I first heard of a community gifting group in the home of an acquaintance at a Saturday brunch—she was talking about how much she loved her neighborhood in part because of the online group where people gave their items away freely. I was perplexed and a bit skeptical at the idea (what kind of things are given away?) but also intrigued (could there be something to this?).
It turns out there was. With the revival of the minimalist movement and the rise of the socially conscious consumer, the gift economy has grown exponentially in recent years. One of the most well-known such groups, The Buy Nothing Project, began in 2013 and is now a worldwide social phenomenon with groups in 44 countries and 3 million members.
The wholly volunteer-led effort emphasizes reusing items, reframing consumption, and building connections within a community. Unlike some neighborhood apps or “free and for sale” listings, members of Buy Nothing groups are not allowed to sell, trade, or barter—all is given freely, no strings attached.
“The Buy Nothing Project is about setting the scarcity model of our cash economy aside in favor of creatively and collaboratively sharing the abundance around us,” according to their site.
The groups are currently facilitated on Facebook, where posts and requests to join are moderated by volunteers (a Buy Nothing app is currently in development). How it works is simple: members post about any items they want to give away, share, or lend, and ask for anything they want to have or borrow.
The appeal of buying nothing
When I joined my local Buy Nothing group, the premise started to click. I was struck by the variety and quantity of the gifts (a day never went by without posts), the kindness of the members, and the resourcefulness of the community.
I saw everything from eggs to baby clothes, to a paper shredder, to a bike, and so much more. Little was off limits and it was a judgment-free zone. Birthday party supplies were shared and used from one member to another, and there were traveling boxes of clothing according to size, which moved through a list of interested participants.
Best of all, it fueled my own thoughtful approach to my possessions (along with my outlook on possessions over the pandemic). I began to think more about the life left in my items, purchase fewer single-use possessions, and consider which things I was holding onto just for the sake of it when someone else could put them to use.
When I moved across states, the group became immensely valuable to me. I had clothes that I had trouble parting with because even though they were several years old, some were in impeccable condition. I was delighted when women in the group were eager to take them off my hands and excited to wear them.
Participating in a gift economy benefits your wallet, the environment, and your community. These are some of the biggest benefits I experienced from my local group (which can be extended to involvement in any gifting community):
01. Promoting resourcefulness and reduced consumption
Purchasing second-hand goods is a popular way to conserve environmental resources and reduce your carbon footprint. Acquiring and sharing used items through community gifting takes that sustainability to the next level.
Also, there’s no budget to consider and travel costs are minimal when gifting and receiving in a hyperlocal group. Plus, the gift economy approach indirectly promotes a healthy evaluation of spending habits and the reasons behind our attachments to consumption.
02. Cultivating camaraderie among neighbors
The group I was in had a strong neighborly vibe and people were genuinely friendly and helpful. When I moved, I considered selling my things via ThredUp or donating them, but I felt much more connected to the group. People often posted grateful shout-outs, sometimes with pictures of the item in a new home. There’s a great sense of satisfaction when you see your neighbor enjoying something that was collecting dust in storage or something that you outlived or outgrew. And especially during a time of pandemic isolation, it was nice to see bonds being built online, even while pickups were usually contactless.
03. Reframing my perspective on possessions
Inevitably, seeing how others regarded their things in the personal stories spilled into the way I viewed my own items. What was I willing to acquire second-hand? What did I think was truly worth upgrading by buying new? Being in the group also shone a light on how much I discarded, at times, underestimating the value of an item. There were things posted in the group that I probably would have thrown away myself, but some people expressed interest in (like a rusted frying pan, for example). The gifting group gave all of us an easy, hassle-free outlet to first check with others before tossing an item.
Ready to start?
Take a few minutes to think about different categories of items (clothes, accessories, home goods, furniture, etc). Take out a sheet of paper or start a note on your phone and jot down the answers to these questions: What kinds of items would you prefer to buy new? Which types of things would you be happy to acquire second-hand? Do you have items cluttering up your home that you’d be willing to see if others could use instead? Then, scan through the Buy Nothing list of Facebook groups, join your local one (or start your own!), and begin reaping the rewards of a community gift economy.