As any of our regular readers and visitors will tell you, we are big fans of charity shops. No matter where we go, whether locally or further afield, we can’t resist the thrill of the charity shop chase. No cloned shopping centres or sprawling ‘malls’ for us! Give us a charity shop any day, although we must confess to actively disliking the ’boutique’ styling pushed by Mary Portas et al as we much prefer rummaging through rails of odd sizes, styles and brands and shelves of assorted curiosities in our our quest for the quirky and unusual.
Salvation Army shop, Brechin, displaying the charity’s ’Belief in Action’ strapline
A couple of discussion threads on our Facebook group during the recent EcoFashion Challenge (why not join us?) confirmed that we are far from alone in rocking the retro and celebrating the second hand in outfits that have often been sourced from charity shops, boot sales, vintage and preloved stores. Our challenge participants’ collective sense of style certainly demonstrated that we can all be fashion conscious while still retaining a fashion conscience.
Charity shopping is of course an ethical choice – at least it is, mostly. As consumers with a conscience, we are already particular about the businesses we support and refuse to patronise those whose values fall short of our expectations (which is why you’ll never find us in fast fashion multinationals). We are similarly selective about the charities we support and have a little list of favourite local charity shops we frequent because we support both the wider causes and the shops themselves. We also have a list of those we wouldn’t touch with the proverbial barge pole (those who know us well will know which we are referring to and why!)
Our favourite charity shop ‘chain’ is without doubt the Salvation Army, which has local (to us) branches in Forfar, Brechin, Montrose, Arbroath and Broughty Ferry, as well as a recently opened outlet in affluent St Andrews. We are drawn not only by the quality and value for money of the donated stock, but also by the friendliness of the staff and volunteers.
In particular, we love the Brechin shop which is managed by Rosemary Small, a lovely, lively local lady who has created a real community hub from her Bridge Street base. The shop has such a customer friendly focus and relaxed atmosphere that we invariably spend hours (and often a fair bit of money) in there chatting with fellow customers, staff and volunteers about the price of fish and numerous other topics of interest. Rosemary and her team take a genuine interest in people and make each and every customer feel welcomed and remembered on their next visit. We can’t recommend this little shop enough, and we also know how generously it is supported by local donors of clothing, footwear, books and bric-a-brac because its manager is so very highly thought of.
Just look at how we styled some of the clothing and accessories we have purchased from Rosemary’s shop for a Dollyfrockers photo shoot last year. The whole outfit came in at less than £20, but our model (Hannah Wood channelling Marilyn) looked like a million dollars.
While we’re talking local, just up the hill from the Salvation Army, there’s also a great wee vintage inspired boutique, Alexina’s, as well as Sunrise Brechin, a small independent shop which stocks some sumptuous ethical brands. And just across town is Notions of Brechin which is run by last year’s Frockery Challenge winner Janice Stewart, whom we hadn’t met until she took part in our competition but who is now on our ‘clever crafters’ contact list. We can’t overestimate the importance of supporting these local shops and others as they are the lifeblood of our little towns and we can’t afford to lose any more of them.
But back to the Salvation Army, whose shops, in common with those of most charities, have been transformed in recent times from sometimes tired, disorganised and predominantly volunteer-run outlets into purely profit-driven business ventures where, arguably, the bottom line now counts for more than the cause itself. We would of course be the first to agree that any shop needs to generate sufficient revenue to break even and, hopefully, make a modest profit, but we would also argue that the profit need not be purely financial and that the triple bottom line should be the key driver within the charity and/or social enterprise sectors.
Providing jobs, genuine volunteering opportunities and an invaluable service to a range of customers, some of whom rely on charity shops as a source of inexpensive clothing and household items for themselves and their children, is surely every bit as important as meeting arbitrary and often unrealistic sales targets – most especially in the present tough financial climate in an area which has had its economic heart ripped out as a result of decades of chronic under-investment.
Just recently, our local Oxfam shop was closed down because it was failing to meet its financial targets. The first ever charity shop in the area, it had been operating in Forfar for more than 30 years and the staff, volunteers and customers were all naturally saddened by its sudden and unexpected demise. But competition among high street charity shops is fierce, fast and furious, probably because there are now so many of them, all struggling to meet unattainable targets set by men (and women) in suits that probably didn't come from a charity shop.
The grapevine meanwhile tells us that some other big charities’ trading arms are conducting reorganisations (aka implementing cuts) from their remote head office boardrooms, rewarding loyal shop staff with a Hobson's choice of redundancy or demotion (with only the cursory consultation required by law) while still managing to maintain their own generous pay cheques and massive marketing budgets. Spin doesn't come cheap, but front line staff are expendable.
We find something a bit distasteful about the increasingly slick marketing techniques and cut-throat sales strategies employed within the charity shops sector, now that profit seems to have replaced compassion as the prime motivator. And don’t get us started on those charities which use fundraising ‘chuggers’ and ‘volunteer’ forced labour (i.e. welfare to work) in their shops, all the while churning out expensive and emotive charity political broadcasts and paying their executives obscene salaries (we stopped supporting the most offensive of these fake outfits a long time ago). While we will continue to patronise those shops whose causes we broadly support, we will in the future be much more inclined to frequent those individual shops with whose staff and volunteers we feel most affinity and whose very livelihoods may depend on just how much target driven turnover they can squeeze out of a flagging local economy.
We have banged on about this subject before ad nauseam, we know, but we really can’t overstate the importance of our own version of ‘Belief in Action’, which translates loosely as ‘Buy Local, Shop Ethical’. An additional piece of advice might be to 'Check Out Charities' in order to ascertain how your donations in cash and in kind are being spent. You may well be surprised.