• Second-hand retail is big business in the UK, and the sector employs about 32,000 people.
  • The nation’s charity shops make $383 million profit a year for their parent organizations.
  • Their popularity remains strong as more people look to shop ethically and embrace the circular economy.

On 1 June 1941, with Europe in turmoil as the Second World War raged, Oliver Lyttelton, who was President of the British Board of Trade, announced that clothes would be rationed in the UK.

The move ushered in an era of getting by with less and being more thrifty – encapsulated in a promotional campaign called Make Do and Mend. It encouraged people to repair their clothes, wear them for longer, and to reuse worn-out clothes for another purpose.

Make do and mend campaign
Where’s that moth? The war effort involved tackling some unlikely questions.
Image: British Library

Waste not, want not

Fast-forward almost 80 years and the idea of reusing and recycling clothes and other items remains a popular one in the UK.

There is a growing trend towards a more environmentally friendly outlook in many economies. That’s partly to do with an increased awareness of the impact everyday activities have on the climate. It’s also partly connected with the idea of the circular economy – an industrial system that is restorative and regenerative by design, and which encourages people and businesses to reuse and restore items rather than replacing them.

Circular economy

What is a circular economy?

The global population is expected to reach close to 9 billion people by 2030 – inclusive of 3 billion new middle-class consumers.This places unprecedented pressure on natural resources to meet future consumer demand.

A circular economy is an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It replaces the end-of-life concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems and business models.

Nothing that is made in a circular economy becomes waste, moving away from our current linear ‘take-make-dispose’ economy. The circular economy’s potential for innovation, job creation and economic development is huge: estimates indicate a trillion-dollar opportunity.

The World Economic Forum has collaborated with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for a number of years to accelerate the Circular Economy transition through Project MainStream - a CEO-led initiative that helps to scale business driven circular economy innovations.

Join our project, part of the World Economic Forum’s Shaping the Future of Environment and Natural Resource Security System Initiative, by contacting us to become a member or partner.

Every year, UK citizens throw millions of pounds’ worth of clothes away, with an amount valued at around $182 million ending up in landfill sites.


But if that sounds like a lot, consider this – according to UK charity the Waste & Resources Action Programme, there could be as much as $39 billion of unused clothes hanging in the UK’s wardrobes right now.

Circular economy Ellen MacArthur
A circular economy
Image: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

A retail resurgence

The UK’s vibrant second-hand economy is centred on a nationwide network of charity shops, or thrift stores as they are known in some parts of the world.

There are around 4,000 second-hand stores across the UK, a number that has remained largely the same over the past 10 years or so. Collectively, those shops generated $383 million profit for their parent charities in 2018, with organizations like Oxfam, Age UK, Cancer Research, and the British Heart Foundation, to name just a few, benefitting from the sale of second-hand clothes and other items including books, homeware and furniture.

UK job losses from retail closures.
The past decade has been a turbulent one for the UK high street.
Image: Centre for Retail Research/Bloomberg

Charity shops are one of the few good news stories on the UK high street; the hard-pressed bricks-and-mortar retail sector has seen many thousands of retailers shut up shop permanently, and the British Retail Consortium estimates that approaching 1 million retail jobs could be lost by 2025.

They aren’t completely immune to the effects of the high street slowdown, though. “We're not a destination shop – we're very reliant on footfall, on people walking past,” Lynne McMahon, director of retail and trading at the Children's Society explains. “Small things, like a bus stop moving or a bank closing can make a tremendous difference.”

Traditionally regarded as a source of cheap, low-value goods charity shops have, in recent years, changed their focus. Now they regularly stock second-hand, high-end fashion brand goods, which can be bought for a fraction of their original price.

But their enduring popularity can also be interpreted as a symptom of the UK’s inequality. Both income and wealth are unevenly distributed in the UK, even when compared with other developed economies. In 2018, UK households in the bottom 20% of the population had average disposable incomes of $16,800. The top 20% had $91,000, and the richest 10% of households hold 44% of all wealth.

Currently, there are around 32,000 people working in the UK charity shop sector, many of them are volunteers donating their time to support a good cause.