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A Second Life and the Joy of Giving

Charity Shops extend the life of inanimate objects by giving them a new home and giving people the joy of giving back to their community and acquiring something new.

By Estephania Bedoya

As soon as I enter the store, I notice the furniture lined up, from drawers and closets to dining room furniture and tea sets with cutlery. There are clothing racks with jackets, pants, shirts and even dresses in several sizes; there are also books piled up at the very end of the store. And Every Breath You Take by The Police is playing through the speakers. I am in a charity shop. These establishments are initiatives that started decades ago to find a way for communities to help and indirectly address a disadvantaged group by proving either donations, their time as volunteers or support as customers.

Charity shops, that receive donations and do retail of well-kept items, are mostly unknown in Latin America, not usual in Continental Europe, but are in every town in the UK and Ireland. The Irish Charity Shop Association’s (ICSA) yearly benchmark of the triple impact (social, financial, environmental) of charity shops showed that the annual turnover for 2020 resulted in a €36.5 million profit in sales alone showing that, even in an unprecedented year and compared to the €69 million in 2019, charity shops impact was still significant.

Nabila is the manager for the Irish Cancer Society point in Camden Street. Arriving to Ireland from Spain she started as a volunteer in charity shops to make friends. Four years later, she is now the manager of one of the stores. “I have done volunteer work all my life. I don’t know, it feels nice to do something without expecting anything in return and it is also good to make friends and meet new people.” Like her, many young people start gaining working experience through volunteering. These are divided in different types like full or part-time volunteers and they help customers find hidden gems naturally common in charity shops. Volunteers in charity shops come from all ages and backgrounds. For the Irish Cancer Society, students are usually aged between 15-21 and more fixed volunteers are retired, know cancer survivors or are themselves survivors.

National Council for the Blind Ireland (NCBI), the Irish Cancer Society and St. Vincent De Paul (SVP) are societies with a history of supporting their community’s groups of cancer survivors and supporters, people with visual impairing, and working with people experiencing poverty and disadvantage. Their mission and vision share the passion for helping the community support these individuals through a small effort with big impact. In a way, it is a ‘killing two birds with one stone’ strategy.

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Coming to Ireland for the first time from Panama, they were unfamiliar and new. “It’s just charity, I did it at home too,” I used to say. Paul Hughes, retail General Manager for Irish Cancer Society says charity shops are where you will be provided with “quality clothing, shoes accessories, books and household items at affordable prices.” And Jim Walsh, Executive Chairman of Walsh PR with SVP, notes that charity shops provide charities’ Societies with an income source that is “recycled directly back into the community… into local Conferences (Branches), made up of volunteers, around Ireland to support those in need in their locality.”

It was not until finding out this that it became clear: buying from charity shops is doing a lot by doing a little. From the Irish Cancer Society chain funding cancer research and NCBI helping groups, individuals, and activities involving those who are blind or visually impaired; and SVP works with people experiencing poverty and disadvantage in their communities.

Charity shops most popular retail is often clothing. In 2020, the benchmark report stated 5.7 million garments were sold. However, since reopening in July 2021, stores are full with returning and new customers.  Bringing back the usual curious, ‘treasure hunt’ nature of charity shops for those looking for something new that has been previously loved. Since then, the ICSA has reported on activities such as the ‘Re-Imagine Christmas’ initiative during the 2021 holiday season to encourage people go gift-searching in charity shops as an alternative to the usual brand-new, probably more expensive, gifts. In the campaign, it was encouraging the public to “reduce the Christmas carbon footprint” by looking for their loved ones’ gifts in charity shops.

According to ICSA’s reports, textile reuse, like buying from charity or second-hand/vintage stores, is the largest re-used activity in Ireland and charity shops are the main drivers of this practice. Numbers showing that donating 10kg of clothing to a charity will fund community services here in Ireland or abroad since about €50 to €70 go to an Irish charity.

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The clothes donated usually go through the same process in all charity shops. Paul explains that they are received in store, checked for their quality and go to retail in store. “Most items are sold within five days, but remain on the shop floor for seven to ten days.” If items are not sold, they are exported for reuse.  Woollens and cottons may be recycled for use as insulation which is very important as Attic insulation increases energy efficiency and comfort in homes. Insulation is also much more crucial now, with the high cost of energy, so be sure to talk to a quality insulation company like InstaGroup as they can very likely save you a great deal of money by reducing lost heat in your home. If you still have a hot water cylinder in your home then also have a look at getting a really good jacket for it (like, as that will save a lot of heat loss and so save some good money.

Furthermore, Jim explains that any item that “cannot be sold in one shop or distributed as emergency assistance is dispatched to a network of regional Order Fulfilment Centres (OFCs) for redistribution to other shops in need.”

As many businesses, charity shops were no different when it came to close during the worst phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. Jim says the past two years were difficult “as charity shops were closed for a considerable time in 2020 and 2021.” In Irish Cancer Society, when it came to reopen, all till points have safety screens, and all staff, volunteers and customers were required to wear masks and encouraged to sanitise their hands upon entering the store.

After two of the most difficult years, charity shops have been opened since mid 2021 and have received a large number of donations resulting from many people decluttering during this time at home. They have also welcomed new customers who were not familiarised with purchasing second-hand before and are supporting not only the humanitarian mission, but also sustainability goals in a society more environmentally conscious and an economy that envisions more ways to help future generations.

Coming from a country where there are no charity shops or the like, it is not difficult to imagine having a community without them, but it doesn’t feel like that for avid customers and volunteers here in Ireland. They are the first step in giving back to the community.

Paul says that apart from fundraising for cancer research, the Irish Cancer Society shops are the “visible face” of this Society. They “may be the first point of engagement with the Society’s services for cancer sufferers or their families” and it is through them that they can find assistance to their situations. In NCBI’s website, several resources and materials are made available to support visual impairment and sight loss as well as phone line assistance to ask for support or how can you help.

The past two years have proved that connection is more important than ever. Although briefly apart, whether it is face-to-face or online, charity shops are one more member of the community representing the best version of supporting others through personal effort and enjoyment in volunteers and the joy of giving back through new purchased ‘hidden gems’ for customers.

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