Live Free and ‘Buy Nothing’

Live Free and ‘Buy Nothing’
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Many moons ago, my wife bought a pair of rockin’ cowboy boots. The boots were undeniably cool, but they sat in their box for years: untouched, unloved, frequently forgotten. When she finally decided to sell the boots, we were quickly and rudely reminded that selling your old stuff is a tremendous hassle, not to mention kind of a downer. It tends to go like this:

  • Create listing, wordsmith it into a diamond-sharp sales pitch.
  • Research prices by scanning other posts offering boots for sale, realise there are a lot of boots for sale. Boot regret is real.
  • Get an offer! Accept offer.
  • Get ghosted by buyer. Repeat two, three times.
  • Get a real offer! Pack up boots. Schlep boots to UPS.
  • Realise you put in 12 hours of work to make $US20 (A$27).

Not only is selling your old stuff a pain, not to mention totally not worth it on the financial side, the fact that so many platforms exist on which to do it is telling. Simply put, we all have too much stuff, and getting rid of it responsibly can be a lot of work. At the same time, we’re all drowning in debt but we keep buying stuff because that’s the way civilisation is built — it’s a machine designed to take our money and and make us want more things. All the clutter that results has a negative effect on our mental health, especially when the increase in remote and hybrid work has left many of us feeling trapped inside our ever more crowded homes.

If this describes your own relationship with stuff — if you’ve got a garage or storage unit full of things you don’t need anymore, and/or lack the funds to buy the things you do need — there’s a better way.

Instead, Buy Nothing

The Buy Nothing Project (which oddly enough has absolutely no official connection to Buy Nothing Day) launched in 2013, but the “gift economy” has been around forever. What’s changed is the introduction of platforms that make it easy for people to connect. The concept is simple: Using Facebook groups or websites like Freecycle.org (which is divided up into local message boards focused on specific areas or municipalities), people post stuff they want to get rid of. When someone contacts them, they arrange for a handoff. People can also post requests for things they need instead of waiting for something to show up on the message boards.

As noted by Fortune, the gift economy got a huge boost during the pandemic lockdowns when people simultaneously discovered just how much stuff they had and how reluctant they were to go to crowded stores. The Buy Nothing Project added 1.5 million members between March 2020 and January 2021, and Freecycle.org reported that activity on their site increased by 100 per cent during the same period.

What do people give away? Everything. Clothing, kitchenware, food, furniture, leftover renovation materials, baby items, books — literally anything you can think of is being given away for free right now. People also offer and request skills. For example, if you enjoy putting together IKEA furniture (some folks find it very Zen), you could offer to do so for folks in your neighbourhood. All you need to do is join a platform.

There are generally a few basic rules: You can’t offer or request illegal items, you’re not allowed to mock or insult people, and there can never be an expectation of any compensation — this isn’t bartering, it’s giving. For that reason, you’re also generally discouraged from noting that you were going to throw the item away anyway, or calling offers “limited time” or “first-come, first serve.” The idea is that you’re giving something to a neighbour, not catapulting your trash out of your house.

The primary way you engage is through local groups, which usually have a dedicated Facebook Group associated with them. There are also apps for iOS and Android. Once you’re created your profile, you can post Gives (offering an item or a service), Asks (requesting things you need), or Gratitudes (giving thanks for help). You’re encouraged to post on social media about it to grow the community (the more people giving stuff away, the better) but it’s not required. To get the most out of the community, you’ll probably need to join the “hyperlocal” Facebook Group associated with your neighbourhood — or start one, if none exists.

On Freecycle, you can audit local posts without creating an account, but to post items or claim things you have to sign up at the website. You specifically join the board for your neighbourhood or town (or create it if it doesn’t exist). It’s not as slick as the BuyNothing App, but there’s a robust membership.

As you might imagine, the ability to give away everything you have cluttering your attic or crawl space can quickly become intoxicating — it’s like the world’s strangest superpower, and it can go to people’s heads. A partial list of some of the stranger things folks have given away include

  • A jar of pickle juice (“I just really like pickle juice,” explained the claimant, which seems reasonable)
  • Dryer lint, which is useful to start campfires, or as bedding for small pets
  • A half-eaten birthday cake, which, frankly, there should be a dedicated app providing this service, yes?

If you lean into it, Buy Nothing is a lifestyle where nothing goes to waste — or at least only goes to waste when absolutely no one can think of a use for it.

The benefits of buying nothing

The benefits of the gift economy are obvious. One, you get to declutter without the stress and hassle of temporarily transforming into the world’s worst Small Business Owner. You also gain access to a bunch of free stuff you can literally have for the price of walking or driving a few blocks. You’ll save time, stress, and money.

But you’re also doing good for the whole world because you’re reducing waste and limiting overconsumption. Instead of tossing old stuff into the garbage (which is, let’s face it, the easiest thing for most of us to do), you’re making someone else’s life a little better. And when you seek something preowned instead of buying new, you’re not tossing packaging into landfills either — we’ve all received a package from Amazon that placed a tiny product into an enormous box and then filled the empty space with bubbles of plastic.

Just as important are the less-tangible benefits. For one, it’s a social and local activity: You’ll meet people in your neighbourhood, and form a connection with your neighbours. You’ll feel like you’re helping people, and being helped in return — an old-school sense of community. The psychological impact of buying nothing can be profound.

Sure, if everyone went Buy Nothing, the global economy collapses and suddenly we’re all fighting for our lives in some sort of Hunger Game. But at least we’ll have gotten those damn boots out of our closet.

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