Funding shortfalls & a surplus of loungewear: The plethora of issues facing the charity shop sector

As seen in Fashion Roundtable.

Everyone remembers their first big charity shop find. Mine was a checked Isabel Marant blazer made from soft cotton, which I got for an absolute steal. Later followed a life-long infatuation for finding these hidden gems, and one which hasn’t left me.

Over the years, however, charity shops have evolved. They have become more and more oversaturated with cheap fast-fashion, making these gems harder to find. Now, those of us serious about finding rare pieces have switched our shopping to vintage stores and resale sites instead. While, many consumers who couldn’t previously afford to shop for new, now have access to fast-fashion which has driven them away from shopping in charity shops and continued to fund the cycle of the disposable fashion.

Last year, the Financial Times anticipated that the charity sector could face £10bn funding shortfall and 60,0000 job losses due to Covid, with many charitable organisations folding and physical stores being forced to close along the high street. Oxfam, however, have continued to evolve, investing time and marketing into their online presence, coupled with effective collaborations like its most recent with Stylist magazine and thrifting-pioneer Bay Garnett, who curated an Oxfam pop-up at Selfridges last year. Oxfam has since reported a 7% growth over the 2020 Christmas period for both its online and high-street stores, bringing in an estimated £19.3m — the highest Christmas sales since 2011 despite Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, calling 2019 “the worst year on record”. Nonetheless, like most charity shops, Oxfam also relies heavily on good-quality donations from the general public.

Back in June of last year WRAP estimated that as many as 22-million pairs of shoes, and 67-million clothing items would be disposed via charity shops, collection banks and other donation routes. WRAP has since completed a follow-up survey which showed that 40% of participants found disposing of items through their preferred routes during lockdown ‘difficult’. And with almost another year of lockdown restrictions, and charity shops remaining within the ‘non-essential’ category of the Covid guidelines, many have had no choice but to refuse any new donations.

In stark contrast to this— and in a bid to keep sustainability in the conversation over lockdown— many brands and organisations have communicated the idea of using our free time to have a ‘Marie-Kondo-style’ clear-out of our wardrobes. My inbox has been filled with these articles and tips. But my concern has always been that without access to the usual donation routes, this may encourage disposal into general waste. While the true damage is yet to be seen, I have spoken with charity shops who revealed that bags of donations, mainly clothing and textiles, have been turned away on a weekly basis since the start of lockdown.

12th April marks the date that non-essential shops including charity shops will re-open in England and Wales— however with this comes a plethora of issues. Many workers on the shop-floor and in donation centres are volunteers unprepared to deal with the vast influx of donations, all of which will need to be quarantined for 72 hours prior to sorting. In a reopening pack aimed at helping the sector open again safely, private-waste collectors have been suggested and may have to be used when these quantities become too high. If people have been holding on to items for long periods the quality could also be significantly inferior. This will impact the value which charity shops receive when onselling clothing and textiles to trade, which the sector will need to account for.

Alan Wheeler, Director of the Textile Recycling Association, anticipates that the sector will reopen gradually. However, he raises a valid concern in the increase in loungewear donations. Fashion Roundtable reported on this surge in a previous article last year, where shopping site ‘’ showed a 322% rise in loungewear sales. But the feeling now is that we’ll want to move away from this style of clothing as we start to get back to some form of normality. “In terms of whether we will see more clothing being sent for disposal, the situation is unclear … but another issue has been cited to me, is the anticipated surge in ‘lounge-wear’ that we might expect to see coming through later this year … If this happens, such items have little or no demand as used clothing, so this could affect the viability of collections and sorting going forward.”

It’s evident in all of our conversations within the sustainability space that the linear system is broken. It's inherently unsustainable for us to continue in this way, without any form of accountability for our consumption habits. We continue to create a vast surplus of second-hand clothing from the constant cycle of clothing consumption and disposal — a perpetual loop, where around 75% of clothing and textile waste is incinerated in the UK and the rest exported and retailed in the developing world. Our process for dealing with this manner of consumption still feels very much ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ What we don’t want to see is a surge in items like this overwhelming the charity sector, and therefore destined for landfill, incineration, or exported to the developing world, who like us, will have little need for poor-quality items like this. Charity shops will inevitably suffer as the value of donated clothing decreases. We should remain mindful that as the sector does a lot of valuable work, it should be our priority to help them reopen safely, and offer as much support as possible.