Robin Osterley: John Lewis and the true value of charity shops

15 Nov 2023 Voices

The Charity Retail Association’s chief executive discusses the benefits charity retailers offer to society after an article by the John Lewis Partnership’s chair…

By highwaystarz, Adobe

Like most people, I have always had the utmost respect for the John Lewis Partnership, ever since my teenage years when I spent two weeks temping in Peter Jones, and saw from the inside the ethical and enlightened stance taken by the company when dealing with its staff and customers. I have been an avid shopper in John Lewis and its subsidiary brands. Waitrose spinach and feta parcels are yum. 

Imagine my disappointment then to wake up one Monday morning to find a thoughtless and pejorative statement from Dame Sharon White, soon-to-depart chair of the venerable retail institution, equating charity shops with vape shops, and describing them as symptoms of the decline of the high street. This was a real shock. Charity shops don’t go round blaming commercial retailers for endless store closures and a failure to invest in the future of the high street, so why this sudden, lazy, and thoughtless attack on some 10,000 of our best loved high street retailers? 

£75bn of social value

The Charity Retail Association’s recent report, the Value of Giving Back, is amongst other things an attempt to disabuse the Dame Sharons of this world of the notion that charity shops are some kind of blight. Far from it.

The report notes that for every £1 invested in charity shops some £7.35 is generated in social value – in increasing the wellbeing of shoppers, donors, volunteers and staff. This incredible ratio adds up to some £75bn of social value to society as a whole – and that is on top of the third of a billion or so of actual cash that charity shops generate for their parent good causes.

Most of this social value comes from a sense that giving back to society as a whole, and charities in particular, increases people’s happiness and sense of wellbeing. 

Additionally, charity shops provide a healthy antidote to the temple of Mammon that the high street has become, places where people can buy more sustainably, with more variety, and much less expensively than in their commercial counterparts.

Charity shops keep around 340,000 tonnes of textiles out of landfill or incineration – around half of the UK’s entire textile production. They provide a trusted haven of goodwill, safety and security in shopping areas. One of our largest members has on average around one young person per month accessing their services through the front door of their shops – a place where you are assured of a friendly and courteous greeting regardless of your background, status and how much you are likely to spend.

High street regeneration

Far from being a symptom of decline, charity shops are showing the way. We know of many local authorities that are now seeing charity retail as one of the most important parts of the town centre ecology (and economy) – providing local employment prospects, volunteering opportunities where people can gain skills and work experience, increasing local footfall, investing in shop refurbishment, and generally providing the kind of sustainable retailing that society so badly needs. 

We wrote an open letter to Dame Sharon but no response was received. Not only does this feel extremely discourteous, but also it compounds the sense of disappointment that our members will feel at having been treated so dismissively by one of the country’s leading retailers.

In terms of high street regeneration, we are all in this together – charity retail plays a crucial role and should not be treated with such contempt. In her exalted position, Dame Sharon should know better, and we are looking forward to working with her successor to ensure that her view was, as we suspect, a personal one rather than a corporately held view.

In the meantime, as we approach the season of goodwill, let’s remember that charity shops have for many years now been a sustainable, exciting, interesting and accessible alternative to putting money into the hands of companies and individuals that are already very wealthy; and let’s all work together to bust those myths that an increasingly small number of people still seem misguidedly to hold. 

Civil Society Voices is the place for informed opinion, and debate about the big issues affecting charities today. We’re always keen to hear from anyone, working or volunteering at a charity, who has something to say. Find out more about contributing and how to get in touch.


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