Something’s been going on amongst my neighbors and friends that I find remarkable. Unfortunately, I don’t know what to call it. I do, however, know what it isn’t.
It isn’t a gifting circle, in which a small group of people pool their money either to crowdfund one of their own or to build a large donation for a charity. This isn’t that.
Nor is it a community exchange or barter group, where individuals or businesses directly exchange of goods and services in a quid pro quo manner. Again, this isn’t that.
So, what is it? It’s called the Buy Nothing Project, and it is changing lives, neighbor to neighbor, in small groups around the world.
The Buy Nothing Project (BNP) began across the Puget Sound from here, on Bainbridge Island, and it has quickly grown into a global phenomenon. It is a completely grass-roots, entirely non-monetary, and totally gift-based organization in which people gather together in small, hyper-local groups: the BNP group in my neighborhood keeps its reach to within three or four miles. Participants can offer up items to the group, free for the taking, or can list specific items they might need, which other members can gift to them.
Think of it as the local church jumble sale, where everyone in the parish donates something that other people in the community might need. The only difference is that in BNP, the price tag on everything reads $0; it’s all absolutely free.
I’ve seen this at work here in my small neighborhood. One friend needed specific items for her son’s Star Wars themed birthday party, and the group came up with all sorts of material for her use. Some folks, hit hard by the economy or with families sundered by divorce, need clothing for growing kids, and the group provides. Bins make the rounds from house to house; you take something out of the bin, you put something of yours into the bin, and off it goes to the next person in line.
This past weekend the whole local group organized a mass free-for-all. One member made available her covered porch and carport and everyone descended with donations. Everything was free. Everyone was civil. Everyone got something out of participating. My wife, who’s been losing weight, donated bags of good condition clothing that no longer fit her; she came back with a single rugby shirt (for me) and was greatly satisfied to know that her clothing was helping someone down the street.
This is not a quid pro quo system. No money ever exchanges hands. Nothing is given with any expectation of return or payment. It’s an ingenious outgrowth of social media, and it’s taken off like wildfire. Barely two years after its inception, the Buy Nothing Project boasts 80,000 members in 9 nations with 415 groups and 500 volunteers. No one makes a dime off the activity.
But the success of the Buy Nothing Project points to something else: the economic struggle inherent in today’s middle class.
We’ve had donation venues for decades. Goodwill, Salvation Army, Value Village, and the like have been the benefactors of middle class altruism since their inception, but as it has been squeezed by flat wages, un- and under-employment, and rising costs of…well…everything, the middle class has gotten creative.
The Buy Nothing Project has tapped into the desire to make a difference and help others directly, rather than depend on budget-stripped social programs and de-funded safety nets. BNP creates bonds between strangers, and supports those among us in need. It is strengthening communities–in some cases, building communities–across the socially bleak suburban landscape. It is also effecting a subtle change in materialistic views, shifting people’s thinking away from the “disposable” mentality where everything has a finite usefulness and then gets tossed, and toward the mindset where every object can have an extended life beyond our ownership.
Some might argue that the BNP is stealing resources from the truly needy, but keep in mind that, as with last weekend’s free swap meet, everything that didn’t find a home went onward to a charity.
For my non-monetized opinion, it’s a win-win, building social strengths, helping neighbors directly, and funneling donations onward to the needy, all without money or barter, all through the goodness of the middle-class heart.