You are likely among the throngs of Americans who go gift-shopping in November and December. Maybe it’s for supplies to make homemade candles, or maybe ingredients to bake several dozen cookies. A new television, a new robe, a used book. Face it: You’ll want to buy something.
This year, Americans are predicted to spend up to $682 billion during the holidays, 4 percent more than last year. In fact, winter holidays are the second most profitable “spending event” of the year, according to the National Retail Association, just behind back-to-school shopping. This is good news for retailers, of course, but what does it say about consumers?
Most of us believe climate change is human-caused—68 percent—and fewer of us see “being wealthy” as essential to the American Dream—40 percent. To me, that translates into “we see a connection between consumerism and environmental destruction” and “we don’t need things to be happy.” Yet many of us still charge toward retail stores at the hint of a discount.
Fortunately, better options are thriving on social media. Hyper-localized gift-economy groups are popping up all over Facebook, in closed communities where neighbors graciously give their stuff for free. Items range from furniture to food, from automobiles to appliances, and everything in between. I’ve seen people try to find new homes for their pets, and there was once, because of tragic circumstances, a woman offering enough pumped breast milk to fill a full-size freezer.
Many of us still charge toward retail stores at the hint of a discount.
In my community, there are two main gift-economy groups you can join, both with more than 1,000 members and both managed by volunteers. One is the Buy Nothing Project, basically the mother of all local gifting networks. The movement started a few years ago on Bainbridge Island, just outside of Seattle, and has since grown to over 2,000 discrete Facebook groups worldwide with about 450,000 members, according to its website.
I joined the local Buy Nothing group about three years ago, at first a spectator more than a participant, but my relationship with these networks has deepened over the past year. I’ve procured a 12-inch lid for a hardworking sauté pan then gifted three crates of vintage vinyl to a mother recovering from surgery. I’ve picked up baby clothes and toddler playsets, clean and wonderfully absent of stains or fingerprints then given away Tory Burch heels worn only once for a wedding. I’ve seen people offer computers, car seats, and concert tickets. No item has sparked more joy for me, however, than a set of shiny, vintage Sesame Street ornaments I picked up a couple years ago.
There is a downside. One of the criticisms you’ll hear about joining these sorts of groups is that, well, people are flakes, and your neighbors are people—you do the math. A colleague, a member of the Bainbridge group, once told me: “I like the idea of it, but then you realize you put so many hours into getting somebody to finally pick that thing up. And for what? A spatula.”
It’s taken me a while to notice, but I feel more connected to the people around me.
That’s a common complaint, and it’s my biggest one. However, one of the reasons for tolerating the occasional hassle is this, stated by Buy Nothing itself: “The Buy Nothing Project is about setting the scarcity model of our cash economy aside in favor of creatively and collaboratively sharing the abundance around us.” That’s why, even after fuming in frustration from last-minute cancellations and items that turned out to be slightly warped or faded, I’ve become more involved than ever before. It’s taken me a while to notice, but I feel more connected to the people around me, to my community, and that’s a special thing. I grew up in the suburbs and recently returned there to live with my mother and raise a family. I have often felt stifled by the place—too judgmental, too isolated.
But these days what I see among my suburban neighbors is generosity and kindness. Sometimes these Buy Nothingers communicate poorly and sometimes they act self-entitled, but they’re generally good people with big hearts.
In addition to the obvious economic savings, the occasional hassle of giving and getting free stuff actually has a more profound advantage: You feel the physical and mental burden of having to gift every item you no longer want in your home, and it’s an embodied lesson in the cost of consumerism that’s quite effective (much more than reading a book about consumer waste or, well, those statistics on holiday spending I tossed at you at the beginning of this piece). The posting, selecting, messaging, coordinating, all those things entail some kind of commitment.
Sure, it’s an inconvenience and demands my time. The good news is that it slows me down and connects me to my neighbors. For that, I’m grateful.
Erin Sagen is a freelancer and former associate editor at YES! She lives in Seattle and writes about food, health, and suburban sustainability.