The 'Buy Nothing Project' Began as a Social Experiment. Now It's a Global Movement.

Over 6,000 groups worldwide exchange goods and services without using money.

neighbors exchange bread
Neighbors exchange a fresh loaf of bread.

Getty Images/Onfokus

If you dream of a world where neighbors share with each other and you don't have to spend money at a store every time you need something, then your local Buy Nothing Group might be the perfect fit. This clever idea began in July 2013, when two friends, Rebecca Rockefeller and Liesl Clark, from Bainbridge Island, Washington, wanted to try something new. They liked the idea of developing a hyper-local gift economy as a way to challenge the consumerist mindset and reconnect neighbors. The Buy Nothing Project has grown rapidly since then, with 6,000 groups now in 44 countries. 

The basic idea is that anyone can ask for what they need and anyone can give it. The official rules are simple: "Post anything you’d like to give away, lend, or share amongst neighbors. Ask for anything you’d like to receive for free or borrow. Keep it legal. No hate speech. No buying or selling, no trades or bartering, we’re strictly a gift economy." 

There are no strings attached, all participants have equal standing, gifts and requests can be large or small, items or services (though they must be legal). Lending and borrowing is allowed, too. Things must be given freely, with no expectation of a gift in return (no bartering or trading). There are no rules about how to post, though people are encouraged to share personal stories about themselves, their gifts and requests, as this helps to build community.

As Clark and Rockefeller explained to Treehugger in an email conversation, "For giving to be possible, we need people who will receive, therefore both parts of the giving/receiving equation are important. You really can’t have one without the other." Asking for something is not seen as a begging and giving is not an act of charity; this is about accessing pre-existing abundance within the community and redistributing it in ways that benefit everyone.

That abundance comes in many forms. Treehugger asked what some of the more unusual things are that have been given and received, and the two women shared the following descriptions:

"We’ve seen springs from toilet paper roll holders given, to replace a missing one. We’ve seen wigs given to help a neighbor through her chemotherapy. We’ve seen dead rats given to the owner of a dog being trained to hunt vermin. We’ve seen the gift of an old wedding ring (from a divorced woman) to a young woman with severe autism who simply wanted to feel loved. We’ve seen the gift of the use of a metal detector to find a lost wedding ring in the garden (ring found!) And the gift of someone’s company for an elderly person who lives alone. So many gifts have been unique and inspirational."

When asked why the Buy Nothing Project has been met with such enthusiasm, the founders suggest it's because of an inherent human desire to feel connected with others around us. 

"For generations, humans survived through trading and sharing goods and resources amongst ourselves and neighboring communities. But over time, through commerce, indeed through buying things, we’ve become disconnected, fending for ourselves through our buying power, each of us stocking up on all the same stuff, kids with the same toys, each home outfitted with the same tools, supplies, etc. 

"When we asked ourselves the question, 'Could we conserve resources by asking our own community to share more, rather than buying new?' and we started our first Buy Nothing group, we got our answer within a few hours. People were clamoring to join the group, to share their bounty with each other and stave off going to the store. The excitement was infectious, and within days the next Buy Nothing gift economy was started."

The local Buy Nothing groups have operated on Facebook up until now, but that's about to change. A new Buy Nothing App will launch its beta version in May 2021 to select communities in the U.S., Canada, and Australia, and eventually to all participants worldwide. The hope is to give access to users who are not on Facebook and to give Buy Nothing communities their own official home. 

The founders say, "The new platform will give us the freedom to not only improve the user experience with amazing (and fun!) new features, but also to find new, innovative solutions to the core issues we’re tackling: sustainability, waste management, circular economics, equity, income disparity, accessibility, and community-building." Anyone who wants to be part of the beta launch can sign up here.

I was disappointed to see that my own community does not have a Buy Nothing Group; maybe I'll have to start it myself. This is truly a great way to take a stand against overconsumption, to declutter our homes, to divert items from landfill and prolong their lifespan, and to keep valuable resources in the ground. The more sharing and reusing we can do, the better off we'll all be, from the perspective of both climate and human wellbeing.