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Shop for Success

Sarah Cox, co-founder of The Charity Shop Gift Card, shares the inspiraton for the multi-retail gift card that rethinks how both consumers and support agenices can use charity shops.

This is a feature from Issue 16 of Charitable Traveller.

What is The Charity Shop Gift Card?

It’s the only multi-retailer gift card that can be spent exclusively in charity shops. It’s currently accepted in Marie Curie, Shelter, The Children’s Society, YMCA, Crisis, Traid and lots of hospice shops, and we’re on target to increase that to nearly 2,000 shops across the country in the next few months. There are two sides to the card – first is the consumer side, with people buying the gift cards (they’re available in supermarkets and lots of online retailers including Amazon) as an alternative to fast-fashion gift cards. We’re the sustainable option, and I think charity shops are really coming into their own now with sustainable fashion.

Then there’s the support sector side, whereby councils, other charities, and other support organisations can buy the cards and distribute them to their service users. For example, we work with Warrington Borough Council who use it as part of their local welfare assistance. You can get so many essentials in a charity shop – from clothing to furniture, homewares and white goods – that it doesn’t make sense to buy new when they already exist, plus you can support a charity at the same time. We always say it’s two good causes for the price of one – the card helps somebody in need, and it also helps a charity to support the community and continue their amazing work.
As a social enterprise, most of our profits go to funding free cards for support agencies. What’s really nice about the two sides of the gift card is that the consumer side helps offset any potential stigma that people may feel if they’re receiving it as part of a support package. When you go into a charity shop to spend it there’s nothing to identify you as being in need.

Where did the idea come from?

My marriage had broken down in 2019 and I ended up fleeing with my four kids and taking nothing with us. Initially we needed clothing, but then when we moved into a house I needed everything, from beds for the kids to cutlery and toys. I remember needing a potato peeler and it really hit me, you just don’t realise how much stuff you accumulate in the home and when you have to replace it all, there’s so much. We were in a very privileged position where friends, family and colleagues were able to help us, but a couple of things really struck me. The first is how important choice is. Of course, I was grateful to be given stuff, but I didn’t realise how much it can impact your mental health and your self-esteem when that autonomy is taken away.
Secondly was how humiliating it felt that everyone knew my life was in crisis. Yes, the help was amazing, but I was also aware that not everyone is in such a fortunate position as to be able to access help. What happens to these people? I previously worked as a teacher in an inner city school so I’d seen the impact on children whose families were struggling, and after I had to leave my job I was on benefits and going to food banks. so I’ve experienced all that stigma.

I kept thinking there must be a way that people in a similar situation to me could go and shop for free in charity shops, because people donating to charity shops wouldn’t mind if donations went to people who had nothing, yet charity shops need that revenue to do their work. The Charity Shop Gift Card is the solution, with the vision that it’s nationwide and no matter which high street, people could go into charity shops and be like any other consumer there. Running alongside that, and unbeknownst to each other, Lottie Bradley, a retail design manager for Save the Children was discussing with her dad, Richard, who works in retail payments, why there isn’t a gift card for charity shops. They started looking into it and approached Richard’s former colleague Lee Fellows, who worked in the gift card market. I reached out to the Charity Retail Association, who put me in touch with Richard, Lottie and Lee. While they were coming from the consumer side, I brought the philanthropic side just at the time they were looking to make their offering more socially conscious, and the rest is history.

How can people help?

Buy the gift card for all your family and friends. It’s a nice way to introduce people to charity shopping, and I think it can be really eye-opening for people to see what’s in the charity shops now. We encourage people to take a slower look at fashion and change the perspective of charity shops; some of them now are really lovely  boutiques. If you’re reading this and work for a charity or other support agency that supports people financially, I’d encourage you to look at the card as an option. We distribute cards through food banks and refuges, and to refugees and asylum seekers. It’s a really nice way to give people funds as well as autonomy and choice.

What would you like to see change in your area?

What we’d really love to see is second-hand becoming the first option for people, especially for councils and support agencies. There’s so much in circulation already and the amount that goes to landfill is scandalous, yet there are people who don’t have a washing machine oo a coat for their child. How do you close that loop? With The Charity Shop Gift Card, people can choose what they need, and make a more sustainable choice while doing so.

What is your biggest challenge?

Awareness is probably the biggest, but we’re waiting for a few well-known national charities to sign up and once they do, we’ll go bigger on our presence.

What is a social enterprise to you?

It’s an organisation with really strong ethical values. We’re not in it to make money, we’re a solution to a problem that affects lots of people, and we strongly believe that what we’re doing is going to benefit individuals, the environment and the communities the charity shops are in.

What's next for The Charity Sop Gift Card?

This year the focus is on growing the shop redemption network and reinforcing the message that second hand isn’t second best. Our card both removes any stigma and pushes the sustainability message, so we want it to grow and grow.

The beauty of second-hand

Find out more about The Charity Shop Gift Card, where you can use it, and how you can help by visiting thecharityshopgiftcard.co.uk

This is a feature from Issue 16 of Charitable Traveller.