Over the past few months, while we waited for the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, many of us used the time to sort through years of accumulated, unwanted stuff. Throwing things into the bin or hiring a skip may seem like a quick fix, however a trip to the charity shop could be a more sustainable solution – but only if we know what is and isn’t suitable for donation.
Charity shops are a great place to donate and pick up a bargain, but are we using them as a dumping ground? Those who operate the shops stress that using them responsibly is key to ensuring they can work effectively to help the charities they represent.
Paul Hughes, spokesman for the Irish Charity Shops Association (ICSA), and shop manager with the Irish Cancer Society says: "Charities are at the leading edge of sustainability and have been for 30 years in this country."
The difference between a charity shop and a second hand shop is that the charity shop must be owned and run by the charity. “A second hand shop can’t operate under the brand of a specific charity as there is no accountability,” Hughes says. “The ICSA sets a code of retail for charity shops. We also organise training days which could involve anything from sales and merchandising, to the recruitment of staff and management of volunteers.”
By working under the umbrella of the ICSA, charities can assure their donors that money raised by the charity shop is being deployed ethically. “It differs very much from normal fundraising,” Hughes explains. “Charity shops are converting donations into cash, and it doesn’t conflict with other fundraising efforts,” he says.
Oonagh O'Connor is the commercial manager for Enable Ireland, and she manages operations in 21 shops and two garden centres around Ireland.
“We have sales targets to meet like every other business, and we also have specific retail standards. We merchandise daily, we’re very strict in terms of what goes on the floor. All of our teams take great pride in the quality of the merchandise,” she explains.
When it comes to governance, quality and accountability, the charity shops are playing ball. But who is holding the donor accountable? Writer and founder of Give Up Yer Aul Tings, Emma Gleeson, works with clients to help them declutter their homes. A reformed 'clutterbug' Emma will release her new book Stuff Happens next year. "A central theme of the book is out of sight out of mind," she says. "I think it's a huge problem in society."
People sent in bags with used nappies and soiled items. That's not all the time, but I do think a psychological shift needs to happen. I think we need to respect our charity shops more.
The issue many charities face these days is how to reuse poor quality items that get dumped at their door. “A lot of unsold clothing is sent overseas to clothing markets in North African countries,” Gleeson says.
“That’s why you see images of kids in developing countries wearing Westlife t-shirts.
“I did a project with Age Action a few years ago,” she continues, “People sent in bags with used nappies and soiled items. That’s not all the time, but I do think a psychological shift needs to happen. I think we need to respect our charity shops more.”
Charities will often employ a manager to ensure consistency in the running of the shop, but in many cases, the charity depends on the time and generosity of its volunteers.
“We have managers and assistant managers who are paid, and then we have our much needed volunteers and our community employment staff. Without all of these people together, we wouldn’t be able to operate,” explains O’Connor.
When turning to the charity shop as a way to clear out our unwanted items, remember that someone who is giving their time freely may have to wade through items that are not fit for the shop floor. “I’d also be asking people to be mindful of the reason the store exists in the first place, to raise money for much needed services,” O’Connor says.
We love homeware, quality bed linen, glasses, quality books, shoes, handbags, menswear, perfumes.
Gleeson says she is very selective about what her clients donate to charity shops. “I try to be very responsible about where stuff goes. Charity shops should be used for good quality, re-sellable clothes, books and maybe some crockery, everything else I try to redistribute.”
What should we be aware of when it comes to donating?
“We love homeware, quality bed linen, glasses, quality books, shoes, handbags, menswear, perfumes,” O’Connor says. “Even if you have a bottle of half-full perfume, we can sell it. We take quality suitcases, and Lego. Lego sells really well for us, the kids love it.”
