You could argue the project exemplifies the best of a socialist society — but we won’t get political
Itstarted with an old vacuum.
Less-than-perfect, but otherwise fully functioning, I needed to get rid of it. In the past, I would’ve defaulted to selling it on Craigslist or apps like OfferUp for whatever few dollars it was worth. But having been blessed with a new, state-of-the-art vacuum for free, I was eager to pay it forward by gifting it to someone.
I turned to my Buy Nothing (San Francisco) group on Facebook, an unofficial local chapter of the official Buy Nothing Project. Founded in 2013 by Rebecca Rockefeller and Liesl Clark, the Buy Nothing Project began as an experimental hyper-local gift economy on Bainbridge Island, Washington. It has since become nothing short of a global movement, with thousands of groups in 30 countries.
There are both official groups that adhere to the same principles, and more unofficial ones inspired by the original idea like the one I joined.In no time, multiple people expressed interest. A public school teacher and a mom with a family to support — both equally deserving. I chose the first person in line. After, I had this nagging feeling that I could give away more.
I could easily think of a handful of items that my husband and I were sitting on that had no value to us solely because they were collecting dust in a closet. I could think of another handful we’d reserved for “a rainy day,” but realistically would never use.Giving them away to someone who might need — and, importantly, use — them felt not only liberating but dutiful. So I listed and subsequently gave away an eight-piece comforter set, two pairs of brand new shoes, a record player, an ice cream maker that was missing a replaceable part, a lunch bag, even bubble wrap. One by one, every item found a new home. And, best of all, I found community.
It’s clear others feel the same — Buy Nothing has skyrocketed in popularity and participation. Hundreds of thousands of items that would have sat in basements or gone to the dump are now in better hands.
Neighbors can give freely and ask for what they need. Perhaps most importantly, because the groups transcend class and socioeconomic structures that typically separate people in a cash economy, they facilitate mutual aid and friendships with people who’d otherwise remain strangers.
No request is too little and none too big.
“We’re a one-income family, and we’ve given and received probably thousands of dollars worth of temporary items,” says one of my neighbors Rebecca Slater, an elementary school teacher, who’s been in the Buy Nothing NOPA group for four years. “I was able to decorate our wedding, clothe both of my children, and my pregnant self, get furniture that would only be used temporarily, receive single items without having to buy a whole set, and then redistribute all of these things.”
Getting what you need, or even just what you’d love to have, is also possible without spending a dime or putting yourself at risk for Covid-19 exposure. Today, contactless pickups are the norm in Buy Nothing groups, and members ask for everything from expensive electronics for their kids’ distance learning to treadmills so they can exercise safely at home. No request is too little and none too big. I’ve asked for and received everyday items like ice cube trays, decades-old aloe cuttings, and a teapot to more esoteric things like a Sonicare toothbrush sanitizer/charger.
The added bonus is for the environment: The gift economy rehomes items otherwise destined for landfills while simultaneously preventing additional waste generated by a capitalist society.“It’s taken the ‘borrow a cup of sugar from your neighbor’ concept into the 21st century.”“[Buy Nothing] doesn’t advertise themselves as a zero-waste group, but they align with those values so closely,” adds Natalie Calhoun, an MBA student and a member of the Buy Nothing Richmond District group, who says she’s received exercise equipment and food in the few months she’s been a member. “I so appreciate having the opportunity to keep items out of the landfill and reusing them over and over again.”
Slater’s and Calhoun’s experiences aren’t anomalies. The way people openly share and give away things so readily, you could even argue the Buy Nothing Project exemplifies the best of a socialist society — but we won’t get political.
It’s not uncommon for expensive items to show up on Buy Nothing. You might see anything from iPads and treadmills to barbecue grills and gold jewelry on an average day. My most impressive acquisition to date is the mid-century piano I claimed two weeks ago. It’s something I never imagined owning given that I didn’t play. But I’m now fulfilling my lifelong dream of learning piano, and I’m still pinching myself that a neighbor could be so generous to simply give it away.