It’s the scale of the place that amazes first-time visitors to Oxfam Wastesaver in Batley.
The industrial unit off Grange Road is the organisation’s Northern Logistics Centre for recycling – a vast warehouse, to which unsold stock from the country’s 700 high street charity shops is delivered daily.
A cavernous sorting hangar, with enormous cages full of black bin bags at one end, conveyor belts in the middle and bales at the other, is only half of the operation. A second vast storeroom is also piled with bales of clothing, much of it destined for far-flung destinations, and also houses the online and festivals stock. It’s an Aladdin’s cave of skirts, dresses, shoes, bags, sweaters, coats and shirts, even wedding gowns. It’s all a little overwhelming and a reminder of just how wasteful and throw-away our consumer society has become.
The fact that these clothes haven’t sold in a shop doesn’t mean they’re useless. Among them are high-end donations, designer pieces and valuable vintage finds. Less than a decade ago it was realised that they could be sold online or taken out to music festivals. Today the online hub turns over more than £300,000 a year and the donations sold at music festivals raise around £1/4m each summer.
The desire to constantly refresh our wardrobes is enormously beneficial to charities such as Oxfam. According to Jo Thackwray, E-commerce and Festivals Manager at Batley, Oxfam can sell and recycle 98% of all donations. A substantial amount of clothing finds its ways to customers overseas and to the charity’s own project in Senegal, which supplies items for local people to sell, providing them with a way to make a living. Textile goods that are really past their best will be recycled by a Batley company into mattress fillings.
Visitors passing through the hub are frequently amazed by what others are prepared to part with. During a quick trawl of just two rails I found an Alexander McQueen sweater and 1970s vintage Frank Usher dress. But there are 8,000 or more items waiting for a new home. Jo reveals that an actress from the Harry Potter films recently paid £750 for a vintage Ossie Clark dress.
However, the charity could not do what it does without volunteers. Batley has only a small team of paid workers, including the skilled sorters who run the conveyor belt, and relies on a team of around 60 people to run the online shop and festivals operations.
Some are regular volunteers, while others, like myself, are micro-volunteers, stepping in for just a few hours at a time. I’m joining a Corporate Volunteer Day, an initiative that allows groups to find out what the charity does and donate their skills and a few hours of time, as a member of the online team.
It’s our job to take garments that have already been sorted, prepared and photographed and list them on the Oxfam website. I’m working with mens’ cashmere sweaters, a big seller for the charity. Cashmere makes around £800 a week through the online shop. Most of the garments are in really good condition but any that have a slight ‘bobbling’ are de-bobbled using an electric razor-type device, a much-coveted piece of equipment among my fellow corporate volunteers. Small stains are tackled using baby wipes – a tip we all store away for future use.
Then we measure the garments and type in the details: Marks & Spencer Blue Cashmere Zip-front Sweater, Size L ... etc. I’ve never really thought before who inputs all the information on shopping websites.
We have a patient trainer – one of the experienced regular volunteers, a computing student - and after a while I realise we’ve worked our way through quite a pile of sweaters, which are now catalogued and will be hung in the warehouse awaiting an online buyer. At the end of the session Jo reckons that the four of us have listed around £400 worth of items – and made a small contribution to the 400 or so new items that are posted on the www.oxfam.org.uk site every week. However, we are humbled when she tells us that a team, albeit of 17, from the Yorkshire Building Society, recently notched up £4,000 worth of listings.
Volunteers are all around us – choosing categories of clothing, steaming and ironing and arranging them on mannekins in the four photographic studios. At the far side of the room there’s a despatch area, where volunteers find the goods that have been ordered on line and wrap them ready to send out.
It’s as slick an operation as any commercial online business, but the big difference is that we’re all working for charity and giving our time free of charge.
However, Oxfam doesn’t take its volunteers for granted. As Jo points out: “We are flipping volunteering on its head and saying it’s not what you can do for us, it’s what Oxfam can do for you. We’re saying to people ‘come and build your skills and get a reference and put something on your CV.”
So while the charity couldn’t function without volunteers - as a whole it has 23,000 – Oxfam is well aware that it needs to give something back. To that end it is developing a new volunteer role in Batley that will offer six months of training in online retail management. “We will take two volunteers at a time,” says Jo, “and they will get management experience.”
But even ‘shopfloor’ volunteers gain invaluable experience and at the hub there are plenty of opportunities to be part of a thriving, ethical business. And unlike the high street charity shops, which are a predominantly female environment, it’s a workplace that attracts as many male as female volunteers and people of all ages.
Is the experience to be recommended?
Very much so. It’s a sociable and interesting working environment.
How can volunteers get involved?
Visit www.oxfam.org.uk and click on ‘volunteer with us’. Opportunities at the hub range from the new deputy online manager position and photographers to office staff and what the charity calls ‘treasure hunters’ (those with an eye for vintage or quality). Details of roles can be found on ‘Get Involved’.
Are there other ways to support the charity?
The Batley centre runs regular #Oxstyle events – evenings of personal shopping at the Online Hub. To book a place email firstname.lastname@example.org