It’s recently been reported that charity shops are doing really, really well in Britain at the moment – in fact, more people prefer to buy certain goods from charity shops than online. I’m certainly a huge fan; an awful lot of things on my Pagan altar are charity shop finds.
Unfortunately, not everyone’s a winner in this success story. Because they get tax breaks and incur less purchasing and running costs than commercial retail outlets, small businesses have accused the charity sector of taking over the high street through unfair competition.
My own family used to be one of those small, high street retailers, until we had to close down the shop as it wasn’t making enough money to keep it open (but it’s still continuing online at http://www.spiral.org.uk). So I do have an understanding of the immense difficulties faced by shop proprietors, and a lot of sympathy.
But on the other hand, I think that the rise of the charity shops is a very positive thing overall. Not only do they demonstrate that people want to help others when they spend money, but they’re also prepared to re-use and recycle. People don’t want to buy certain goods brand new from the factory – they’re quite happy to get second-hand items that someone else no longer wants.
This has tremendous environmental benefits – reusing items is far more environmentally sound than creating them from scratch, and what’s more issues surrounding fair trade are partially nullified. Charity shops give people far greater means to readily obtain essential items that are also environmentally and ethically sourced – something that’s rather tricky in today’s Britain. As a Pagan striving to live a life more in tune with nature and existing while “harming none” as per the Rede, I am really grateful to charity shops for giving me this opportunity.
I’m not sure exactly how to solve the problem of struggling independent retailers competing with the charity shop giants. Perhaps charity shops could pledge to sell only genuinely second-hand items (I’ve noticed increasing numbers of charity shops selling brand new items made especially for the shop), or tax breaks given to small, family-owned shops struggling to survive in increasingly corporately-dominated high streets.
But ultimately, it is consumer choice that decides the fate of the high street. And for a variety of reasons, consumers are currently choosing the greener option. Perhaps we are seeing the emergence of a new kind of retail economy, one that relies more on re-selling goods rather than making them from scratch. Indeed, the rise of second-hand retail is not limited to charity shops – there are plenty of commercial operations making money from pre-owned goods, from junk shops to antique boutiques to those selling pre-owned games and movies. For those dreaming of a world where prosperity and the environment can find a way to go hand-in-hand, this is a big encouragement.