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Since nearly everything can be bought and sold for a profit, it’s hard to imagine how a gift economy might emerge, or even thrive. And yet, an international movement centered around giving stuff away for free has amassed more than 7 million members across at least 44 countries.

It’s called the Buy Nothing Project. Instead of buying, selling, or trading items, Buy Nothingers give their stuff away, using a mixture of local groups on Facebook and an app to post their goods and services.

Since August 2021, membership has increased by more than 60%, in part because consumers are trying to save money in the face of inflation. There’s also an environmental angle. Rather than spending money on some newfangled Amazon gadget destined for a landfill, members are choosing to reuse and recycle.

But does the community function? Or is it flooded by an endless stream of useless knick-knacks and smelly old socks? I joined my local Buy Nothing group to find out.

Joining the Gift Economy

Although Washington residents Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller started the Buy Nothing Project in 2013, it wasn’t until last year that they had their own platform and mobile app. Lucky for us, joining via the app is a lot more straightforward than sifting through the countless Buy Nothing Facebook groups.

After making an account, the Buy Nothing app threw me right into the feed — an endless scroll of freebies. Thanks to features like a like button and comments section, you’ll feel at home if you’ve ever used social media. That said, I found it frustrating that the app doesn’t introduce users to the concept and rules behind the project.

If I’m interested in an item, should I message the person directly? Comment? Is everything really free? The app left these questions unanswered, so I tried to find out for myself. (I later learned that when you try to post something, you’re given a link to the guidelines).


Using the App

Within a few seconds of scrolling through listings — a sun hat, a set of Ikea storage containers, a curved Samsung monitor — I stumbled across an old sofa bed that piqued my interest. I messaged the owner and asked whether it was still available (and if it was really free).

The exchange went surprisingly well. Unlike my experiences on Craigslist — a hotbed for creeps, flakes, and weirdos — the person quickly replied with a polite, informative, and intelligible message. They also reassured me that, yes, everything on the platform was free.

Long story short: My housemates and I got the couch … for free. Not bad!

Although I have yet to come across anything too weird, veterans say that the platform attracts some wild listings: 13 gallons of guinea pig poop, ham, a half-eaten pizza, and so on.

Of course, the Buy Nothing Project isn’t just about receiving items. That would go against the movement’s ethos, so I plan to post a few books that I’m happy to share.

Why You Should Join

If you’re an environmentalist, anti-consumerist, cheapskate, or all of the above, you’ve got plenty of reasons to join the Buy Nothing Project. You’ll reduce waste, build community, and get some freebies along the way. Is it going to change the world? Maybe not. But hey, who doesn’t like free stuff?

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I join a local Buy Nothing group near me?

You can either download the app or search Facebook for a nearby group. If you prefer the latter option (more difficult), then you should search for “Buy Nothing” accompanied by your neighborhood. Groups are “hyperlocal,” meaning that they can be oddly specific, especially in big cities. For example, instead of searching for “Buy Nothing Brooklyn,” you’d want to search for “Buy Nothing Park Slope” or “Buy Nothing Bedford-Stuyvesant.”

What are the rules of the Buy Nothing community?

The Buy Nothing Project has ten commandments, which are pretty straightforward. Don’t do anything illegal, keep things civil, participate at your own risk, etc. Just keep in mind that there’s no “buying, selling, bartering, trading, advertising, or marketing of goods or services allowed.”

What can you find in Buy Nothing groups?

You can either ask for or give away an item or service on the platform. Looking at my feed, I see clothing, furniture, electronics, books, and moving boxes. You can also provide and ask for services like tutoring.

Why do people join Buy Nothing groups?

Members join Buy Nothing groups to save money, reduce waste, and help the community.

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