The other day I was passing by a charity shop when I overheard two women moaning that there were so many charity shops on the high street – this even as they were avidly looking in the window of one!

The rise of the charity shop is a great example of how easy it is for us to see only what we’re used to seeing. When we do this we fail to understand why and how something works and what we might learn and apply elsewhere.

In the UK the charity shop was really a World War II innovation. Though there had been isolated examples before it was only when the Red Cross opened hundreds of them that they became a widespread phenomenon. These were followed by the first Oxfam shop in 1948.

Joe Mitty OBE was really the grandfather of charity shops. Under his social entrepreneurial guidance Oxfam shops grew and grew til today there are 750 in the UK and 1200 worldwide. As it says on the Oxfam website “Joe was a true entrepreneur, with a tireless energy for making money – not for himself or any shareholders, but to help those living in poverty around the world.”

In the last 5 years there has been a 30% increase in the total number of charity shops in the UK. Maybe that’s not too surprising in a recession. Whatever the explanation, in any other sector this would be hailed as a significant growth market.

Some interesting recent research findings from the think-tank Demos give us a clearer picture of the role charity shops really play. Obviously they fill shop sites that would otherwise be empty. However, far from blighting an area, they’re responsible for massive footfall on the high street which actually benefits other retailers.

I’ve heard the odd moan about them getting special treatment from the council. The facts are rather different. They do indeed get mandatory 80% relief on business rates on their premises, but this is funded by central government not by local ratepayers. So this is Westminster investing in a charitable initiative it considers effective and cost-efficient.

We know that charity shops provide a service to customers but that’s not all. They often provide hidden benefits too – opportunities for unemployed people to get work experience plus social benefits in the form of contact for volunteers and customers. And there are a lot of customers – six out of ten Britons have bought something in a charity shop in the last year.

According to the current estimates they have a huge volunteer work force numbering roughly 213,000. That’s a lot of people. They also actually employ more than 17,000 people. So this is not just a few little old ladies taking it in turns to sell you a second hand cup and saucer. I think you’d see any business sector which engages nearly a quarter of a million people as pretty significant. And any business employing 17,000 people would be deemed a very substantial business.

What about revenue? It is estimated that something like £300 million annually is raised by charity shops. Unlike the US there aren’t any charity hyperstores in the UK so this is all coming from small outlets. And do you know how many there are? Over 10,000 across the UK. You might say, well, aggregate any number and it’ll sound more impressive, but just remember that the biggest charity retailer is The British Heart Foundation – and it has more outlets than WH Smith!

And as if all this wasn’t enough charity shops have a huge environmental impact. All the goods they process would otherwise be kept in people’s attics or thrown in landfill sites. So there is another very significant hidden benefit here. With all this stuff being recycled and reused you can even calculate the potential resulting CO2 emissions reduction. The total comes in at an approximate 3.7 million units.

We’re used to thinking that war is a spur to technological innovation. Here though is an example of war and dire need spurring innovative social entrepreneurialism that post-1945 just kept growing and only flourishes more when times get tough.

When we look at charity shops like this they look rather different. We have a more systemic understanding of their place and contribution to society. Being able to see this bigger picture helps us recognise diverse consequences and hidden benefits.

If this is true in the charity sector, I wonder where else it might apply. Are there equivalents or hidden benefits in your own organisation or sector? What might you discover that nobody has really noticed? What new thinking might then be possible?

In short, what might you find if you were to look with a fresh eye?