An Economy Built on Sharing

Instead of conspicuous consumption, try the conspicuous sharing of “Buy Nothing.”

Online shopping has exploded during the pandemic, but there’s an alternative to all those brown box deliveries. It’s Buy Nothing, a worldwide sharing project that helps people get what they need without shopping, and declutter without leaving home. Even better, Buy Nothing groups make community visible and connected, even while physically distanced.

In their new book, The Buy Nothing, Get Everything Plan, co-founders Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller explain the philosophy behind a local sharing project that became the worldwide Buy Nothing network of hyperlocal gift economies. They describe the inspiration of community sharing Clark witnessed in Nepal, and include stories from Buy Nothing participants whose lives have been changed by shopping less and giving, receiving, and sharing more.

Our Western culture is based on capitalism and a market economy, drawing a stark line between those who have and those who don’t. An item’s known market value is of utmost importance, and people with spending money are able to purchase things much more easily. Because of this, there is great social value placed on amassing personal wealth and status in the form of brand-new or so-called luxury items, and many people associate the use of secondhand items with poverty and lack of social status. People who are struggling financially are bombarded with societal messages that their poverty is shameful, something to be hidden, and we internalize the message that only the financially well-off are “givers,” while those with fewer resources are inherently “takers.”

Moreover, the social connections we form aren’t built around our homes and neighborhoods in the same way they used to be. We create social networks through work, schools, houses of worship, gyms, and other “third places” away from home. Many of us lead daily lives in which we hardly recognize our next-door or across-the-hall neighbors. People want to maintain their privacy, or, perhaps, they might want this connection but don’t feel safe or comfortable initiating contact in person.

Despite the fact that we all have needs and wants, and an innate ability and desire to both give and receive, there are no prescribed ways to do this on equal footing, person to person. And this is contributing to an excess of stuff that’s draining our bank accounts and natural resources. In any given neighborhood, there is a huge collection of things that are owned by individuals but could become shared resources. In a single community of fifty homes, there might be close to fifty complete sets of home tools, car seats for newborns and toddlers, toys for every stage of child development, cookbooks, plumbing snakes, clothing of every size and color, furniture, old monitors, camping gear, and so on. Sharing this bounty of stuff is not our ingrained cultural habit, and so our homes are filled to the brim with personal sets of everything that advertising has told us we need to fulfill our dreams, and everything we think we need to have in case times are tough and we find ourselves alone, needing to survive hardship.

What if each household stopped buying these things, and we shared more? Would we find things of value? Our original hope in launching the Buy Nothing Project was that by doing so, we would reduce our overall consumption and yet still meet our daily needs. By building social status through our generosity as givers and grace as recipients, we would each learn how to share, with trust, on an equal playing field. And most important, we would learn to trust that there is enough (stuff, bounty, human kindness) to go around.

We’ve held on tightly to the idealized image of the village gift economy, in hopes of replicating these ideas at home to strengthen our communities and learn to use and repurpose our tangible and intangible gifts in various ways.

Step 1: Give. You will discover how to bond a little more closely with your neighbors, through sharing more of our things and ourselves. We’ve seen it happen, over and over. With a local giving culture, you won’t have to buy things to feel joy, clothe your family, furnish your home, repair what’s broken, or help others. You will begin to build a local culture that values sharing and communal use of stuff above individual collections held for solitary use.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from running a few thousand local gift economies, it’s that giving is an action that brings people an immediate giddy joy, and joy is a solid foundation for building strong relationships. It’s also a first step in helping someone near you reduce their consumption of resources. Giving what we already have is the super glue we need to bind us to a communal web of sharing that can have a more powerful impact on your life than any big box store you’ve pushed a shopping cart through.

In its purest anthropological sense, gift-giving is a symbolic form of reciprocity that can help integrate each of us into society, ensuring we’ll be cared for and guaranteeing our own role in improving the lot of others. Serial gift-giving is akin to a political move, one that sparks unspoken obligation, creating a bond between giver and receiver, and integration of both into the greater good. This may sound like a lot of anthro-economic-ethno-enviro mumbo jumbo, but our experiment has borne out some truths that we’ve witnessed several hundred thousand times.

Through the simple act of offering up something you no longer need, indeed, something you may have considered throwing away, you’ll both help the environment and improve your social standing. Conspicuous consumption isn’t doing our planet any favors; conspicuous sharing is the antidote, a powerful tool for good, both social and environmental. Anonymous giving, as laudable as it is, doesn’t necessarily provide much-needed binding social glue for a community.

When we set up our first Buy Nothing Project group, we chose Facebook as our platform because it was where people already were, where it’s easy to see mutual friends you share with strangers, and where all of the giving could happen in full view of each group member. Through our Buy Nothing experiment, we’ve learned a lesson that applies to all giving, online and in person: when a group of people witnesses giving, receiving, and sharing on a daily basis, it builds stronger connections among everyone, not just those on either end of each item or service being shared. There’s a sense of collective joy that builds around watching gifts being given and received.

This edited excerpt from The Buy Nothing, Get Everything Plan: Discover the Joy of Spending Less, Sharing More, and Living Generously by Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller (Atria Books, 2020) appears by permission of the authors and publisher.


Rebecca Rockefeller is a social media and storytelling coach who has been working to build a more resilient and equitable world through the Buy Nothing Project. A graduate of the Evergreen State College, Rebecca has spent time as a teacher, community organizer, nonprofit executive director, and writer. She and her two daughters raise chickens, farm food, and grow flowers on an island in the Salish Sea.
Liesl Clark is a writer, director, and cinematographer who has produced more than 20 documentaries on science and exploration for NOVA, National Geographic, and the BBC. She’s won numerous awards for her journalistic work, including a Primetime Emmy and the duPont-Columbia Journalism Award: the Gold Baton. As director of the Magic Yeti Children’s Libraries, Liesl is working to increase literacy for children in six remote villages in Nepal.

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