M&S teams up with Oxfam to help families afford school uniforms - but is the move as altruistic as it seems?

Marks and Spencer has collaborated with charity Oxfam since 2008, but is its latest move more self-serving than it seems? 

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M&S has launched a new collaboration with Oxfam and eBay to support families buying school uniforms for the new year, in a bid to alleviate some pressure as more and more Britons wrestle with the cost of living crisis. 

More than 35 million items of clothing were donated to Marks and Spencer and Oxfam stores between 2008 and 2021, with an estimated value of £23 million for the charity. This new partnership is specifically focused on school uniforms, which have become a major financial burden for some parents.

In the UK's current economic climate, any unexpected expense can have a damaging impact on families, but long-expected outlays can also cause financial pain. Parents across the country will be bracing for the day that they do their back to school shop, as costs of uniforms, stationary, and other essentials increase through inflation while wages fail to keep up. 

The M&S, eBay and Oxfam collaboration aims to be a saving grace for many families - although its true impact may be difficult to accurately measure.

Marks & Spencer has teamed up with eBay and Oxfam (AFP via Getty Images)Marks & Spencer has teamed up with eBay and Oxfam (AFP via Getty Images)
Marks & Spencer has teamed up with eBay and Oxfam (AFP via Getty Images)

How does the M&S 'back to school' Oxfam partnership work?

Families are being offered money off children’s clothes in Marks & Spencer if they donate school uniform hand-me-downs, as part of a push designed to help parents struggling to afford them amid the cost of living crisis.

For donations that include at least one item of undamaged M&S label clothing, Oxfam will provide a £5 M&S voucher that can be claimed when spending more than £35 or more on clothing, home and beauty products.

This year, M&S has expanded the partnership, working with eBay and Oxfam to help families who are struggling to afford school uniforms ahead of the new academic year this September.

The scheme will see M&S collect second-hand school uniform donations to be sold through Oxfam’s high street stores and eBay’s online back to school shop. Those donating clothing will get a voucher through the M&S Sparks loyalty card for 20% off on selected kids’ clothing.

The campaign has been celebrated as an effort in environmentalism as well as a social enterprise to support poorer families. A survey by the Children’s Society found that the average annual cost of a full school uniform for a secondary school child ran to £422, which is unaffordable for many during the cost of living crisis.

Currently on the M&S website, a uniform for a boy aged 11-12 consisting of a two-pack of trousers, five-pack of shirts, two-pack of shorts, and school shoes would cost £63.40. A basic P.E. kit consisting of trainers, a two-pack of shorts, and two-pack of cotton t-shirts, would cost a further £39.60, bringing the total spend to £103.

Factoring in replacement shoes due to wear and tear over the school year, a school bag, coat, branded jumper or blazer, and tie - which most high schools require - this figure can easily double in a school year. 

The average annual cost of school uniform for a high school student in the UK is £422 (Monkey Business - Adobe Stock)The average annual cost of school uniform for a high school student in the UK is £422 (Monkey Business - Adobe Stock)
The average annual cost of school uniform for a high school student in the UK is £422 (Monkey Business - Adobe Stock)

Will the M&S Oxfam collaboration actually help British families?

The collaboration with a charity sounds great on the surface, but M&S may not be as altruistic as the scheme appears.

Essentially, M&S is acting as a middleman where none is needed - is it really any easier to drop off clothing at an M&S store than at an Oxfam shop? If those donating clothes went directly to Oxfam they would be able to donate other items along with their M&S branded products, so the charity may actually miss out on extra donations.

Additionally, whilst the £5 M&S voucher may benefit Oxfam to some extent, it’s unlikely to hit M&S very hard. The voucher comes with a host of terms of conditions and can only be used on purchases of at least £35, and can only be used within the calendar month specified on the voucher. 

A cynical view of the scheme would suggest that it is an effort to greenwash the high street giant and help to raise it in the eyes of consumers who are increasingly concerned with the ethicality of corporations. 

Ultimately, any scheme that helps reduce clothing waste is a good thing for the planet - the retail sector accounts for roughly 25% of global emissions - and for society more generally. 

The retailer targets middle class shoppers, probably not the demographic most concerned by the cost of school uniforms, but encouraging those shoppers to donate will undeniably benefit those who are. 

It may feel like M&S, a company that raked in £482 million in profits for the year 2021/22, is giving Oxfam crumbs from its table. The clothes that the chain passes on to Oxfam didn’t cost the retailer anything in the first place and yet the store will receive the kudos for supporting a popular charity.

Perhaps a more optimistic view would be to acknowledge that, regardless of the benefit that M&S may gain from the scheme, the company has over the years supported Oxfam to the tune of tens of millions of pounds. 

Any family who can save several hundred pounds through uniform donations that came via M&S will feel the benefit. And, in the words of another mainstay British company, every little helps.