Salvage and sustainability: the impact of professionalisation on the ethical potential of UK charity shops

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Management


In recent years disposal has become recognised as a crucial supplement to consumption studies, connecting human engagements with material things to global processes. Mass-consumption and its environmental impact -the exhaustion of natural resources, the pervasive accumulation of junk, irreversible climate change (Thill, 2015)-as well as the moral discourses attending this relationship, form the broad context for my research. The changes in charity retail are, in part, epiphenomenal to those of its first-cycle counterpart; an ongoing inquiry by the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee into the sustainability of the fashion industry is shining a spotlight on its profligacy, including its impact on the charity retail sector. The proliferation of fast fashion shops and websites selling cheap thrills results in high quantities of low value donations to charity shops, which the chair of the committee has described as "the dumping ground for the high street's dirty little secret" (Horton, 2018)

Charity shops currently make a significant contribution to UK sustainability, diverting thousands of tonnes of textiles from landfill annually. However, their potential for environmental good is deeply contingent, having arisen serendipitously as the negotiation point of increased consumption and growing consumer concern regarding responsible disposal. The contribution of charity shops to sustainable resource use is reaching a crux, as it conflicts with the tendency of charity retailers to adopt a high-end boutique style. Against a backdrop of increased first-cycle consumption and disposal, and the falling global market for our second-hand clothing, this process becomes of critical importance. Charity shops are a neglected area academically, and their changing role in the sustainability agenda has not been addressed. This research explores how everyday charity shop practices of diverting donated goods from the waste stream are tied up in complex and contradictory ways with the capitalist imperatives of professionalisation - rationalising processes pursuing efficiency, calculability, and standardization. It evaluates how professionalisation affects the salvage of donated good and the implications of this for environmentally responsible domestic waste processes. Specifically, it addresses the following research questions:

- What is the impact of professionalisation on the sustainable potential of UK charity shops?
- Which factors influence the salvage of donated goods?
- How does professionalisation affect valuation of goods?
- What do shop staff perceive as the purpose of charity shops, and what tensions arise between different interpretations?

These research questions will be answered via a comparative study in charity shops (1 national charity, 1 local charity) to analyse the nature of professionalisation in practice. A range of qualitative methods will be used including participant observation, informal and semi-formal interviews. The emphasis will be on plotting the trajectories of things as they move through charity shops, a critical juncture in their 'social lives'. This focus on material objects as they move around the shop will shed light on practices that may rarely be articulated, drawing out the processes and structures implicated by shop sorting (valuation, environmental impacts). These data will be complemented by a series of key informant interviews (with managers, area managers and other charity shop workers) to illuminate how professionalism and sustainability are conceptualised at different levels.

The project aims to offer a more comprehensive and embedded analysis of the strengths and limitations of charity shops as a conduit of disposal and a mode of environmental practice, contributing to range of policy and academic debates.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2221061 Studentship ES/P000630/1 01/10/2019 30/09/2023 Violet Broadhead