During the COVID-19 outbreak response, most Buy Nothing groups have changed their rules to comply with social distancing, including only exchanging essential items like food, toilet paper and masks. However, many groups have exploded with virtual gifts of service and care. We expect that once the crisis averts, the Buy Nothing groups will be rife with items from home clean-outs, but in the meantime, they continue to be extremely relevant and necessary centers for community care and connection.
When I read an article about the Buy Nothing Project — a local gift economy concept executed through a collection of independent Facebook groups across the country — in 2014, I immediately took the simple steps to start a group in Philadelphia.
Within a few months the group branched into dozens of local chapters across the city and suburbs, and grew to thousands of members. Today there are thousands of Buy Nothing groups all over the world, boasting more than one million members and 5,000 highly active volunteers.
The idea was first incepted by friends Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller in 2013 in their small town off the coast of Seattle. The pair met through their local Freecycle group and experimented with a new lending library model. The first iteration of the Buy Nothing Project was as a weekly, in-person meeting on a picnic table in a local park where neighbors brought whatever they had in abundance — mostly produce and homemade foods.
Their new book, The Buy Nothing, Get Everything Plan: Discover the Joy of Spending Less, Sharing More, and Living Generously, maps their journey from concerned and resourceful citizens testing the limits of neighborly kindness, to leaders of a whole new mindset in the evolving sharing economy.
I recently spoke with Liesl Clark to learn more about how the project and the book came about.
Paige Wolf: How did the first group come about and how did it grow so fast?
Liesl Clark: As we grew our regular meet-ups, we realized we could combine all of these elements in a Facebook group for our neighbors. We wouldn’t be rained out of the park, and we’d be able to see each other’s profile images and how many mutual friends we had in common, which enables the crucial element of trust to grow. We’d also be able to share stories with each other, since stories are one of the keys to helping people see the layers of value in items that come from each other instead of straight from a factory. We idealistically believed that we were somehow reducing the amount of waste — and therefore plastics — that could eventually end up in the environment.
The Buy Nothing movement grew so quickly the summer of 2013 that we had over 100 members before we’d even had a chance to post much about our mission! By the end of the summer, we established 11 more Buy Nothing Project communities, and by New Year’s we had launched 79 local gift economies, reaching into five states, each with the same simple mission of encouraging members to share more with those who live immediately nearby.
How do you manage overseeing all these groups?
We help lead several online groups that provide free training, group development, language translation and accessibility of our documents, and communication between the international team of volunteers. We’re also local admins for a Buy Nothing group in our own neighborhood.
In the beginning, we were part of each Buy Nothing Project group around the world so we could answer questions about the mission and rules. Over time — and a few thousand groups later — we realized that even that much presence wasn’t sustainable, and it also led to way too much centering of our voices. We have always wanted the Buy Nothing Project movement to empower everyone to speak for themselves and to participate fully as themselves, building local gift economies that meet local needs and wants.
We’re very excited to say that, over the past year, with a lot of help from other Buy Nothing Project volunteers, we’ve moved to an open-resource model. All of the foundational documents anyone needs to start their own Buy Nothing Project gift economy will soon be freely available on our website. We also have volunteers running free training sessions and helping people to set up their groups. We’ve become an incubator and a gift economy library of sorts, uniting people with the resources they need to bring the Buy Nothing Project to life for their own communities.
We’re proud that the Buy Nothing Project is non-monetized and all-volunteer-run, but that also comes at a cost. Our movement is less diverse than it should be, and those of us who can volunteer experience negative impacts on our livelihood, families, relationships and the ability to pursue other interests. This is another reason we were excited to write a book. We need a sustainable network of gift economies, and the most sustainable thing we can think of is to help everyone cultivate a ‘Buy Nothing, Get Everything’ mindset, to become their own personal, traveling, 24/7, gift economy agents of change.
