Will the Pandemic Bring Back Bartering?

Public Domain. Keystone/Corbis

As the global economy wildly fluctuates and suddenly out-of-work people struggle to pay the bills, can old-fashioned bartering make a comeback?

It sounds like a joke at first: trading a couple rolls of toilet paper for a gallon of milk. But for the millions of Americans who are unexpectedly out of work and desperately waiting to receive unemployment benefits or government assistance, getting food for themselves and their family is no laughing matter.

Restaurants, retail, travel, and the transportation industry are all precariously hanging in the balance as we do our best to obey stay-at-home orders nationwide. Without a steady paycheck, many people have turned to online forums, like Facebook or Nextdoor, to see if their friends or neighbors are up for a swap.

Scrolling through a Facebook group for college students in New Orleans, which is mostly dedicated to housing and apartment sublets, I saw multiple people posting or requesting trades. One woman had a famous musician's drumstick, but was open to trading it for plants or a piece of artwork. And while scanning through Austin's Craigslist, I saw one man asking to trade his one-gallon of antibacterial hand soap for a "large package" of toilet paper.

It's not just hyper-local transactions, either. Bloomberg reports that the International Reciprocal Trade Association (IRTA), the industry leader and advocate for the barter exchange, has had 20 percent to 35 percent increase in member sign-ups this March.

“These are challenging times for us," Ron Whitney, president and CEO of IRTA, said. "But it also represents an opportunity for us." IRTA estimates about $12 billion to $14 billion barter trades happen every year, a number that is sure to increase in 2020. Besides IRTA, smaller barter exchanges like BizX in Washington state and Green Apple Barter in Pennsylvania exist as well.

Roger Becker, the owner of a home remodeling company, recently signed up for BizX. He told Bloomberg, “A couple of months ago, I never would have thought of it. It’s going to be a game changer, because we are all starting to get pretty fearful about people tightening up their pocketbooks.” Though you may not be dealing with the Federal Reserve, there is still plenty of oversight with these exchanges. Currently, all barter sales are taxable in the United States.

overhead shot of morel mushrooms in basket

© Lauren Utvich

On the local front, a few of my friends are also having success with bartering. One friend, Maggie*, has recently lost her job at a restaurant in town, due to the coronavirus shuttering dine-in places. The service industry was hit especially hard in New Orleans, as its tourist and hospitality industry is considered the city's largest employer.

Her landlord, a long-time transplant who lives and works nearby, has offered to lower her monthly rate by 30 percent in exchange for working a couple days at his record-printing business. "I appreciate that my landlord was willing to let us work in exchange for part of the rent — because I know a lot of other landlords are [expletive] and not doing that. He pays a mortgage," she explained. "In the coming months, I hope we can have a moratorium on payments so that he can get relief and continue to help us out."

In Marietta, Georgia, Clifton Lawley is putting his part-time foraging hobby to good use. He's been posting pictures of his freshly harvested morels (pictured above) on Instagram, asking for trade, and has in turn received duck eggs from a librarian friend and spring vegetables from a nearby farm. In return for delivering the highly-coveted mushrooms to a high-end restaurant in Atlanta, he and his lady friend were treated to a delicious multi-course meal. "I always prefer a barter to a buy," Lawley adds. "Any opportunity to opt out of capitalism."

Of course, it's not just food that's being traded these days. Louisiana-based artist Emma Fick has also been hit hard by the coronavirus closures. Spring is normally her high season, with various music and art festivals sprinkled all over the state. With so many potential business opportunities postponed, she's traded some of her artwork for books, jewelry or personal accessories. “I’ve always been a frugal person," Fick notes. "So bartering or trade comes naturally to me." Fick hasn't bartered for food yet, but says she is grateful to have her brother and his backyard chickens and vegetable garden nearby.

With our economy in a precarious state and so many people's health at risk, bartering seems like a sensible and humane way to deal with the current lack of cash in our system. It's a great excuse to meet and bond with fellow neighbors (albeit with appropriate safety and social distancing measures). And hopefully, in the recent future, we'll all be a little bit closer to our community.

*name changed to protect privacy