A well-heeled colleague once admired the Max Mara jacket I wore to work. Was it, she asked, from the latest collection? ‘No,’ I said. ‘Oxfam.’ She blurted out that she donated her casts-off to Oxfam. ‘Next time, cut out the middleman and give them to me,’ I replied.
Charity shops help me to afford the quality clothes I lust after, especially Italian jackets. Once, in a gluttonous afternoon orgy, I ‘did’ 11 shops in the Stockbridge district of Edinburgh. I’d have done 12, but one was closed. They included a British Red Cross store dedicated to wedding attire – well, at least the brides’ dresses have only been used once, probably.
Buying second-hand has become acceptable, even commendable. Treasure hunters assuage pangs of guilt about snatching VAT-free bargains from under the noses of needier customers. After all, their spending goes to charity and they are doing their bit for sustainability.
Charity stores also give volunteers purpose and the chance to develop job skills, and even offer a little paid employment. Some are community hubs, providing links to local services. Shoppers leave with purchases in hand and warm feelings in their hearts.
Mainstream retailers may cry unfair competition, especially when some charity shops sell new stuff, since charities have business rate relief, low or no rents, low staffing costs and free stock. However, without charity shops many high streets would be dead zones, victims first of shopping centres, and now of e-commerce.
They are far from perfect, but critics often underestimate the complex financial issues they face and overestimate the Government help they get. And it’s right that they receive Gift Aid on donations, especially now HM Customs and Excise are properly policing this – tax shouldn’t be paid twice on gifts for the public good.