Charity shops are reuse champions and they need to push the message hard, writes Cristina Osoro Cangas, senior research and policy analyst at the Charity Retail Association.
On almost every high street, charity shops have been quietly contributing to reducing the amount of waste going to landfill and reducing Britain’s dependency for new resources by encouraging reuse. Long before sustainability became a political watchword, charity shops were already reusing.
Charity shops divert more than 360,000 tonnes of textiles from landfill each year.; they reduce carbon emissions by four million tonnes of CO2 through the sale of textiles; and they will have an even more important role as the UK moves towards a zero waste economy.
More people are buying from charity shops than ever before, and independent research shows that an additional one million middle class people have bought in charity shops in the past year.
But the sector is under pressure to satisfy this demand. As the value of second-hand textiles increases in the international markets, so does the number of competitors. Many recyclers now collect stock directly from householders or pay for textiles, and ‘cash for clothes’ seems to be on the increase.
Competition from councils is the latest development to challenge charity shops. As budgets come under ever more pressure, some local authorities are tendering out textile banks services. Others are partnering with their waste management contractors to get a share of their income.
In response, charity retailers need to innovate, adapt and work in partnership. As well as the well- known partnerships such as Oxfam/Marks & Spencer or Cancer Research UK/TK Maxx, there are numerous smaller ones, including those working with universities for end-of-term clearances, partnering with councils to collect or joining with local businesses for end-of-line donations.
Another good example is that of Traid and the London Borough of Bexley. Traid undertakes a co-branded collection of textiles on the same day that residents put their recycling out for collection. This is convenient for residents since they know exactly when the textile collection is happening.
Traid provides the local authority with monthly tonnage data, and reports back on any customer services issues, which allows the council to measure impact and keep track of how the scheme is working. And having the charity and the council logos attached to the scheme reassures residents it is a legitimate collection and increases the response rate.
But the sector needs to be better at presenting itself as a business partner. It is able to work to the same standards as any commercial company, but it needs to communicate this to other potential partners and show it understands their needs.
These are challenging and exciting times for the sector. European targets mean that the UK must reduce the amount of waste going to landfill, and there is an increasing focus on reuse and sustainability. But the market has changed significantly as more players come in, particularly for clothing, and this is leading to new and significant pressures on securing stock.
The charity shop sector can play a significant role in all of this, and should position itself at the forefront of reuse and recycling, in this new environment.