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Imagine you could keep your wardrobe chic and updated all year round, or keep up with your toddler’s ridiculous rate of growth, or even easily replace your belongings after an emergency — all without spending a dime.
What if you learned that not only are these kinds of experiences all possible, but they are taking place right now — and all you need to participate is a Facebook account?
Cheryl was homeless for 10 years when she finally unlocked the door to the apartment where she now lives.
“It took me three months to get used to the weight of the key in my hand,” she says. “After all that time, I had to get used to having a home again.”
But gaining an apartment was just one piece of the puzzle. Having bounced between women’s shelters, voucher-paid motels, and random squats since leaving her wealthy, abusive boyfriend over a decade earlier, Cheryl now needed furniture. And clothes. She knew of some local resources, but they were aimed at helping the homeless. Furnishing a life in an apartment was a much bigger enterprise, and one she could not afford. Then a stranger she met on the bus mentioned the Buy Nothing Project.
The Buy Nothing Project is described on its website as “a worldwide network of hyper-local gift economies.” The actual communities are collected on Facebook, but it’s the real world where the magic happens. Neighbors, as defined by strictly delineated parameters that vary by group, meet on their local BNP Facebook pages to post requests or donate items. There’s no money or trading allowed, and the person doing the “gifting,” as it's called by members, is allowed to use any criteria she pleases to select the recipient. Some people draw numbers. Others ask members to post answers to a specific question, such as their favorite superhero or breakfast food. Often, the givers just want to know how their items will be used.
Cheryl was skeptical at first. Already over age 70, she doesn't know computers well, but she decided to give it a try.
“They helped me so much,” she reports, “One lady gave me a full-sized oak sideboard. I got a bag full of clothes. And friends,” she adds with a smile. “It really helped me get to know my new community and feel like ‘yes, this really is my home.’”
For Cheryl, the Buy Nothing Project not only served as a way to furnish her empty apartment with stuff, it also furnished her new life with friends and purpose.
And that's really what the Buy Nothing Project is about.
Started on Bainbridge Island, Washington, in 2013 by Rebecca Rockefeller and Liesl Clark, the Buy Nothing Project was inspired by a small Nepalese community living in the crook of the Himalayas. When Liesl and her family visited Nepal on a relief mission, they were impressed by the ways the community members shared each item equally.
“When we brought warm clothes for the village,” Clark says in her soft-spoken voice over the short film hosted on the BNP page, “they insisted we divide it equally among the households, so each family would have equal social capital to share with the community.
“We wondered, could we start an egalitarian gift economy in our town?” she adds.
So she and Rockefeller, her social-media-savvy friend and neighbor, started the experiment in their community.
“I don't think the founders had any idea what they were getting into when they started this,” laughs Lissa Jagodnik, one of the original global admins, over the phone. Jagodnik explains that since July 2013, that first Buy Nothing experiment has sprouted into 69 groups contained in the Puget Sound region. As implied by her position title, it has also expanded across the globe. Today, the Buy Nothing Project has staked claims in all 50 states, nine Canadian provinces, and 20 countries total. All through word of mouth.
So how did all this expansion happen? Part of it can be attributed to the practice of “sprouting,” which takes place every few months in the more densely populated areas, or every few years in others. Groups, which are all run by unpaid volunteer administrators, generally cap out between 1,000 and 2,000 members. When membership rises too far above that, the community sprouts, much like taking cuttings from a plant. This means dividing a neighborhood group into two or more smaller segments, so that some hyperlocal communities are only a few blocks in size. The goal is to connect people with one another, kind of like borrowing a cup of sugar from the neighbor — for the tech age.
But with no formal marketing campaign in place, sprouting alone doesn’t explain the project's widespread growth.
“It just kind of exploded,” says Lissa. “It struck a chord with people, and filled a space that was not filled before.”
For Nora, who has been participating in different Seattle communities for about two years, Buy Nothing has both environmental and social benefits. “Even if you have the money to buy something, you're still aware of the resources it uses,” she says. “Everyone knows if you throw something away, it goes into a landfill. And it feels good to have an interaction within your community.”
Pamela Holman, who participates from Salt Lake City, Utah, shares a similar view. “The issues with consumption and growth economy are complex, deep, and pervasive,” she says. “So many of us are wandering down store aisles with a lost look. But the best thing about BNP is meeting folks in the neighborhood. Those connections to me feel like a tribal kind of linking. We have each other’s back, and we appreciate each other deliberately.”
