Sustainable shopping at the Charity SuperMkt
Maria Chenoweth has worked in charity retail since she left school. Now aged 54 and the CEO of Traid, together with designer and entrepreneur Wayne Hemingway, she’s spearheading a new concept in clothes shopping: the Charity SuperMkt. ‘What we’re doing is creating a brand of sorts. We want all retail charities together under one umbrella for limited times in different locations.’ Starting off with a residency at the old Topshop in Brent Cross Shopping Centre, the concept has now moved on to Reading ( until 21 May 2023) and will be popping-up in Manchester on the 3- 4 June 2023 (details HERE). By gathering a group of retailers together in one place, the aim is to take charity shopping to the next level; both to protect the environment and reduce the need to make new clothes that use the earth’s natural resources. ‘ Our mission is to get as many people as possible wearing second-hand clothes,’ she continues, ‘And to support the people that make our clothes across the world.’
In her mid-50s, Maria is hitting her stride. As well as her senior positions at Traid and the Charity SuperMkt, she is a fellow of the Open University. ‘My career in charity retail started 30 years ago as a volunteer in my local charity shop. It’s a very privileged position to have gone from volunteer to CEO. I’ve seen so much happen and change,’ she says. Not only is she keen on educating the public, she herself, returned to education in her late 40s. ‘I left school with no qualifications and went straight to work,’ she says, ‘My chair asked me what training I wanted and I sarcastically replied, ‘Get an MBA.’ And she said, ‘Okay’. I applied, thinking they wouldn’t accept someone with no education. But the Open University accepted me on the basis of my work. Bloody hell! That was the fastest learning curve.’
Over the last couple of years, charity retailers have seen a surge in sales driven by increased footfall and new customers. Though Maria has a word of warning about green-washing, ‘The fashion brands are starting to see us as a threat. So, they are jumping on the bandwagon by offering second-hand clothes,’ she adds. ‘And some are offering platforms for resale as well. Even though they’ll make a loss on the resale platforms, they’re doing it because they’re concerned about the impact that second-hand clothing will have on their own industry. So they’d rather grab a piece of market and make a loss on it.’
‘What I really want people to think about when they’re buying clothes under the guise of sustainability from these unsustainable guys, is that it’s green-washing,’ Maria explains. ‘They’re just perpetuating the fast fashion industry which is keeping people’s wages down.’ She cites the following example, “[Some chains] have those banks where you can take your old socks and things, and they state that they give money to charities. When you donate, you’re offered a voucher to buy more new clothes – so it’s not really sustainable, is it? It’s just a gimmick to sell more.’
Completing her MBA took Maria seven years, ‘As a single parent of three children – my parents died while [I was] studying – there was a lot of life stuff thrown at me which, in retrospect, was like a black comedy.’ She still can’t believe what she accomplished. ‘I never really valued education but it can make you see things in a very different way. It can change your mind, how you work and operate and how you talk. I think it is an incredible experience. I can’t express how valuable it is as long as you’re open to change.’
Working so closely with clothing, Maria has developed a clear sense of what she likes. Some of her favourite pieces are from the 50s: ‘A really nice black, sleeveless jumper from St Michael’s – even the label looks fifties – bought in the North London Hospice in Muswell Hill. Then I’ve got this 1950s cardigan jacket in blue and cream. It’s got one pocket and a nice button and it’s really cosy. I found it in Harrogate whilst at a conference. The last, is a really lovely taffeta dress – purple with a blue shimmer. The top had been ruined and so I had it made into a skirt.” Since hitting her fifties, Maria doesn’t care so much what others think, “I’m not scared to wear odd things. I love it. I know myself well and I’m very happy with my style. At last!’
Find out more about the Charity SuperMkt HERE.