Buy Nothing: The Economy of Local Gift Giving
Raise your hand if you have a pile of things that you absolutely intend to take for donation or sell online…but you just haven’t gotten around to it yet. Baby items, puzzles you never opened, clothes that don’t quite fit…all in perfectly good condition, and you hate to toss them in the trash only to be sent to a landfill, but there’s simply limited room in an apartment. What is one to do?
Enter the Buy Nothing Project.
About the Buy Nothing Project
The Buy Nothing Project was formed by two friends in the Pacific Northwest once they realized the far-reaching effects that plastic had on the environment around them. The project was initially started “in an effort to stave off pervasive plastics in every ecosystem on Earth by encouraging each of us to Buy Less and share more,” but it has grown into much more since its formation in 2013.
The Buy Nothing Project is now a worldwide movement, with 4.27 million members and groups spanning 44 countries. At its core, the movement is a hyperlocal network of groups where members are encouraged to “give and receive, share, lend, and express gratitude through a…gift economy” to reduce waste, but also support their local community members.
What it’s not? Another Craigslist or typical Facebook buy, sell, trade group. Instead, members are encouraged to gift freely, without the expectation of compensation. In fact, when posting a listing, groups prohibit listing a monetary value at all, as the idea is that all gifts have inherent value and no one gift is worth more than another. Another thing that differentiates Buy Nothing is that members are encouraged to lend items, or provide gifts of self such as time or services — this can mean anything from helping polish a resume to offering a ride to the polling stations on voting day.
Lou Renero, the moderator of one of the local Jersey City groups, was initially drawn to the Buy Nothing groups because she was always putting items outside her house for others to take or bringing things to the Salvation Army, but there was a lot that they would not take. She said, “You can’t give them packing boxes, or ripe bananas that you’re not going to eat that day…so things [are now] actually getting used…and the sense of community [is] amazing.”
Buy Nothing in Jersey City
Jersey City is home to four thriving Buy Nothing groups, covering the following neighborhoods:
- Jersey City: Downtown
- Jersey City: Journal Square / Bergen Square / McGinley Square
- Jersey City: The Heights
- Jersey City: West Side / Greenville (West)
There is a fifth group, also focused on the Downtown area, but the group has reached capacity and is no longer accepting new members at this time. This ties into the hyper-local Buy Nothing philosophy to “give where you live” in a big way.
Give Where You Live
Since the project is intended to be hyper-local, groups are intentionally kept small (the first Downtown group was capped at around 1,200 members), and within strict boundaries of a neighborhood. You can only join one group at a time and need to provide your address cross-streets when signing up. This allows the group moderators to confirm your location is within your desired group’s radius, to abide by the BN project’s mission to “give where you live” — and no sneaking! Moderators I spoke to advised that there are typically master moderator chats for each region, and they compare notes to keep folks from joining multiple groups against the spirit of Buy Nothing.
However, you don’t need to have a permanent location in order to join. Moderators are cognizant that there are people within the community who might not currently have a permanent home address but do have internet access, and they are welcome to join a group as well. In these situations, moderators will ask for a general location in order to approve the request to join, and members can then communicate a current location within the neighborhood for any item pickups or drop-offs.
How Buy Nothing Works
Once you’ve joined your home group, you gain access to a whole world of gifting within your neighborhood. The groups operate on Facebook and are very active, with members posting gifted items throughout the day, in addition to frequent curb alerts, where people share the location of items found up for grabs on the sidewalk, or gratitude posts, where people are able to give thanks for a gifted item that they received.
People gifting their items can use any criteria to choose the recipient. Contrary to the way most online transactions work, it isn’t necessarily first-come, first-serve. In fact, it’s encouraged to let items “simmer” before selecting a recipient, recognizing that some people may not have internet access throughout the day to claim items as they’re posted. Gifters can use any method they’d like to decide who receives the gift, and some even get creative, asking potential recipients to answer a funny question or share a memory as a way to throw their hat in the proverbial ring. Once selected for an item, members then use Facebook Messenger to coordinate pickup or drop-off.
Members can also post an In Search Of (ISO) listing, asking for an item that they would like to receive or borrow from the group. Moderator Andrea García recalls wanting to try out a milk frother before deciding whether to buy one of her own. No one was giving away a frother at the time, but “someone reached out and said hey, do you want to borrow mine?” Andrea ended up using the frother for a month before returning it to the gifter.
During the early days of the pandemic, groups also saw a surge in the number of new members joining. In a time where many big box store shelves were barren, it was a testament to the power of the community to be able to share resources and take care of neighbors during a time like no other. “We had people sharing toilet paper…we have some people that will provide a meal. That’s all important, particularly when people were either not able to work, or weren’t getting unemployment. Just that little bit, I think, sustained a lot of people in our community,” said Pat Wagner, moderator of another local group.
Social Justice & the Buy Nothing Project
The group’s moderators also go through extensive training before stepping up to assist with their local groups to ensure that they actively work to uphold an anti-racist and anti-oppression culture.
Lou shared that her experience with the training was eye-opening. She said, “When you’re just a user, you don’t realize the depth or the importance of what the ladies who started the group really put together. Everything from fighting racism, inequality, discrimination, to bringing down our carbon footprint — it’s all in there.” That, she feels, is why the hyperlocal borders of the groups are so important, because “we only offer what we have, we give from our own abundance, and we’re not looking at haves and have-nots. We enrich each other through that.”
Although there is a strong environmental and social component to the Buy Nothing project, it can also simply be thrilling to be able to find an item that you really needed, or perhaps didn’t even know you wanted!
Pat shared that having an Irish background, one of her favorite “scores” from the group was a beautiful Belleek china clock and matching vase. “I was so thrilled that she selected me for that,” she said. She also recalls being able to find a leather jacket for her husband, a hard-to-shop-for gentleman, that was practically brand new.
During quarantine, Lou had asked the community for assistance in sourcing ingredients to help her daughter make “fairy soup.” The response was amazing and she made 15 stops throughout her neighborhood that day picking up ingredients. “Everybody was delighted to help make fairy potions,” she shared, and it kept her daughter entertained for hours.
As a huge coffee aficionado, Andrea said that the gifts that she has been most excited about are the coffee-making items. “I got a coffee grinder, a cold brew pitcher…coffee canisters where I’m storing my coffee, so all of my coffee-related items pretty much come from the group.” In a full-circle moment, she also shared that her trusty tote bag, which she uses when picking up items around town, was itself a gift from a Buy Nothing group years ago!
Buy Nothing groups encourage us to be more responsible, considerate, and caring citizens, both towards our immediate neighbors as well as our planet as a whole. The next time you are about to send an item to the landfill, pause and think — could someone in my neighborhood put this to good use? You might be surprised to see who would be interested! To read more about sustainable lifestyle practices read our article about sustainable fashion here.