettled Times

Virtual Symposium >> 15-16 June 2021

Secondhand cultures and practices, from reselling sites to charity shops and thrift stores to waste picking, have expanded and transformed over recent decades, with profound social, political, and environmental implications.

Despite vibrant and growing research into secondhand worlds, opportunities to share and discuss this research across interdisciplinary boundaries have been rare. Further, secondhand cultures have been unsettled by the global pandemic in ways that are not yet well understood.

This virtual symposium brings together scholars and practitioners across disciplines to problematise and explore secondhand cultures in unsettled times.

We are delighted to share our keynote speakers for the event will be:

Professor Angela McRobbie, Goldsmiths, University of London

Professor Avril Maddrell, University of Reading

The Symposium will bring together a lively collection of papers from scholars around the world on a range of secondhand topics, as well as hands-on workshops, practitioner panels, book talks, short films, and plenty of opportunities for participants to connect and share ideas.

Based on the symposium, we will co-edit a special issue of JOMEC Journal, an online, open-access and peer reviewed journal dedicated to publishing the highest quality innovative academic work in journalism, media, cultural studies, and other interlocking fields, for late 2021.

We hope to see you there!

Dr Jennifer Lynn Ayres, New York University; Dr Triona Fitton, University of Kent, and Dr Alida Payson, Cardiff University

The event is free, but registration is required.

Please register here:

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/secondhand-cultures-in-unsettled-times-tickets-154573454363