We are an influential voice on behalf of our unique sector and regularly invited to take part in roundtables and high-level meetings to discuss issues which might impact upon the charity retail sector. The latest of these came on Monday [21 May 2018] when I attended two meetings in Northampton.
These were organised by the Waste Management Industry Training and Advisory Board [WAMITAB] – a charity which exists to promote best practice in the management of waste. Also in attendance were charity retailers (some of whom operate their own waste collection and others who use contractors), academics, waste management professionals and trade bodies representing textile recyclers.
Textile Industry Health and Safety
The meeting was organised by the British Heart Foundation following various reports about poor health and safety practices in the textile collection and recycling industry. It was acknowledged that few charity shops run such operations directly, but as charities with an ethical purpose we know our members will be very keen to ensure that anyone they contract with takes these issues as seriously as possible.
There is vast diversity in the trade, from one-off “man with a van” operations to large scale highly profitable companies. This means that there are also very different attitudes towards compliance with health and safety standards. The fact that many merchants are international companies operating to different standards also complicates the picture.
Those processing less than 156,000 tonnes are exempt from much legislation, this is a nonsensical threshold when the charity retail sector as a whole handles 330,000 tonnes and means even quite large players are exempt. The government in England have consulted on introducing permitting for all waste handling sites and reducing the threshold for exemptions to 100,000 tonnes. The group agreed that if this goes through it will be a step in the right direction, if not a permanent solution.
One particularly big issue identified by the panel is lack of adequate separation between vehicles and drivers and operatives who go into stores to collect stock. This has led to some instances of vehicles impacting with people who are not wearing appropriate high visibility clothing or safety footwear. WAMITAB noted that the waste management industry as a whole has one of the worst records for health and safety and that vehicle collision contributes significantly to this.
Another key area of concern comes with stacking stock. There is little guidance on safe stacking which refers directly to our industry – as opposed to the agricultural industry and safe stacking of hay bales, for example.
The main way to overcome these issues is to enforce compliance, namely that charity retailers demand that traders they work with conform to best practice. The difference between large and small charities – and their capacity to commit resources to ensuring full compliance from the traders they sell to – was noted.
Some kind of best practice guidance which small charities can easily follow seemed to be the way to resolve this. This would be a bottom-up approach, looking at what our members would need their operatives or contractors to do rather than simply responding to periodic advice and legislation fired at the industry by central government.
There is obviously some work to be done before such a document can be produced and disseminated. Some guidance already exists through the Waste Industry Safety and Health (WISH) Forum, courses supplied by the Chartered Institute of Waste Managers (WISM) and waste industry conferences. In addition, the proposed introduction of permits for waste sites will introduce new standards which traders must be aware of.
Reducing waste in the rag trade
The second half of the day took these issues on and focused on further risks to charity retailers when engaging with the “rag” trade.
The group discussed the resources available when looking for a new textile trader, including our own guidance. However, all agreed that there is no alternative to visiting the sites in person and meeting with employees. This is particularly effective when trying to assess if workers are being paid the legal minimum wage and receiving all their other rights. Several larger charities will interview the employees of their textile recycler in person to check that their rights are being upheld. But of course, even this is not fool proof.
It was noted that modern slavery is a serious problem and some of the worst examples are right under our noses in the UK. Again, only face-to-face visit has a chance of identifying this problem.
From a reputation perspective another issue for charity retails is what is done with the product when it arrives at is destination. It was noted that some clothes sent to Africa very quickly find their way to local landfill sites, undermining the purpose of recycling the goods in the first place.
Charity shops would be excellently placed to set new standards in the rag trade as one of its biggest suppliers.
A wide discussion was held about the best way to promote best practice in this manner and again, the idea of a bottom up guidelines which can be used by individual charity retailers was popular.
To take the issue forward it was agreed to set up a WISH working group. We will participate in this group which has been tasked with creating a set of simple materials that charity retailers can use to ensure that their textile traders are appropriate and meeting all of their obligations, including health and safety.
The first task is to collate and review all existing guidance of this nature, which we will begin this month.
Head of Public Affairs and Research,
Charity Retail Association