The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Buy Nothing groups offer an antidote to waste and isolation, with a world of free stuff

Besieged by inflation and isolation, many people are finding purpose and connection in these ‘circular gift economies’

Buy Nothing member Charnetta Barnes outside her home in the District’s Petworth neighborhood. Soon after joining she found a sofa, bedroom furniture and kitchen supplies she couldn’t afford but really needed. When she was able to give back, she started — emotionally — with her daughter’s preemie clothes. (Shuran Huang/for The Washington Post)
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When Charnetta Barnes first heard the concept, she thought it seemed too good to believe.

The 32-year-old mother of four was in the midst of moving from one part of the District to another when a friend mentioned a Facebook group where people were giving away everything from plants to pianos. A post might ask to borrow a ladder or offer leftovers from a holiday dinner.

She signed up for the Buy Nothing group in her neighborhood, Petworth, and soon found the couch, bedroom furniture and kitchen supplies she couldn’t afford, but really couldn’t do without. And she went back — “basically, every time I needed something” — embracing an ethos that’s both novel and old-world: humans sharing what they have, getting what they need and letting go of what they don’t.

At a time when many Americans are scrambling to snap up the perfect toy or gadget on their holiday shopping lists, Barnes is part of a growing movement built on a simple premise: Buy nothing.

What started in 2013 as a hyperlocal network of “circular gift economies” in Bainbridge Island, Wash., has ballooned into a constellation of Buy Nothing groups with 4.3 million members in 44 countries. Members can request or offer any item or service as long as it’s legal; however buying, selling and bartering are prohibited. The groups are well-represented on social media, particularly Facebook, Reddit and Nextdoor. The Buy Nothing app, launched on Black Friday, has been downloaded more than 125,000 times.

For devotees, Buy Nothing is less a statement about consumerism than an antidote to some of the social ills and financial pressures of the moment. It’s a way to spend less at a time when inflation is near a 40-year high. It’s a means of reducing waste in one of the world’s most wasteful countries. And it’s a form of connection during a pandemic that has left many wrestling with isolation.

Prices climbed 6.8% in November compared with last year, largest rise in nearly four decades, as inflation spreads through economy

In member exchanges, the stories pile up as would-be recipients vie for desired items, said Liesl Clark, 55, one of Buy Nothing’s co-founders. Deciding who gets what rests solely with the donor, whose offering might hold sentimental value or simply be something that just needs to go.

Everyone benefits by these interactions, Clark said, as connections, even friendships, are formed.

“This isolation has been going on for too long, and now we are coming out of that and recognizing that we can come to know each other through our stuff and our talents,” Clark said. “We can joyfully share our stuff and even laugh about it.”

A message of abundance

Growing up in Massachusetts, Clark says the running joke about the family fridge was that “every cheese was blue cheese.” Her mother, a child of the Depression, would scrape away the mold and they’d eat what could be salvaged.

“Nothing was wasted,” she said.

It was a sensibility that helped shape her views on consumerism and give rise to the Buy Nothing Project, the movement she co-founded with Rebecca Rockefeller with a focus on reducing plastics waste.

But its mission is as much about promoting the idea of abundance as it is about buying less, Clark said.

“There’s so much out there,” Clark said, from raw materials like garden vegetables to manufactured goods that are otherwise destined for a landfill or dropped off anonymously at Goodwill. She recently found a home for some cottonwood leaves from her yard.

The first spark came in the mid-2000s when Clark, a documentary filmmaker, and a team of scientists traveled to remote cliff caves on the border of Tibet and Nepal, which were among the last places on the planet to be settled by humans. No one had been there for centuries, she said, but the artifacts they found showed how crucial communal materials are to human survival.

“This is something that humans have always been doing, this sort of sharing of materials that we have at our fingertips and caring for each other in more of a communal way,” Clark said.

But over time, consumption — the act of acquiring, using and disposing of goods and services — replaced avenues built on meeting universal human needs, according to Daniel Fischer, associate professor for consumer communication and sustainability at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands.

“We identify as consumers and think of consumption as a somewhat ‘natural’ way of satisfying our needs,” Fischer told The Washington Post in an email. “It has become our second skin and we often just practice it without reflecting on it.”

People buying stuff is the backbone of the U.S. economy. Consumer spending powers about 70 percent of gross domestic product, and retail numbers and consumer confidence are tracked breathlessly as a barometer of economic health. On Cyber Monday — generally the biggest online sales event of the year — consumers spent $12 million every minute, according to Adobe Analytics.

The blip of dopamine that comes from making an impulse purchase has a short half-life, but serious consequences. The United States already produces more plastic waste than any other country, according to the National Academy of Sciences, with the average American generating about 287 pounds each year. A 2020 paper published in Nature cautioned that overconsumption and the relentless pursuit of economic growth have fueled an explosive rise in greenhouse gas emissions.

“The challenge of our times,” Fischer said, “is to reimagine and reinvent the good life in a world of ecological constraints.”

