Following on from our Gosh Darnit unwanted-stock-becomes-new-stock window display, I’ve been thinking about the donation process and what role our shop plays in our local community’s experiences with materialism & waste.
(Warning: this is bound to get a bit long/rambling and maybe even a bit controversial, so apologies in advance. Oh and, obviously, anything I say here is not the view of Oxfam but rather my own! My interest is in having a discussion over what consitutes ethical and sensible donations.)
Part one: dumping outside our shop.
We get a lot of donations left outside our shop when we’re not open. I say ‘left’, but really I mean to say ‘dumped’. We understand that not everyone can make it to our shop during our opening hours, but their response to this (i.e. leaving bags of clothes outside our doors, often right under our sign asking people not to leave stuff there) is just unacceptable. Invariably we don’t use any of this stuff because it’s either been taken or has been dragged around in the dirt and wet that it isn’t worth our time trying to make it saleable. Leaving stuff outside the shop when we’re not open seems lazy and thoughtless.
Why is it thoughtless? Consider some of the reasons people give stuff to charity: 1) to give the charity stock to sell to raise funds 2) to recycle things they don’t need anymore 3) to put something back into their local community.
Anything that’s left outside is definitely not going to raise money for our causes, because we can’t sell it. It’s also kind of the opposite of recycling as well, because the things they leave get trashed and end up being collected by the council for landfill. The third aim is sort of met, but maybe not in the way they intended — the people who take stuff from outside our door are probably in real need of what they’re taking. There’s no point dodging this subject – a lot of Dalston residents live on the poverty line, and we’re not criticising them for taking stuff. It’s the people who dump that annoy us.
Why is it lazy? Because they could check when we’re open and come back then. This isn’t the ideal solution, obviously, since some people just can’t make it in that time. If that’s the case, then there’s the Oxfam clothing bank further down Kingsland Road. We have signs plastered around the windows explaining when we’re open and giving people info about the clothing bank.
But faced with these options, people choose to dump. Customers get annoyed at us for the mess around the shop when we’re not open. Local residents get angry at seeing donations stolen. Hackney Council obviously don’t like having to constantly clear up the waste. But the blame here lies with the dumpers. This isn’t meant to sound ungrateful — we welcome all donations to our shop, but to dump stuff is a perverse form of donation, as it actually causes problems for us, rather than allowing us to sell stock and help our community and Oxfam’s projects.
Part two: dumping inside our shop.
There’s another side to the dumping/rubbish problem. This is when people give us stuff that is basically useless and that we can’t sell.
We get a lot of donations. We get hundreds of bags and boxes a week. Maybe even into a thousand or so. It’s hard to keep track. This is what our donation area can look like sometimes:
That’s me on the left. I’m looking at the donation pen off-camera that’s pretty much exactly as full as the one in front of me.
That we get so much stuff is fantastic. We love that so many residents in Dalston have such a generous spirit. We get a lot of things donated that are brand new with tags. This is a charity shop’s dream. We get vintage clothing in good condition, kept safe instead protective plastic sheathes. We get unbelievably good books and records, things that I don’t quite understand why people don’t sell themselves. Our shop is a testament to the kindness (and great taste) of the people who live around us.
Unfortunately, there are some misconceptions about what Oxfam and charity shops in general are. We’re not here as a recycling point. We’re here to sell on useful items in good condition. Here’s Oxfam’s list of what we can’t sell:
- Electrical goods that run off the mains (a few shops do accept these, so please check before donating)
- Medical equipment
- Anything broken, dirty, incomplete or unsafe
- Clothing and shoes that are not fit to be worn again
- Single computers (but we would be happy to hear from your company if you would like to donate multiple units)
- White goods (cookers, washing machines etc)
We seem to get a lot of these! (Not cookers, but we do get offered them, and try to put people in touch with someone who might be able to take them away.) Here’s a pair of plimsolls we were given a few weeks ago that had definitely seen better days:
How about some stained pillows? Ideal house-warming present!
Then there are the things that no charity shop ever sells, even if they’re in great condition. Like home-recorded VHS tapes:
One useful way to think about donating is: if you’ve never seen it for sale in a charity shop, or you wouldn’t buy it in a charity shop, don’t donate it!
I see first-hand the amount of stuff we can’t sell. It’s probably somewhere in the region of 70%. This means our volunteers spend a lot of time black-bagging clothes for recycling and throwing out rubbish. This isn’t what people sign up to volunteer for, but they get through it with a good spirit and we love them for it. A lot of our time is spent sorting through the stuff we can’t sell to get to the stuff that we can sell. Ideally, we’d like to cut down on the unsuitable stuff so that we can focus on more productive things like more organisation upstairs, fixing clothes that have slight imperfections, and keeping the shop tidier. As it is, these are luxuries that we simply don’t have time for. It also leads to us having to close to donations very occasionally, which is really unfortunate.
In terms of clothing — we recycle about 70% of what we get and send it to Wastesaver. There are some items we get that are too dirty or wet to even do this for (people seem to like storing clothes in garages or sheds for a few months before giving them to us?), but anything we can’t sell in our shop does get a second life elsewhere — this post isn’t about that!
There seems to be two explanations for the mass of unsuitable donations: 1) that people don’t know enough about how we deal with rubbish (hence this post, which might make a small impact, hopefully) or 2) that people are using us as a dump.
Mary Portas’s ‘Donate Don’t Dump‘ campaign was inspired by Mary seeing the amount of rubbish/unsuitable items that charity shops are given. (Steve made our own Donate Don’t Dump signs for the window long before Mary Portas got involved with charities, but we don’t need the credit!) Given the amount of stuff we get that we can’t sell (and combined with the problem of Part 1), it can feel a lot of the time that people are using us as a rubbish dump.
I recently read an interview on a related topic with someone much smarter than me — Robin Nagle is the sanitation department of New York’s anthropologist-in-residence. (This probably doesn’t help middle America’s conception of New York as the strangest place in the States, but that’s their problem!) In this interview she talks about the invisible process of rubbish and sanitation. These are essential services that facilitate the quality of life our culture now enjoys, but are often conceived as shameful or embarrassing jobs. She discusses rubbish creation/disposal as cognitive issues — that we are so used to the framework of rubbish collection that we don’t take personal responsibility for our own waste footprint.
To wrap up this post, I think this is what I would try to encourage in people donating to the shop. Take some time and think about what you’re giving us. Is it suitable to sell? Would you buy it if you saw it in the shop? Would it be better off in the bin, or for you finding another purpose for it? Could it go on Freecycle?
I hope it’s been clear that this isn’t meant to be an angry post — if anyone has any questions or comments, please feel free to comment below, or pop into the shop and see me!
Kevin, Deputy Manager