Duvets can’t be accepted, neither can pillows- for hygiene reasons. Real fur won’t be accepted in many shops, from an animal rights standpoint. Toys can be accepted in some shops but use common sense when you’re giving toys away. Hughes uses a toy tractor as an example of an impractical item: “It takes up a lot of space and might not sell for very much,” he says. “We can’t take broken toys, as then there’s an additional cost for us to get rid of these products,” says O’Connor.
Shops such as Enable Ireland can accept small working electrical appliances as they can be checked by staff and PAT (portable appliance testing) tested to ensure safety and quality. In some cases, a charity shop won’t accept electrics, so it’s better to ask them first. They won’t accept helmets or other safety wear either, “If we accept a helmet, we have no way of knowing whether it’s faulty or not, the same goes for car-seats,” O’Connor explains, but “as long as something is clean and of good quality we embrace that.”
A change of attitude
While there is a need for better understanding of the essential role the charity shop can play when it comes to fundraising, recycling and reuse, the Enable Ireland shops have a well established, community focussed service.
"We love when people come in. We love our customers, we see them two or three times a week. At our garden centres in Sandymount and Limerick, we have qualified horticulturists on site. It's a great way for customers to get gardening advice."
But we can always do better. Gleeson points to ReTuna, a second hand mall in the town of Eskilstuna in Sweden. ReTuna is the world's first recycling shopping centre, where old items are given a new lease of life through upcycling and repair. Nearly every item on sale in the mall comes from donations which are left at the mall's drive-through depot. Vendors include a vintage furniture store, a bookstore and a bicycle shop. All the shop owners sign a contract with ReTuna committing to zero-waste.
“That would be the ideal scenario for our charity shops,” Gleeson says.
“I’m in charity shops a lot, and you see people of all ages and all types in there, young people, mothers with their kids. But it can be a bit grim, sometimes you’re just shuffling around in the dust,” she says. “If we could make charity shops more a part of the community, then people could respect them properly. That would be amazing.
“I’d urge people making a donation to get to know our staff, introduce yourself. All of our staff and volunteers are fantastic, they love getting to know our customers,” O’Connor adds.
Charity shops have been closed for more than two months due to Covid-19, and will struggle for the rest of the year to catch up with raising much needed funds. “The shop is the cornerstone of getting money through to families. Once we re-open, we’ll be asking for people to get involved. We’ll be looking for new volunteers and for people to donate stock,” O’Connor says.
For those who undertake a big clear out over the coming weeks, or have bags waiting to go to the charity shop, Hughes urges them to earmark their quality items.
“For all charities that operate charity shops, they’re likely to be closed for anything up to three months, that’s a big loss of income for charities. Now is the time when people will be sorting through their homes. Keeping these items for their local charity shop would be of great benefit to charities,” he says.
When things are up and running again, and if you want to make a donation, the best thing to do is phone ahead. Find out what that particular charity shop is on the look-out for. “Don’t assume they’ll need what you have. Just be sound,” Gleeson says.
In an effort to make more space in our lives, we might think we’re doing the shop a favour by giving them our old clothes and belongings, but we need to view our charity shop dash as support for the charity, rather than a personal cleansing ritual. Inform yourself about what your local charity shop needs. It’s not a hit and run – go inside, say hello and contribute. They’ll need our support now more than ever.
THE DOS AND DON’TS OF DONATING
- Consider the quality of the product you are donating. Is the clothing thread-bare, has it pilled or is it stained? If so, it’s not suitable for the charity shop floor.
- Donate small electronics. Many shops do PAT (portable appliance test) testing to ensure they are safe to use.
-Donate your Lego, kids love it.
-Donate quality linens and homeware such as glass, crockery and kitchen utensils .
-Call ahead when donating to a charity shop to find out what they need.
-Donate products that haven’t been thoroughly cleaned in advance.
-Donate helmets or car seats, as there is no way to guarantee their safety.
-Donate a book that is ripped or torn.
-Donate fur, many charity shops will have an animal rights policy as part of their remit.
-Drop and run, go inside and get to know the great volunteers who work there.