Inside The Private Online Communities That Help You ‘Buy Nothing’

Americans tend to be a wasteful bunch. The United States, home to only 4% of the world population, is responsible for 30% of the planet’s total waste.

You’d probably like to contribute to that problem less. Not only would you help the environment, but you’d probably save a ton of money, too. But the county’s waste problem can seem like such a big issue that it’s tough to know where to start.

That’s where your local “Buy Nothing” group on Facebook can help.

The very first Buy Nothing group was founded in 2013 on Bainbridge Island, a 35-minute ferry ride from the heart of Seattle, by Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller. The two women spent a lot of time early in their friendship wandering the beaches with their children, and were stunned by the amount of plastic that washed up along the shoreline every day.

“I don’t mean just a few plastics,” Clark said. “Every square foot of the high tide line was covered with anything from plastic bottle caps and straws, to cigarette lighters, to car bumpers.”

Both Clark and Rockefeller were home schooling their kids at the time and wanted to turn this observation into a larger lesson. They decided to conduct a citizen science project with their children and attempt to solve the mystery of where all these plastics were coming from. They spent a few years documenting, collecting and categorizing the plastic waste.

Out of this investigative work came a troubling realization. “The plastics are coming from us,” Clark said. “They’re not just from people spending time on the beaches or on boats ― they’re coming from our homes, they’re coming from our cars, they’re coming from our workplaces, and they’re washing down with every rain event.”

Rebecca Rockefeller and Liesl Clark, founders of the Buy Nothing Project

Rebecca Rockefeller and Liesl Clark, founders of the Buy Nothing Project

The Plan: Waste Less, Save More And Make A Few Friends Along The Way

Clark and Rockefeller wanted to find a way to contribute less waste ― not just as individuals, but as a community. They decided the answer was to share what they already had. And the key, Rockefeller said, was to do it in a way that would build relationships among neighbors who might otherwise never connect.

“If we look at what we already have in our homes, while we may personally be done with it, there’s probably somebody else who needs it or wants it,” Rockefeller said. “And if I give them mine that I no longer need or want, they don’t have to buy a brand-new one, a factory doesn’t have to produce it and it doesn’t end up in the trash.”

Michelle Wilson, a stay-at-home mom in Culver City, California, said she joined her local Buy Nothing group after her daughter was born. “It’s phenomenal for baby stuff in general, because they grow out of it so quickly,” Wilson said.

The first item she received through her Buy Nothing group was an infant bathtub. She’s also been gifted a jumper, tons of toys and numerous other items that her daughter outgrew within a few months. “Then you just pay it forward,” Wilson said. Once her family is done with an item, she re-posts in the Facebook group looking for someone else who wants it.

Aside from the money savings, Wilson said it’s a great way to meet people in her community. She lives in a very walkable part of the city and spends a lot of time on foot, heading to dinner, the movies and taking her toddler for walks. Now, she can stop to say hello to the neighbors and have a conversation because she knows them from the group. “It’s nice to build that camaraderie,” she said.

And it’s not just practical items that can be found in Buy Nothing groups. An avid Barbie collector, Wilson jumped at the chance to take a set of vintage 1950s Barbie dolls from a neighbor who was getting rid of them.

“It’s a case of ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,’” Wilson said. “I like it better than donating to Goodwill or Salvation Army because somebody else isn’t paying for it and you’re giving it to somebody who actually wants it.”

How Buy Nothing Groups Work

At its most basic level, the Buy Nothing Project is not meant to be dogmatic, according to Rockefeller. However, there are a few rules to maintain the core values.

To participate in a buy nothing group, you can:

  1. Ask for things that you want or need
  2. Offer things that you have to give away
  3. Lend and borrow items
  4. Express your gratitude

As the name implies, you can’t buy or sell anything in these groups. Trading or bartering is also prohibited, as is referring members to a market solution. For example, if someone posts that their child needs a notebook for class, you can’t direct them toward a store where you saw a great deal. “This is a social experiment, and so we are truly trying to not refer people to where they can buy something cheaply,” Clark said.

Members are also encouraged to participate as individuals and not as representatives of a business. “There’s no marketing,” Rockefeller added.

As far as what types of items can be exchanged, just about anything goes (as long as it’s legal).

