Can a new range of charity shops break Russia’s second-hand stigma?

Can a new range of charity shops break Russia’s second-hand stigma?

In a city that values slick appearances, and where people remember with unease an era of material hardship, can non-profit organisation Charity Shop create a consumer revolution?

2 May 2019
Interview: Katie Davies

Fast fashion has made the clothes we buy cheaper and more disposable than ever before, with landfills flooded with one-wear garments and precious water supplies across the world drained and contaminated as a result. The Moscow-based Charity Shop is one of a growing number of fashion-conscious, second-hand stores that are forcing Russians to think again about their wardrobe. Encouraging shoppers to reuse the previously-loved clothes of others, Charity Shop also promotes sustainable lifestyles, with all four Charity Shops across the capital raising funds for Second Wind — a non-profit providing clothes, aid, and employment for vulnerable groups in the regions around the capital.

The Calvert Journal spoke to founder Darya Alekseeva about how Charity Shop is changing perceptions of fashion in a city where image is everything.

What inspired you to set up Charity Shop?

In 2013, I went on a state-supported business trip to the United States, where we spent time getting to know not-for-profit groups and local activists and visited The Goodwill Industries warehouse and sorting centre in San Francisco. I saw hundreds of tons of clothes being pumped back into the economy, not rotting in landfills. I wanted to create a similar project in Russia.

I pretty much haven’t bought clothes from a regular store since the moment I opened the first Charity Shop in 2014. Finding clothes in a thrift store is an adventure, because you never know what you’re going to get. Our customers are such different people that it’s difficult to describe them as a single project. From the start, I made the project for women at the start of their careers — for those who have just finished university and need a good wardrobe as they enter the workforce. There are so many other, more interesting things to spend your money on at that time of your life: language courses, travelling, learning to drive. It makes no sense to buy things from the mall when you can find things to wear that are cheaper and just more interesting.

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How do you get hold of clothes for the shop?

We collect more than 25 tons of clothes every month. They reach us via our collection points and containers across the city. All of the clothing is sorted by hand. Each employee will sort through around 300kg of clothes each day. They’re sorted into rubbish (things which can’t be recycled), rags (items in poor condition), and items which can be used again. We select the items that we want in our stores from those donations. We don’t put anything that we wouldn’t wear ourselves onto our shelves.

We also don’t compare ourselves to other second-hand shops, because there are more differences than similarities. We’re a company with a social core — our mission is to develop conscious consumption, reduce the harm to the environment, and develop the collection and reuse of clothing in Russia. We don’t just have a chain of stores, but a network of clothes collection points, two sorting points, a clothing processing workshop. For us, selling things is a tool to keep us afloat financially, but it’s not our key goal.

Is there a stigma in Russia against wearing second-hand clothes?

Everyone who grew up in the 90s wore hand-me-downs, whether from their brothers and sisters or friends’ children. A lot of people associate old clothes with poverty or limited opportunities. I often hear young mothers say that they will keep wearing second-hand clothes, but will never dress their children that way.

At the same time, there are other parents who can afford to buy their teenage daughters anything they want, but they go to Charity Shop, because there’s a cool atmosphere and items which no one else has. And I really like that. We have a lot of teenage customers: they don’t like ordinary shopping malls, because everything there is so monotonous, everything looks the same, there is no “added value” or history. You feel like a consumer. Here, you’re part of our project and our story. We do a lot to change attitudes towards second-hand clothes.

Which causes do you support?

We created the Second Wind Foundation about a year after opening Charity Shop. We started giving items to people in need, and also began a programme of employing people from vulnerable groups. We realised that if we wanted to bring our social projects to life, we would need to create a non-profit. At the moment, a third of the charity’s income is from selling clothes through our stalls. The rest comes from private and corporate donors and grants.

It turns out that charity shops are one of the most imitated forms of social entrepreneurship in Russia! There’s a group of shops called Spasibo in St Petersburg, Danke Shop in Kaliningrad, and the Vtornik shop operating in Irkutsk. A year ago, we launched an internship program where people can come to us from different regions or even abroad to learn about the project and open their own stores. There’s no sense of competition, just a desire to develop this niche and to make fewer unnecessary things in landfills.

What are your plans for the future?

We want to develop regionally. We’ve opened projects in Yaroslavl, Kostroma, and Kazan, and we plan to develop those. We have strong teams with a lot of ideas, so we’d like the network of shops to be quite decentralised in order for regional teams to make decisions and develop by taking local context into account. Certainly preferable to having people in Moscow telling others what to do. It’s also really important to us to start making our own products from recycled clothes. Right now we’re processing clothes so that they become fibers to be used in furniture and building materials, but we’re not doing anything ourselves. I want to change that.

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