Buy Nothing makes the case that it is possible to get not just what you need, but what you want, while cutting back on waste and getting closer to your community.

‘We all have gifts to share’

Crescent Moegling says “buy-nothing” has been a verb in her home for years. The Seattle woman helped get the city’s first group off the ground in 2013; now there are more than 100 groups within the city limits.

When she first joined, Moegling had a toddler and was frustrated with the cycle of buying new things and using them for only a short time, whether it was books, toys or baby clothes. In the eight years since, Moegling, 51, estimates she’s given away “thousands of things” and received far less.

It tickles her to see her former belongings being passed around through the neighborhood, like the kid’s bookshelf she got rid of years ago that was recently passed on to its fifth family. It’s not dissimilar to the jolt someone might experience on an impulse purchase, but “on steroids, because you’re giving away something that’s meaningful to you.”

Moegling says she’s grateful for the ways Buy Nothing has allowed her to meet new people and give back to the community in a time when being together is complicated. When she stress-baked in the early days of the pandemic, she’d often pop into her local Buy Nothing group’s page and ask for flour.

“People were bringing me flour and I was leaving loaves of bread out on my front stoop for people to come pick up,” she said. “Even if I wasn’t having that social interaction, I was still able to engage in some kind of way.”

Siri Kushner, 44, who grew up on Bainbridge Island, joined Buy Nothing when the app launched last month. But her interactions already have taken her to parts of the island she’d never seen. After Thanksgiving she and her kids responded to an ask from a woman who needed help hanging her Christmas lights.

“We all have gifts to share, but I think sometimes we don’t know what those gifts are or how to share them,” Kushner said.

When Anna Balthaser joined her local group in Claremont, Calif., in 2017, free stuff was “the great carrot.” Now she’s the group’s administrator, a role she says opened her to some of the best experiences of her life.

Balthaser, 59, likes to emphasize the importance of “the ask.” She’s seen what can happen when people call on one another, like the time a member asked whether anyone would be willing to play a Disney princess on a phone call with her young daughter. Several people raised their hands, and the girl got a real-life fairy tale.

“If there’s something you want, you don’t even have to need it, if you want it, that’s fine too,” Balthaser said. “That takes a certain amount of vulnerability.”

Susan Ito, 62, was downsizing when she decided to give Buy Nothing a try in March 2019. She was preparing to leave her Oakland, Calif., home and gave herself a goal of giving away three to five items a day.

Her painting of a “wacky-looking lion” — which had drawn family ridicule for as long as it had rested on her mantelpiece — spurred a “wild bidding war among the children” of her group, Ito said.

“To me it was literally trash, embarrassing trash that I had made,” Ito said. “But it made this little kid so happy.”

When Ito dug up old videotapes and needed to learn what was on them, she asked the community for a VHS player. Someone came forward quickly with one that needed repaired. It took a year, but she finally got it fixed and watched the tapes around Thanksgiving.

One was from Christmas morning 1995, back when her parents were still alive. Her father died in 2000 and her mom passed away this year, but she watched as her kids opened stockings, her parents enjoying the “pandemonium,” patiently helping to set up gifts like a tent and a Jennie Gymnast doll.

“It was just incredible to see them walking and talking,” Ito said. “It was really emotional. I was like, ‘Oh my God. Thank you, Buy Nothing.’ ”

Tight boundaries

At times, the altruistic movement runs up against thorny realities. Until recently, groups were restricted by address and capped at around 1,000 members. Any bigger, Clark said, and groups start to feel impersonal. But the tight geographic boundaries are social constructs that can be “problematic,” she acknowledged.

The new app addresses this by “doing away with boundaries,” Clark said, allowing users to choose their own sharing parameters. Users are currently offered ranges of one, three or six miles, but that probably will evolve.

“If you live in Manhattan, a mile is still too big,” Clark said. “But we’re finding people in Zambia are saying, ‘My nearest neighbor is 20 miles away.’ So we do need to have different parameters here and we’re working on that.”

The act of picking up gifts can present its own complications, especially for people of color. On one occasion, Barnes, who is Black, said she was confronted by a neighbor who thought she was a porch bandit. Though she had her 2-year-old with her and tried to explain that she was picking up a gift, the man followed her and threatened to call the police. Though Barnes ultimately reached someone in the house who could verify her account, the man did not apologize.

Later, after sharing the experience with her Buy Nothing group, she heard from others who’d had similar encounters and was heartened by their support. They agreed to start writing names on items being picked up and giving neighbors notice to prevent other incidents.

The run-in hasn’t diminished Barnes’s enthusiasm for a group that has shown her “a better way of giving.” Before Buy Nothing, “I was straight up the kind of person who would call 311 and put stuff on the curb.”

When she started giving back, she began with her daughter’s preemie clothes. She found herself crying as she packed them up for another mom whose baby had come too soon. She knew it was time, but was still overcome by memories when she went to drop them off.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, please take good care of it,’” Barnes said. “Something in me just had to say that to her.”