The Charity Case
Why the charity sector is no longer a reliable carrier of the sustainability flag...
The charitable sector has long been the preferred mechanism for environmental and sustainability strategists to promote their carbon reduction agenda for the management of redundant resources. Governments, councils and associated governing bodies openly incentivise and encourage the adoption of the charity model of operational governance and the use of the charitable sector to keep our unwanted resources in circulation via resource resale.
One of the main principles of the circular economy as defined by The Ellen Macarthur Foundation (ellenmacarthurfoundation.org) is to circulate products and materials at their highest value. The resale market is a seemingly crucial cog in the circular economic framework and charity shops are the perfect resale environment to keep this cog well greased. Before exploring the pitfalls of the used retail marketplace exhibited primarily in the charity sector, it is fair to ask, at what point did resources crucial for basic human existence/survival become the tradeable commodity for this sector? Furniture, household necessities, white goods and clothing make up the majority of goods sold in these non-profit retail spaces. There is no doubt that at some point in the long history of the charity sector, these retail spaces provided lifelines for those needing to acquire these resources at heavily discounted prices, but the landscape has changed and you would be forgiven for thinking that the charity shops have sold their soul to the capitalistic devil, prioritising turnover and profit before charitable objectives.
We have created a monster fuelled by unlimited funding, tax and rate exemptions, unpaid labour, and a monopolistic reliance for sustainability and carbon reduction targeting of which our governments and government agencies are almost 100% reliant on when it comes to reuse strategy. Couple this with a very blatant barrier to criticism and scrutiny, add in the basic human desire to deflect any harm from funding narratives of these charities and we get an industry that is able to function any which way it likes regardless of its actual contribution to the waste pandemic we are currently facing. What was once a guaranteed mechanism for passing on unwanted resources is no longer aiding the push towards carbon zero towns and cities as much as it would have you believe. The sector has become complacent in their environmental responsibilities and they are being awarded certificates, badges, pats on the back and swathes of funding for doing so.
Open your social media market place page and you will no doubt see many examples of goods on offer that were rejected by the charity shops. Furthermore, spend a day working as a sustainability consultant in the commercial sector and you will handle multiple email requests for redundant FF+E solutions raised with the subject line 'Charities will not take these goods, can you help!?' Why the shift? We live in an age of throw away consumerism brought on by availability of new goods at low prices. Cheaper manufacturing costs and mass production has driven down the cost of goods for the consumer but the intricacies of the new manufacture and subsequent product marketplace are not important for this purpose of this article. The knock on effect of this trend on the second hand market is a however a crucial talking point in understanding why the second hand retail market is no longer a viable stand alone option for our carbon zero resource reuse strategies.
When a consumer is in the market for goods they are faced with multiple purchasing decisions primarily based upon product cost and budgetary restraints at the point of purchase. Traditionally the used goods market was synonymous with lower cost price points allowing consumers to seek out affordable goods. The price point for new in comparison to used is now more competitive than ever which has allowed the consumer the luxury of choice between used and new. Consumers, even on tighter budgets can visit a multitude of retail spaces to access new resources at affordable prices. The fundamental USP of the charity shop was under attack and the sector pivoted to compensate.
It is this pivot that has pushed the charity retail sector away from being both carbon and budget/consumer friendly and into the competitive higher end second hand market which puts the value of goods at the forefront of the donation acceptance/rejection formula and subsequently rejects a huge amount of good reusable resources based not upon the condition or reusability of the item but instead upon the potential retail value of said goods. The charity shop retail environment now operates under the same fundamental cutthroat rules of retail that any new retail space adheres to. Space is money and floor space should be taken up by goods that will recoup the most money. Goods will no longer sit on the shop floor until a buyer is found and will instead be replaced as soon as a higher value item is donated. Older less/valuable goods are pushed down the pecking order and ultimately out the back door into the recycling system. Councils grant unlimited access to council recycling centres at no cost for non-profit vehicles further facilitating this fast and easy approach to product/stock rotation. Goods that would once have filled the shelves and floorspace no longer see the inside of the shop after being rejected at first sight. More pressingly however is the introduction of the sale of new goods by a number of the UK's leading charity shops. Selling new product completely contradicts any sustainability commitment, charitable, social or corporate made by these non-profit organisations. It wont be long until the sector shirks any responsibility for second hand/used goods becoming non-profit retail outlets for new goods. In the face of the carbon crisis and the contribution of fast/cheap manufacture coupled with disposable culture associated with furniture, fashion and small electricals, If this isn't the charitable sector nailing their true objectives to the mast then I don't know what is.
The strategic approach to sustainability in the charity sector highlights further flaws. The sector is caught between raising as much money as possible whilst still acting in a way that ticks the box for their environmental objectives. A brief scan of websites the charity sector throws up multiple examples of phrases, often both used in the same paragraph when outlining sustainability policy:
"helping our work in communities across the UK."
"Any items that we are not able to sell in our shops are sold for reuse overseas."
The opportunity cost of selling resources overseas to the highest bidder is of course the chance to redistribute these resources to the communities in which these charities claim to support in the UK. Actively sending goods across the globe is not sustainable, certainly not in the volume the charity sector currently does. The current economic climate has plunged many families in the UK into financial despair unable to provide basic essentials for their households. The resale model negates any possibility of redirecting unsold goods from the charity sector directly to the end user on our own doorstep unless their is a financial gain and instead promotes the transfer of goods for the highest financial gain regardless of the environmental impact. There is seemingly no space for the introduction of the Zero Cost Economy into the charity shop framework as it would be a direct threat to the turnover of these retail environments. The sector priorities recycling and disposal and/or international sales of product and materials. Does the fault lie with the charity sector or are those governing Circular Economy flawed in their approach to environmental management?