We’re also working on developing our own social media platform with a purpose, called Share On Our Platform (SOOP) that will facilitate giving, receiving and sharing of all sorts of resources and gifts of self.
How did the book come about?
When we met Neeti Madan of Sterling Literistic, we found a working partner who understood the tenets of the Buy Nothing Project, and helped us see that we could write a book that inspires people to share outside of the project. She encouraged us to write more about our philosophy and the tools we’ve developed over the years to live in a more equitable, circular economy. We want to set everyone up for success, not just in giving, asking and sharing gratitude, but in many other ways that aren’t included in Buy Nothing Project groups — rethinking, reusing, reducing, refusing, for starters.
What can folks learn in the book related to the lessons learned from the Buy Nothing groups?
We wrote this book to pass on lessons we’ve learned ourselves about how to reframe our relationships with our stuff, and how to use what we have to build social capital and, hence, a more generous world.
The book looks at each of our actions — giving, asking, reusing, making, fixing, lending, borrowing and expressing gratitude — and provides some psychological insight into why these actions can bring about a greater good, both for individuals and for communities. We end with the vision, gathered from research conducted at Harvard’s Study of Adult Development, that one of the keys to longevity and happiness is “generativity” — giving of ourselves, mentoring, helping, gift giving.
How does this book go beyond the concept of the groups?
We move well beyond the concept and mission of the Buy Nothing Project groups by offering a toolbox for each individual to share from their bounty, wherever they are. We don’t have to be on Facebook to share when we’re traveling or visiting our parents who are downsizing their possessions, for example. We aim to help people learn how to “pop-up share” wherever we might be — with people we meet on vacation where we pass along kids’ beach toys we don’t want to carry back home, or with co-workers in the lunch room where we’re all in the regular business of sharing excess garden produce.
We delve deeply into looking at our stuff in new ways, including all of the creative ways to prevent it from heading to the landfill, and ways that your unwanted stuff can actually add to your social capital in your community.
We have fun in the book, providing a list of 50 everyday things we don’t buy (think paper towels and garbage bags), and 50 things we regularly share (like padded envelopes and silica gel) to give readers inspiration to get creative. The book, unlike the Buy Nothing Project groups, walks you through a seven-step challenge to Buy Nothing — with some exceptions, of course, like food and (ahem) books, and paying your bills. We’ve tested the ideas around this challenge in a Facebook group that has over 15,000 members and they’re all sharing about their experiences in buying less and living large.
Is there anything you should never try to give/receive in the groups?
The only things you might want to refrain from sharing, in any giving scenario, are things that are literally illegal to give away.
There are so many inspiring Buy Nothing group stories! Could you share a couple of your favorites?
There’s the story of a community that threw a Buy Nothing wedding for a couple that didn’t have the resources [for] a wedding. It was put together in a matter of days, with community members donating their gifts (a wedding dress, a ring, flowers, potluck food), talents (a justice of the peace, a DJ, a wedding photographer) and presence (the whole community showed up to celebrate)! That’s a great example of many individual acts of sharing and giving that added up to a community-wide event that brought everyone together to celebrate a young couple’s union.
Another story we absolutely love is about our friend Kate. She was in hospice with a long-term eating disorder, and there was little to be done for her beyond her own will to live. She reached out to the community, knowing it was her last chance at survival, and asked for the gift of people’s company to play Scrabble with her, or do puzzles — anything to keep her mind from stopping her from eating — as she painstakingly ate her meals that brought her back to life. She needed company to distract her from her own mental illness, and our community stepped up, one person at a time, showing up to sit with her [and] play with her, as she re-fed herself to a healthy recovery, gaining one pound at a time. It was an incredibly inspirational time for all of us to watch her resilient spirit soar as she wrote in the Buy Nothing group about how the community “literally saved my life.”
The Buy Nothing, Get Everything Plan: Discover the Joy of Spending Less, Sharing More, and Living Generously will be released April 14, 2020 and is available for preorder on Amazon.