Building Community by Buying Nothing
“It’s like a radical new economy, except of course it’s an old economy that has been around forever.”
Following knee surgery five years ago, Myra Anderson was having difficulty getting around. Living alone in Charlottesville, Virginia, she began asking on Facebook if anyone could assist her in getting a few supplies.
A friend suggested the Buy Nothing Project, a network for the free sharing of resources among neighbors. Anderson signed up, but unaware of the rules, offered to leave money on her front stoop to pay for supplies if someone could bring them to her.
By the time a message popped up in her inbox from the group administrator alerting her that’s not how Buy Nothing works, dozens of people had already offered to pick up what she needed—at no cost, of course.
Soon, people Anderson didn’t know began regularly checking in on her. She found a walking and workout partner in the group. When she’d post about feeling blue, people would respond with comfort, support, and encouragement.
“The love that has come from people I didn’t know, but just knowing they live near me, has been overwhelming and refreshing for my soul,” Anderson says.
These were the sort of genuine connections that Rebecca Rockefeller and Liesl Clark envisioned back in 2013 when they created Buy Nothing—a gift economy operated on a hyperlocal scale to bring neighbors together through sharing and community.
Neither a group, organization, association, or nonprofit, Buy Nothing is a movement that has doubled in size during the pandemic. It now has more than 4 million participants in 6,500 groups, located in 44 countries across the globe.
“It’s like a radical new economy, except of course it’s an old economy that has been around forever,” Rockefeller says. “We’re just re-presenting it.”
In the Beginning
Clark and Rockefeller, who both live on Bainbridge Island, Washington, came to the project through very different life paths.
Clark has traveled to the Himalayas each summer for the past 14 years doing archaeological research. In the villages where she, her family, and their team stayed for months at a time, she noticed a close bond among residents unlike what she was accustomed to in the United States.
Every resource that came into the villages was “used up and shared and reused and repaired and reused again and then repurposed into something else until it had met its demise,” Clark says.
All the wealth was shared equally.
“Here we were studying this very old culture, up to 3,000 years old, while at the same time seeing that the modern folks were using their materials in a way that was so beautiful and eye-opening,” she adds. “The only way these cultures could survive was literally by always ensuring that the weakest were carried along with them.”
Around the same time, Rockefeller suddenly found herself a single parent raising two children who needed special education. She was struggling financially, so she applied for and received food assistance. But the process of requalifying, she says, felt dehumanizing.
Much of the social-support network in the U.S., designed to care for people in need, is shame-based, she says. “The worst was that I had a distinct impression that I had become a burden on my community and on my society, and I wanted my role as a giver back. I wanted to be able to balance the taking with generosity.”
Both Rockefeller and Clark could see clearly what many can’t see because of a capitalist economy that promulgates the concept of scarcity—the idea that there aren’t enough resources to go around. “That is not the reality of the world,” Rockefeller says. “We believe our innate human nature is one of compassion and generosity that understands that we survive only together. That’s the only way we’re ever going to be able to make it and live sustainably on this planet.”
The two were convinced that what Clark witnessed in the Himalayas could be replicated here in the U.S.—and set out to prove it.
Challenges Bring Change
But the pair never envisioned the project would become as big as it has, nor were they prepared for some of the challenges that would accompany the rapid expansion of such a diverse, global movement.
Because many U.S. neighborhoods are still racially segregated, Buy Nothing communities, which in the beginning were geographic clusters of 1,000 people, were essentially reaffirming racist, redlining boundaries. Members also started pushing back against the 1,000-member cap, originally established to ensure the groups would remain responsive and tight knit; they didn’t want the communities they had formed to be split off into subgroups, known as sprouting.
Since membership is determined by home address, there were concerns about people, like the unhoused, being denied membership. Some people in communities of color said they felt that group administrators were unresponsive to their concerns and complaints; they felt shut out or shut down. Some clusters parted ways with Buy Nothing to form their own giving communities.
Clark and Rockefeller have worked to address these problems, loosening some of the rules, adding foundational documents to the group’s website as well as guidelines on how to create a gift economy. Buy Nothing also created an equity team in 2019 to develop strategies for addressing the issues the group was grappling with.
Katherine Valenzuela Parsons, a member of the equity team and a volunteer administrator for a Buy Nothing group that she started in Moseley, Virginia, says the team has spent the past two years “trying to put ownership into the hands of the local community and letting them know that they make the decisions at the end of the day. … We’re trying to put as many resources out there as possible.”
Additionally, Buy Nothing, which exists mostly on Facebook, is creating a new app that will allow anyone to connect and share with people near where they are, without needing to request access to a group or fit within specific geographic boundaries. They expect to launch the app by September 2021.
Meanwhile, people around the globe continue to find community in its many forms through their Buy Nothing connections.
After hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria devastated parts of the U.S. and the Caribbean, for example, communities near and far gathered goods and supplies to help those in need.
Buy Nothing communities delivered tents, tarps, sleeping bags, and solar panels to “forgotten communities” in Nepal following the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that devastated the country in 2015. “That kind of giving builds community among the people who are assembling all of the items,” Rockefeller says, “and it also builds connections between the two communities that are giving and receiving from each other.”
Buy Nothing has also proven to be a powerful way to connect neighbors who might never have crossed paths otherwise. When Kate Watkins in Brisbane, Australia, asked her group if someone could feed her cat while she was away, the person who stepped up lived just around the corner from her home. “From those small seeds blossomed a fully grown friendship where she now comes along to my birthday parties, and my puppy (a new addition to the family) is more excited to see her than me!” she wrote in an email.
In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Amy Trojanowski has exchanged plenty of goods with a next-door neighbor she met on Buy Nothing—taking the proverbial “cup of sugar” to a whole new level. She and another neighbor down the street regularly sit outside Trojanowski’s house, socially distanced, and “talk forever,” she says, adding, “It was amazing to be able to make a new friend during COVID.”
In LaTonya Baldwin’s case, the Buy Nothing Project created a cohort of friends in the Detroit area that she’s come to lean on over the past five years. They supported her decision to leave her corporate job to become a doula and stood beside her following her father’s sudden death. In 2019, when she moved from Farmington Hills, Michigan, where she had established that area’s first Buy Nothing community, to Detroit, where she has created another, the people she met along the way eagerly stepped up to help. One member went house hunting with her, based on the flurry of recommendations others were sending. They showed up to help with the packing and on moving day, too.
In the end, she says, the exchange of resources is just an opportunity to connect. “What drew me to the Project was its mission,” Baldwin says. “What I didn’t know was how deep and lasting those relationships could be.”