Sustainable consumption and the circular economy in the context of the charity retail sector

PhD student Violet BroadheadUniversity of Bristol Business School PhD student, Violet Broadhead, spoke to us about her research on sustainable consumption in the charity retail sector, that looks at the impact of other priorities, societal expectations and responsibilities on charities’ approach to sustainability.  

How would you describe your research to a non-expert? 

My thesis is looking at the charity retail sector, and how it fits into sustainable consumption and the circular economy. Basically, the thesis investigates how people who work in charity shops, and people who work in the sector at more senior levels relate to the idea of  sustainable consumption, and how their approach to sustainability interacts with and is shaped by other priorities, such as managing the charity’s brand, or the demands of dealing with a large volume of donations on a day-to-day basis. I am also looking at how their reuse and recycling activities connect to what other actors are doing in the wider systems of consumption and disposal, and trying to think about what consequences all this has for material flows. 

The conversation around second-hand clothes and sustainability has become more mainstream in recent years, but charity shops have been around for decades, and already have a really difficult job on their hands in terms of delivering the profit that’s needed to address deep societal problems like homelessness or mental health issues. The interaction between the sector’s growing green identity and these expectations and responsibilities is what my research is focussed on. 

What kind of methodology are you using for your research? 

So, all my research on this project is qualitative. I’ve been doing ethnographic fieldwork in a charity shop, working in the stock room with the staff and volunteers. This is ideal for observing the nitty gritty of everyday processes, for example the realities of waste in the sorting process. 

A lot of this would not come across in interviews alone, partly because there are some things that are tacit in the sorting process that workers wouldn’t easily verbalise, but also because the question of waste is quite morally charged. Ethnographic work complimented by interviews allows me to learn about people’s values and priorities, and the ideal versions of certain processes, but also to see how this really shakes out on a day-to-day basis. 

What drew you to this research area? 

I really came to research through this empirical subject. My undergraduate degree was in fashion design, but for various reasons my work life went in a different direction after I graduated. At this time, I was thinking a lot about the inherent unsustainability of the fashion industry, and I found myself looking at charity shops as a solution to these problems. I ended up working as an Assistant Manager in a charity shop. Charity shops are so ubiquitous, so mundane, and we all kind of think we know what they are, but I found that the work they do is more complicated than it appears at surface level. 

I studied MA Material and Visual Culture in the Anthropology department at UCL, where I researched the decision-making processes of individuals who sort charity shop donations. This research was more focussed on the personal notions of value, waste and reciprocity which come into play when people are handling these ‘charitable gifts’. Since then, I’ve been seeing this treatment of charity shops as a solution to all the problems of consumption reflected more widely in public discourse, so I decided to do a PhD to research this topic. 

Did you find anything particularly surprising during this research? 

Something that surprises me every time I am in a charity shop stockroom is the volume of stuff they are dealing with. It is relentless. One senior manager I spoke to who runs a chain of thirty shops told me they get about 35 tonnes of donations per week, and sell between 10% and 30% of this on the shop floor, with the rest being sold to reuse and recycling merchants. I also found that this is something charity retailers are quite anxious about, but there is a reluctance to talk about it in case it makes them look bad, and lose the support that they need to keep delivering the charity’s mission. 

Where do you see your research going in future? 

Great question. Right now, I’m in the thick of writing my PhD thesis, so I haven’t had much time to think about what I want to do next, but I think that there is a lot of opportunity for work in this field at the moment. Alongside my PhD I have been doing some Research Assistant work on an impact-focussed project at Cardiff University. We’ve been running workshops which are aimed at giving academics, policymakers and practitioners in the second-hand economy opportunities to connect with each other and discuss how to make second-hand spaces more equitable and sustainable, so this might be an area I would like to explore further. I would be interested in looking at the realities of the circular economy and investigating ways to make it more joined up. 

Find out more about research at the University of Bristol Business School.