For instance, food is commonly shared among group members. At one point, Rockefeller said, her family relied on food stamps to get by. However, that wasn’t enough to keep everyone adequately fed. What’s more, the screening process involved in obtaining those benefits made her feel ashamed.

“It made me feel horrible, like I was somehow a criminal because I was in a situation that had a lot of aspects that were completely outside of my control, and I needed help,” she said. “I wanted to offer people a different experience.” In addition to getting what they need, she realized that by sharing with each other, participants start to see each other as equals.

Gifts of self, including talent and time, are also allowed. For example, members could offer to spend time with an elderly neighbor or help someone with their taxes. “There are all sorts of things that we see people offer and request from each other that are not products,” Rockefeller said. “They’re not an item, but they are a connector. They build relationships.”

As of now, Buy Nothing groups only exist on Facebook. The goal of the groups is to remain hyperlocal so that members connect with their immediate community. If a group becomes too large ― usually more than 1,000 members ― it gets split into smaller factions in a process called “sprouting.” Members are only allowed to belong to one group that serves their precise geographic location.

The Dark Side Of The Sharing Economy

Though the project was founded out of purely benevolent intent, it’s not clear whether everyone who participates holds the same values.

Bainbridge residents largely share the same socioeconomic status, culture and lifestyle. It’s literally an island, where people exist in a bit of a bubble. So, when the social experiment expanded from its tiny roots to more than a million members across 30 countries, it’s not too surprising that the original spirit may have gotten muddled along the way.

Jackie Lambert, a freelance digital marketer, recently joined her local Buy Nothing group in Gainesville, Florida, after she and her husband lost their home and most of their possessions in a fire. The loss took a hard toll on their finances, and the Buy Nothing group seemed like a good way to recoup some household essentials at no cost.

Though she is still an active member, Lambert admitted she’s somewhat troubled by the fact that her group was recently sprouted into two new groups: east and west. Gainesville isn’t a particularly affluent city, but the east side of town ―where she lives ― is known for being a low-income area. The plus side, Lambert said, is that it’s also more diverse and left-leaning politically. “It’s a great part of town,” she said.

The west side, on the other hand, is mostly white and affluent. “They split it right down the middle … that’s a dividing line in Gainesville ― literally wealth vs. not having wealth,” Lambert said.

She said she doesn’t believe the split was malicious, “but I found it in poor taste to split it east and west.”

This isn’t the first time a Buy Nothing group has been accused of reinforcing those unspoken dividing lines between the haves and have-nots. Members in Seattle and in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood have also complained that admins divided groups according to racial and class lines.

Breaking Down Barriers

The founders are not oblivious to this problem.

“Unfortunately, the entirety of the United States has been mapped to reflect systemic racism and all sorts of other social injustice,” Rockefeller said. “There is a real value to being able to be connected to the people who live close to you … but unfortunately, that also lines up with redlining boundaries, and all sorts of other things that are less official but just as real ― the architecture of racism.”

That’s why the founders are working to build a new, native platform called SOOP (Share On Our Platform), with the goal of expanding the Buy Nothing movement beyond physical boundaries, as well as dissociating it from some of the problems Facebook has become known for.

“Our desire to build our own platform is also one of the ways that we want to address this truly real and very impactful problem,” Rockefeller said.

So, for now, the Buy Nothing Project exists exclusively on Facebook, but users will have more options in the future. In the meantime, Clark and Rockefeller are making their foundational documents open-source so that people will be able to use them to build a group.

The pair also wrote a book, which they consider a part of their toolkit for people who want to participate in the sharing economy. “The Buy Nothing, Get Everything Plan,” which hits stores in April, outlines a seven-step program that challenges readers to consume less and share more.

Despite the many differences that exist across cultures, Rockefeller said gift economies work everywhere. The reason? Joy is a major component.

“A lot of our environmentalism, especially in the United States, comes from a place of almost self-abnegation,” Rockefeller said. In other words, people think that they need to resist their wants and suffer for the environment. The truth is, that doesn’t have to be the case.

“If we all get together and pool our resources, not only can we get what we need, we can actually have a lot of fun doing it,” she said. “And that is a way better motivator for sustainable change.”

Comments are closed.