18/04/2018 research seminar

Producing commodities and gifts in the trade of used clothing: Production-oriented and item-oriented models in English charity shops

Emma Greeson (University of San Diego)

Discussant: Mikołaj Lewicki (University of Warsaw)


Goods move in and out of commodity and gift status throughout their careers or even along one value chain . This paper shows how, through the enaction of different logics of production in competing assemblages, commodities and gifts are produced alongside each other in the same spaces. Ethnographic data from thirteen months of fieldwork in a mid-sized city in England illustrate how donated items are processed in charity shops. Drawing on work on the qualification of goods and material flows through spaces of valuation, this paper identifies infrastructures, labor processes, and narratives which prepare items for sale. Two contrasting organizational models exist: production-oriented and item-oriented. In the production-oriented model, the most important aim of charity retail is to support the charity’s cause via generation of income. For the item-oriented model, the most important aim is to ensure that the individual things passing through the shops do not go to waste. Though these two orientations are not mutually exclusive (and ideally, both aims will be fulfilled), tensions do arise between them as the objects being exchanged are created differently. Whereas the production-oriented model is achieved through high levels of disposal and ridding, as well as the use of “production plans” and other rationalizing tools, the item-oriented project is more focused on repair, salvaging, and matching items with new owners. The tension between the two organizational models is also a tension between commodity and gift relations of exchange, and therefore a struggle for the right to define—and enact—the good and moral mode of allocation.