The Gift Economy Offers Free Stuff — No Strings Attached

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Jennifer Crow’s Seattle-area home features the same name-brand appliances, furniture, lighting, and accouterments that you’d see in other homes in the area and around the country. But there’s one critical difference between her stuff and yours: she got much of hers for free.

Crow is part of a global movement that started in the Seattle area, a novel experiment that emphasizes gifting possessions to others — no strings attached.

It’s called Buy Nothing, and the community of hyper-local online groups has grown in seven years from a small project of two Seattle-area friends to a global movement of thousands of independent, volunteer-run organizations. Each local Buy Nothing group is focused on fostering community through the simple act of sharing, with nothing expected in return.

 Every day, Crow logs onto Facebook, navigates to a private Facebook group for her Seattle neighborhood, and scrolls through dozens of postings by local strangers who offer to give away — for free — everything from food to furniture.

Crow got her favorite reclining patio chairs via Buy Nothing, as well as the paintings on her wall. Homes in her neighborhood, meanwhile, feature her old possessions, such as shirts, pants, and shoes.

Most but not all are housed on Facebook, and many are run by women. Local Buy Nothing groups can be found in every major American city and its suburbs — and even in neighborhoods in Pakistan and Zimbabwe.

“It’s the gift economy,” said Crow, who joined a Buy Nothing group for the Seattle neighborhood of Queen Anne five years ago as the national network was starting to grow. For the last two years, she’s co-administered the group, which focuses on the northern section of Queen Anne, northwest of downtown.

“The goals are to recycle, meet your neighbors, and give from your own abundance with no expectation of money in return,” said Crow, 47.

Each Buy Nothing has at least one volunteer administrator like Crow, who makes sure the groups — which vary in membership from a few dozen to thousands of members — follow some basic rules.

“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,” reads the group’s website, which offers free, open-source documents to allow anyone, anywhere to start and promote new Buy Nothings.

Each community is free to join and limited to adults, though they are popular with parents seeking clothes and toys for their children.

“If you’re a mom and need a stroller and post about it,” said Crow, “you might get a reply on Facebook by someone who has an old one they just have lying around. You then arrange to get the item,.”

Buy Nothing is tapping into a global movement of like-minded individuals and organizations that are emphasizing more conscientiousness when it comes to shopping.

"Fast fashion has filled our closets and our landfills with too many useless items that were made polluting our beautiful earth and exploiting people," sustainability expert Marina Spadafora told CircleAround.

Spadafora is the Italy country coordinator for Fashion Revolution, a global nonprofit that advocates for more sustainability in fashion, which as an industry is one of the planet's biggest environmental offenders.

"As we all know, this is no longer a viable model," she added. "I personally have refrained from shopping in general unless I come across a garment that has a good story to tell."

Giving to Others, as Well as Receiving for Yourself

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Buy Nothing “pickups,” as they’re called, would often happen in person, and sometimes lead to coffee meetups, playdates for kids, and new friendships for parents and those without kids alike.

“When I first started,” said Crow, “my mission was to get free stuff, and try to declutter my home. Then I came to love the community aspect and the idea of mission of giving to others. Since March, we also have changed how we do things.”

Through the spring, the Queen Anne North Buy Nothing was limited to essential items. Residents gave away face masks, desks for those working from home, and pantry items. Yeast and sourdough starters, especially, were popular, with the growth of baking hobbyists. 

New precautions were also put into place. Face-to-face pickups and dropoffs were no longer. Instead, people would leave items on porches and were encouraged to clean each with sanitizing wipes.

“Now, we’re open to all regular giveaways again,” said Crow.

In a time when Americans are less connected than before, especially in tightly-packed cities, Buy Nothing is popular as a means of getting to know the people who live around you.

That’s the best part about it for Tracy Bashungwa, who co-administers the Buy Nothing in the Upper Eastside neighborhood of Olympia, Wash.

“I had lived in the city since 2006, but I had gotten divorced and barely knew anybody when I joined the Buy Nothing six years ago,” said Bashungwa, 47. With two young children at the time who were 2 and 3, she used Buy Nothing to make connections with parents and new friends in her community as she did pickups and giveaways.

“The first thing I gifted was baby clothes,” she said. “It just went from there. I went from knowing nobody in my neighborhood to meeting over a 100 people in a year. New friends I went to get coffee with, or met at the bakery. People I still keep in touch with now.”

The most recent gift she gave away was an abacus, the colorful ancient counting tool that her kids onced used to do fun math lessons. Bashungwa left it on her porch before going to bed. A neighbor she had spoken to via the Facebook group picked it up overnight. As someone with chronic fatigue, her local community has also helped her do housework over the years, such as mowing the lawn and trimming overgrown bushes.

“Even before the pandemic, we had lost that neighborly connection in modern life,” said Bashungwa. “Most people who live next to each other don’t know each other. So it’s really a big deal, getting to help people — someone’s trash is someone else’s treasure — helping save the planet, and getting to make your community feel more like a home.”

Tags: Giving

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Written By

JD Turner

JD Turner is a writer and puppy parent based in Los Angeles. See Full Bio

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