Technology has made shopping an increasingly solitary act. People in Cheryl’s generation can still remember the days when shopping meant walking into a store and talking with a clerk to figure out exactly what was needed. But as more people born in the internet age reach adulthood, human contact is being erased from the shopping experience. It’s so easy to view a picture of a cute blouse, click on a couple buttons, and have it delivered to your front door — often without even having to interact with the courier. But humans are social creatures. We crave contact, even when we think it’s inconvenient.
The Buy Nothing Project offers exactly that. Hyperlocal community borders typically remain within walking distance. Shipping items is highly discouraged, since that not only excludes contact but also comes with a price tag. Sometimes members will drop items off on the recipient’s porch, but most often neighbors meet in person when handing off gifts. The idea is to not only get free stuff, but to also make a human connection in the process. Maybe even a new friend.
Ellie lives on a military base in the UK. When she first moved in, she struggled with feelings of isolation that often come along with the highly mobile military family lifestyle. The Buy Nothing Project helped fill that gap by encouraging her to meet her neighbors in a positive context.
“I’ve made some lovely friends,” she reports. “I don’t seem to be able to leave without a good chat. It’s been brilliant to break the ice, and I know lots of friendly faces locally now!” She says she plans to start a new Buy Nothing branch when her family is re-posted, if her new base doesn’t have one already.
Katylin, who is the local admin for her North Seattle Buy Nothing group, says that she met the majority of her neighborhood friends through BNP. A self-described goth, she also claims that participating in the project has helped her change the way goths are perceived in her mostly upper-middle-class community.
“I'm the only goth mom at my kids’ school,” she says. “[BNP has] provided me with so much daywear. I still wear black, but I get clothes that I would never have paid for, clothes that match my standards, and also the school standards.” She describes elaborate sewing projects inspired by clothes she scavenged from the local “round robin,” a collaborative clothing exchange bag that is passed around between members. Other round robin themes she manages in her group include bridesmaids’ dresses, baby clothes, and jewelry.
Giving is just as integral to the Buy Nothing experience as receiving. Giving away items like shoes and clothes contributes a sense of fulfillment that is sometimes lost when people impulse buy.
A group of moms from Brooklyn described trading everything from children’s items to eveningwear within their shared BNP community; items that typically get less wear than the worth of their price tag.
“I can finally let go of expensive clothes that don’t look good on me anymore, knowing they are going to make someone else happy,” one of the moms reported. “In return, all of my kept clothes make me feel good!”
Sometimes, BNP is also a way for designers or beauticians to give away their services and gain potential new fans. Crystal Innis, a jewelry designer who sells her pieces on Instagram, decided to host a giveaway through her downtown Seattle Buy Nothing group.
“GIVE: Custom copper jewelry!!” she posted on August 26th, 2015, in the standard Buy Nothing style. She included a brief description of her offer along with a photo of previous work.
“I'm a very minimalist person,” she says. “I take the design elements that [my customers] like and just simplify them down to the bare elements.”
Apparently, her community members really appreciated her style. Below, her offer for custom-engraved copper jewelry pieces received a slew of bids from prospective recipients, their enthusiasm forever memorialized on the archived group page, which has since sprouted into several smaller groups.
Admins have occasionally disputed gifts like Crystal’s. Since the designers also sell these products for profit, does giving them away violate the spirit of the project? Katylin, who is in a different area than Crystal but has seen similar efforts from hobbyists and professionals, thinks not so much.
“We live in the real world,” she says, emphasizing that what's important is that the design or service is offered without strings attached. “If people chose to be clients later, that's fine.” The money-free aspect is integral to the project, but it’s not intended to take down capitalism. Instead, it’s a way to bring together neighbors, and to reinvent the experience of acquisition as something that also nourishes the spirit.
Still driven by word of mouth and the occasional media interest, the Buy Nothing Project is only growing. What started as a single community on a small Pacific Northwest island is now a worldwide network of organized kindness. Everyone has different reasons for joining. For some, like Cheryl, it represents a new chance to build a life founded on trust and generosity. For others, like Katylin, it's a way to expand their styles cost-free, while building friendships that they may never have otherwise formed. For fledgling designers, like Crystal, it's an opportunity. For others, it’s just a way to get a cute new dress.
But for everyone, it seems the Buy Nothing Project offers a new view of shopping, one that is based on abundance and human connection.
“To give and receive in this fluid way,” says Nora, “this is what it is to be human.”