These days, many people are in a state of climate despair. We know global warming could destroy society as we know it. Yet we know we’re contributing to the problem at the same time. Every purchase we make at a store adds to our personal carbon footprint.
But what if there were a way to get what you need without going to a store? What if, when your child outgrows a favorite pair of school shoes, you could just ask for a new pair and receive them for free? And what if you could give away the old pair to someone whose child could put them to good use?
That’s the idea behind the Buy Nothing Project. It’s a community where people give and receive all kinds of goods without money — and form connections with each other in the process.
What Is the Buy Nothing Project?
The Buy Nothing Project is a gift economy. It’s an alternative to a market economy in which people get what they need by buying and selling.
In a gift economy, when you need something, you just ask for it. And when you have something you don’t need, you give it away. No money ever changes hands.
The Buy Nothing Project started in 2013 on Bainbridge Island, Washington. Two residents, Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller, were distressed about the amount of plastic waste they saw on local beaches. Over time, they realized they were contributing to this problem through their purchases.
Clark and Rockefeller decided to fight waste by promoting reuse. They formed a group with their nearest neighbors to give, share, and lend items to each other instead of constantly buying and discarding new ones.
Within a month, this new hyperlocal gift economy had more than 1,000 members sharing thousands of items. They made gifts of their garden produce, used furniture, and services such as repairs. Over the next decade, this idea spread across the country and the globe.
The Buy Nothing Project got a major boost during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people were out of work, and many more were stuck at home and seeking to declutter. Sharing with neighbors also helped reduce people’s sense of isolation.
Even as the pandemic waned, more people joined buy-nothing groups as a way to cope with rising prices. And a 2020 book by the project’s founders, called “The Buy Nothing, Get Everything Plan,” has helped spread the word even more.
How Does the Buy Nothing Project Work?
The Buy Nothing Project is an association of 7,000 buy-nothing communities across 44 countries worldwide with a total of 5.33 million members. When you join the project, you don’t interact with the entire network, only with your own local group.
That’s intentional. Keeping groups small makes it easier for members to exchange goods and services without driving long distances. The founders express this ideal as “give where you live.”
Within your local buy-nothing group, you can post offers of goods you’d like to give away, share, or lend. You can also offer services, such as tutoring or lawn care. Anyone who’s interested can respond to your posts to request it.
You can also post requests for things you’d like to receive or borrow. In some groups, certain items — such as kids clothes and birthday party decorations — pass from person to person repeatedly, getting used over and over rather than used once and discarded.
Buy Nothing Project Rules
Each local buy-nothing group has its own group admins who set the rules about how members interact. However, there is an overarching Community Commitment and guidelines that apply to all groups. These rules include:
- No Buying or Bartering. All gifts to a Buy Nothing Group are freely given. You can’t ask for cash or anything else in exchange. Members can offer or request anything they want, but they shouldn’t track the number or value of items they’ve given and received.
- Adult Humans Only. Only live human beings at least 18 years old can sign up for a buy-nothing group. Bots, spam, and fraudulent accounts are not allowed.
- Keep It Legal. Obey all local laws. Don’t exchange anything it’s illegal to possess in your area.
- Be Accountable. You agree to participate in the group at your own risk. You are responsible for your own safety in your dealings with others. You are free to edit or change your posts and block messages from anyone you don’t want to deal with.
- Communicate. Be honest and transparent with other members. For instance, if you offer something that’s not in perfect condition, say so. If you request something and then change your mind, let the giver know rather than leave them dangling.
- Be Decent. Treat other members with decency and respect. Hate speech, threats, and harassment are not allowed. Show compassion and try to be forgiving of mistakes.
What Kinds of Things Can You Find on Buy Nothing?
An amazing variety of things show up within buy-nothing communities. Members have used their local groups to exchange food, kids clothes, toys, musical instruments (including pianos), furniture, and appliances.
Buy-nothing members have also found new homes for a wide range of products. They gave away leftover birthday cake, packing supplies, and partially used toothpaste tubes and laundry detergent. Even dryer lint found a new use as a fire starter for a group of campers.
Group members don’t just give stuff away. Sometimes they lend items instead, such as books and yard equipment. One member asked for and received a loan of baby gear when some friends were visiting with their infant.
They also provide “gifts of self,” donating their time and skill to help their neighbors. Members have helped each other hang holiday lights and shovel sidewalks after a snowstorm. One parent recruited several neighbors to play Disney princesses over the phone for her young daughter.
Pros & Cons of the Buy Nothing Project
Joining the Buy Nothing Project can be a fantastic way to save money, share with neighbors, and build community. But there are a few pitfalls you need to watch out for when using the service.
