Everyone knows that when you receive a compliment on a garment purchased second-hand for a fraction of its retail value, you do not say “thank you”. Rather, you stop in your tracks, strike a subtle pose and declare proudly, “charity shop!”.
It would be unthinkable, in a country as fearful of public displays of spending as Britain, to pass the article off as new. A charity find makes us feel like a sartorial Artemis, a hunter who found treasure where others saw only trash.
Lately, this prideful clucking has been heard around London, New York and the rest of the Netflix-streaming world. Thanks to the platform’s new series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, charity shops are awesome right now.
The latest iteration of the professional declutterer who exuberantly parts Americans from their belongings has led to a mass bout of early spring cleaning around the world.
An assistant at a charity shop in south London told me, as I perused a startling array of designer wool coats priced for a song, that while she usually expects an influx of goods in April or May, the shop was inundated with donations after the show’s January premiere. If volunteers had not worked quickly the bags would have spilled out from the storeroom on to the pavement.
Ms Kondo’s approach to eradicating clutter requires disciples to keep only things that “spark joy”. Possessions that do not are discarded, so that they may bring joy to someone else.
Ms Kondo’s controversial philosophy is about taking back control of the emotions we project on to objects. By severing attachments, disciples are able to conquer the chaos that reins in their wardrobes, if not their lives.
Still, the thought of discarding something (especially something with tags) fills us with guilt. Charity shops provide a vital feel-good intermediary between closet and dump.
“A lot of people use us as a skip,” said the manager of one charity shop. We let them do the dirty work of binning the things that no longer have a purpose. They are emotional outsourcers. They don’t mind, they say. They are able to recycle fabric, which helps cut down on huge amounts of textile waste each year.
Not all charity shops are created equal, however. Some “destination” shops operate on donations from their well-heeled neighbours, while others rely on items distributed from a central warehouse.
Thrift is no longer the preserve of baby boomers and students. Celebrities document frenetic Kondo’ing on social media, while Hampstead shoppers can fantasise they are trying on something purged from the home of local resident Benedict Cumberbatch.
Kondo-mania is coinciding with a decisive shift towards sustainability. Nothing is more likely to earn you a dirty look than walking out of your local Waitrose branch with a unrecyclable plastic bag.
Concerns about poor working conditions make the purchase of a £15 frock from a “fast fashion” brand feel morally dubious, while sustainably produced clothing from brands, such as Reformation, are still prohibitively expensive for most.
So for the young, hip and thrifty, there has never been a better time for recycling to come back in vogue. Charity shops have proliferated on the high street as retailers leave and rents fall. Some say this is a sign of things to come. “It used to be that if you saw a charity shop on a high street, you thought that high street was down at heel,” says retail consultant Mary Portas. No longer. The future of the high street, she says, is more multifunctional spaces, such as crèches and exercise studios — and recycling and charity shops.
One added benefit of refocusing consumption on recycled goods is that it is harder to find things that spark joy. Selection is limited, sizes and cuts unpredictable. But the spark, when it comes, is all the greater for its rarity.
And second-hand clothes have more longevity. Having never been in fashion, my most recent Save the Children find can never go out of it.