That's one heck of an enterprise, particularly when you factor in more than 120,000 volunteers who run these shops (sometimes in conjunction with a growing number of paid staff). Charity shops are firmly embedded not only in our high streets but also in our consciousness of charity and charities.
When did they first appear? Oxfam can lay claim to being the pioneer of charity shops, first setting one up in 1947 to raise money for charity. Oxfam had been overwhelmed by donations from the public (mostly blankets and clothing) after its appeal for aid to alleviate post-war suffering in Greece. Such was the success of this appeal that a second shop had to be opened to cope with the sheer volume of donated goods. The income generated was used to fund other kinds of aid work in Greece. As they say, the rest is history.
Charity shops serve a variety of purposes, including raising voluntary income and improving the profile of a charity's brand on the high street. They serve an even more important function: they provide less affluent people with a source of good-quality wares at affordable prices. Sometimes we hear of charity shops selling tuxedoes and even wedding dresses. This may be the case in some of the more salubrious metropolitan areas, but in the area where I live, the big-brand charity shops provide a vital source of affordable merchandise to people on low incomes. In the 19th century, the Salvation Army ran second-hand clothing shops to provide the urban poor with cheap clothing. This tradition, as with all good ones, lives on.
At Christmas 2006, I was startled to receive a present bought in a charity shop. I wasn't so much startled that it was a 'learn how to meditate' kit (although I was a trifle unnerved), but because I had donated the same unneeded product to a local charity shop three months earlier. What goes around comes around.
- John Knight is head of policy and campaigns at Leonard Cheshire Disability: firstname.lastname@example.org.