Most buy-nothing users are delighted with the service. They cite a variety of benefits, including:
- It Saves You Money. There’s no better bargain than getting stuff for free. One member in New York City furnished an entire studio with gifts from his local group.
- It Reduces Clutter. Getting junk out of your home is always rewarding. But it’s even more satisfying when you know your unwanted stuff is going to a good home.
- It Reduces Waste. Reusing helps the environment in several ways. Besides keeping stuff out of landfills, it reduces consumption. That saves resources and reduces emissions that contribute to climate change.
- It’s Convenient. It’s easy to exchange goods through a buy-nothing group, even when your schedules don’t coordinate. Simply arrange a time and date for a pickup from your porch or front stoop. This type of contact-free pickup also helped many people feel safer during the pandemic.
- It’s Easier than Selling. Trying to sell unwanted stuff can be a hassle. Hosting a yard sale is a lot of work, and it can be hard to figure out the right price for your goods on Craigslist. When all transactions are cash-free, there’s no need to haggle.
- It Strengthens Your Sense of Community. Many users see their local buy-nothing groups as a way to build community. They enjoy meeting new people and forming stronger bonds with neighbors.
- It’s Rewarding. Giving goods away to someone who needs them is more satisfying than selling them. And giving them to a neighbor feels more personal than just donating them to a charity.
- It’s Simple. Many people like the idea of resisting consumer culture, but they don’t want to give up all their stuff and live a minimalist lifestyle. Sharing and reuse are ways to consume less while still living a life of abundance — a word that shows up repeatedly in the Buy Nothing Project’s list of principles.
Despite the name, the Buy Nothing Project won’t literally allow you to give up shopping and become a freegan. Sometimes, no one in your local group has what you want or wants what you have to give away.
Other drawbacks of the Buy Nothing Project include:
- Limited Area. You can only get stuff from people in your local community. You may not find much if you live in a small town or sparsely populated area. The BuyNothing app lets you share up to 6 miles away, but that’s still too limiting in some rural areas.
- Insularity. The small size of buy-nothing groups cuts you off from people outside your own area. Since neighborhoods often contain only people of the same background and social class, a buy-nothing community can feel a bit like a social bubble.
- Conflicts Over Items. Some items are more in demand than others. If you post something and many people request it, it can be difficult to decide which one should get it. No matter how you choose, you can’t entirely avoid the risk of hurt feelings.
- No-Shows. Occasionally, buy-nothing members don’t show up as scheduled and don’t contact you to explain why. The community rules expressly forbid that, but the rule wouldn’t be necessary if no one ever did it.
- Harassment. Neighbors sometimes assume buy-nothing members making porch pickups are package thieves. Some users — primarily people of color — report people harassing, following, and threatening them with arrest. It helps to mark your gift with the recipient’s name.
How to Participate in the Buy Nothing Project
Until recently, most buy-nothing groups communicated through Facebook and other social media platforms. You can see a list of these groups on the old Buy Nothing website.
To join a Facebook group, send a request to the admins. They may ask you a few questions and require you to agree to the group rules before admitting you. The Buy Nothing Project asks you to join only one group, ideally the one nearest you so you can share locally.
Once you join, you receive notifications about offers and requests through your social media account. You can make your own posts to offer or request goods and services.
More recently, the organization developed an app for group members to connect. You can find versions for iOS and Android at BuyNothingProject.org.
Download the app, sign up, and enter your location to begin sharing within your local community. You can set the size of your community to a radius of 0.5, 1, 2, 3, or 6 miles.
Once you’re enrolled, you receive notifications and post your own through the app. Make a “Give” post to offer an item or service and an “Ask” post to request one. There’s also a “Gratitude” option to thank those who’ve helped you.
How to Start a Buy Nothing Group
If the BuyNothing app shows few or no members in your area, you can build your own buy-nothing community from the ground up in a few simple steps.
- Download the app.
- Register as a Community Builder using the same email address you used to create your account on the app.
- Accept the invitation to join the Community Builder forum, which helps you connect with other Community Builders around the world.
- Let existing members know you’re there with an “Ask” post inviting them to introduce themselves.
- Share links to the app with at least six friends and neighbors, inviting them to join. You can use email, social media, or the Community feature within the app.
- Optionally, you can take the free Buy Nothing Academy online course to learn more about building a strong community.
Once you start sharing goods and services through the Buy Nothing Project, it’s easy to get hooked. If you find yourself wanting more, there are many other ways to share with neighbors.
You can give and receive items through Freecycle, the free section on Craigslist, or free stores and swap shops. You can invite friends to partake in a clothing swap or share garden seeds and plants through seed swaps. And you can exchange books by putting up a Little Free Library on your property.
All of these are ways to save money while living green and feel closer to your neighbors at the same time. It’s a win-win-win for everyone involved.