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Buy Nothing, Get Everything

Stephanie Browne, right, enjoys a neighborly Buy Nothing transaction with Kristen Bobo.

Photo: Joshua Huston


A simple Washington beach walk kicked off a social movement. 

Five years ago for a homeschooling project, Liesl Clark was rambling with her children, her friend Rebecca Rockefeller and Rebecca’s kids along a Bainbridge Island shore. They discovered massive amounts of plastic. 

“It was unsettling,” Clark says. As they began to collect and inventory the plastic, the families noticed where the plastic was coming from. It wasn’t just tossed-off pop-bottle lids. “It was coming from our homes, from our excess and overconsumption,” she says. “There was an overabundance of stuff.”

Clark and Rockefeller wanted to encourage a different pattern of behavior, one modeled on looking to your neighbor for something you need before searching the aisles of the local big-box store. 

 So in July of 2013, Clark and Rockefeller started “Buy Nothing Bainbridge,” a Facebook group. They invited 60 friends on the island to give away unused items, or save money by acquiring items for free. Giving and receiving, receiving and giving.

One example: a Buy Nothing member requested a spring that goes inside a toilet-paper-tube holder. The member’s spring had gone missing. Another member conveniently had a spring, and the tube was spared from the waste stream. Why buy when you can borrow or receive?

Via word of mouth, more people heard about Buy Nothing and wanted to start their own hyperlocal groups. Today, the Buy Nothing Project model is being used by more than 1,300 groups in 18 nations — including India, Japan, Luxembourg and South Africa — with more than 280,000 members and 1,700 volunteers.

What is Buy Nothing?

The gift economy is more than a way to get or get rid of stuff.  Instead, in the founders’ own words, it is “about setting the scarcity model of our cash economy aside in favor of creatively and collaboratively sharing the abundance around us.”

Jeanie Johnson is a Newcastle mom and Buy Nothing member. She says Buy Nothing reminds her of the “cup of sugar” approach so popular in our grandparents’ day — asking a neighbor for a cup, and giving in return. “It’s coming back, and it’s great,” she says of the model.  

Facebook and other social media are promoting more in-person, meaningful interactions with neighbors. “There’s that dopamine hit from giving something and meeting with someone,” Clark says. It’s a boost that you don’t get when dropping off a bag at Goodwill. 

Groups are centered on a geographic area, and run by one or two volunteer administrators. Members post Facebook group-status updates, often with pictures of the items. Items are given, requested or lent. The giver selects the recipient, and they may choose that individual based on any criteria. An egg-gifter might ask what the recipients plan to bake, or request that responses be in haiku form. 

When picking up items, sometimes there’s direct contact, and sometimes not. “Porch pickups are the most common, unless it’s something refrigerated or super valuable,” says Chelsea Alvarez, a Seattle mom to two girls, ages 4 and 6, and an active member of Buy Nothing Rainier Valley. Because Johnson rents in a more difficult-to-reach area, she often meets gifters and giftees in a local grocery store parking lot. 

Once a group grows too big, it splits into smaller groups, just to keep regions ultra-local. 

Family gifting

Kids benefit from seeing the exchange, Clark says. “It also frees up money within the community to buy locally,” she says, such as produce from farmers markets and experiences such as concert tickets. 

It’s just practical as well. “No family should have to buy anything plastic, because it lasts forever,” she says. Why buy more baby toddler toys or togs, when your neighbors’ kids have outgrown theirs, and are happy to see them go to the next home?

Just recently, Clark’s children, ages 10 and 12, were ready to part with four boxes of Littlest Pet Shop items, which they had mostly obtained through the Buy Nothing group. Now, the toys are going to their new home at a local school. 

Recently, Alvarez has given away a chicken coop, along with clothing, books, kitchen items and plants. Ask her what she’s picked up, and it’s a delightful assortment of everyday goodies: “a chess table, delicata squash, lots of wool socks, books my children had coincidentally very recently asked for, saltwater sandals, a ton of yarn, bamboo poles, a hand-knit sweater, a log-cabin quilt... ”

“I’m forgetting a lot, I’m sure,” Alvarez adds. 

In particular, parents new to Seattle might benefit from joining Buy Nothing, says Stephanie Browne, an East Renton Highlands mom to four kids and administrator for her local Buy Nothing. “It’s a fantastic way to connect inside your community,” she says. 

Some families new to the Renton group are Buy Nothing expats from other cities; joining Buy Nothing was one of the first things they did after moving to Washington. “We have that opportunity to share all about the local stuff,” Browne says. 

Community and friendship

Buy Nothing also can lead to friendships. Alvarez describes one such encounter with a gifter: “She was coming back from walking her dog when I was packing the stack of science books she had gifted us into my bike’s panniers. I complimented her coat, and we talked about mutual friends, and her extremely vigorous passiflora vine.” Soon afterward, they became Facebook friends. 

One of Browne’s newer friends lives around the corner — but she met her through Buy Nothing. A woman was looking for pirate-themed items for her older son’s birthday party, and Browne invited her over to sort through her treasure trove of pirate-themed objects. Over the past couple of years, they’ve grown closer and shared more as their children have grown. 

Photo: Joshua Huston

Great booty is up for grabs through Buy Nothing groups.

“Buy Nothing has been great for us for so many reasons,” Alvarez says. “It’s opened up conversations with my kids about generosity, sharing and economics. It’s deepened my understanding of the neighborhood geography. It’s given me a point of contact with so many neighbors that I might not have known otherwise. And perhaps most importantly, it’s given me a sense of the good-heartedness of my neighborhood.” 

Browne grew up playing outside and not returning home until dinnertime. But contemporary times often keep us in individual bubbles of career, home time and playdates. 

“Buy Nothing helps you connect to who your neighbors are,” she says. “The group is allowing us to be out there, connecting and building relationships.”

Find your Buy Nothing group.

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