Buy Nothing Inspires Local Gift Economy

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An initiative to foster communities of giving and sharing that started in Bainbridge, Washington, in 2013 now has a local group serving Potrero Hill and Dogpatch. The Buy Nothing project is a network of hundreds of Facebook groups that spans communities in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Canada, that encourages people to share their time, talents and goods with others on a hyper-local scale.

The project was originally started by Liesl Clark, a National Geographic filmmaker who documented a cave-dwelling Himalayan culture from ancient to modern times, and attributed their good health and ability to survive harsh conditions to “an egalitarian cash-free gift economy connecting families in a web of interdependence.” An essential aspect of the gift economy is that all members act as both givers and receivers. Clark partnered with social media expert, Rebecca Rockefeller, to start the Buy Nothing Facebook group project. Today, hundreds of volunteer administrators manage the Facebook accounts and work to nurture Buy Nothing communities.

“A gift economy requires a shift in consciousness, where we see ourselves not as individuals but as connected selves where we understand that together we have our things, our talents, even our ideas to give to our community,” Clark wrote. “Each week we all can contribute in ways that make a difference to everyone else, and therefore ourselves, because gifts create bonds between people, and when the whole community witnesses the gift-giving in their Buy Nothing groups the community is strengthened. I believe, no matter what your socioeconomic situation, the bounty is there, hiding in plain sight.”

The Potrero Hill-Dogpatch Buy Nothing group was started by Kansas Street resident, Kat Snider, last summer. A recent transplant from Seattle, where Snider had been part of an active Buy Nothing group, she’d hoped to immediately find a similar sharing community in her newfound community in Potrero Hill. “I was part of an incredibly active group in Seattle,” said Snider. “Buy Nothing started in the Seattle area. The group I was part of was so active that it split off into even smaller neighborhood groups. When I moved here I was surprised that there wasn’t a group in this neighborhood, so I contacted Buy Nothing administrators about starting one. It’s been a process to grow it, and we’re still trying to get it off the ground.”

It’s one of seven Buy Nothing groups in the City, including one serving the Mission and another South-of-Market, and has more than 40 members. A Facebook account is needed to join; the social media platform is the medium by which members engage with each other. Participation is limited to adults; prospective members have to live in the group’s specific neighborhood area, approved by the group’s administrator to join. The Potrero Hill-Dogpatch Buy Nothing group’s geography is bounded by 16th Street south to Cesar Chavez Street and Highway 101 east to the Bay. Members can post about things to gift or lend, or request something. No bartering or exchanges of money are permitted. Provision of intangible gifts, such as time and talents, are especially encouraged. The giver doesn’t have to contribute to the first person who responds.

“It’s more of a focus on the community aspect, which differentiates it from other groups, like Craigslist or Nextdoor,” explained Snider. “The group’s area is supposed to be very walkable and create ways for neighbors to interact with each other. In the Seattle group that I was a part of people got really creative. Someone once made pies using local blackberries and then offered them to members. Typically, people use the group for spring cleaning. What makes it special is when someone donates their time and gives gifts.”

Samantha Luks, Rhode Island Street resident, used to be part of Freecycle, a nonprofit organization that promotes the complimentary exchange of goods between community members to keep items out of landfills. However, she received constant emails from the group, which became overwhelming. She joined Buy Nothing because she thinks that using Facebook offers a better format, and is drawn to Buy Nothing’s hyper-local aspect; she’ll only be connecting with people nearby.

“I joined recently, and I really hope people use it,” Luks commented. “I’ve been really turned off from buying new things. I’m burned out on shopping; it’s the amount of money you can spend on something new that’s produced in a way that’s unfriendly to workers. So why not try to find something that someone is giving away? We have a hard time getting rid of things, so this helps us do that.”

Snider aims to continue helping the Potrero Hill-Dogpatch group grow, and can draw upon assistance and advice from an administrator who serves all Northern California groups. She thinks that the Buy Nothing model has a high degree of potential for the neighborhood because of the number of new people moving in who seek a sense of belonging.

“The more activity there is, the more people will want to be involved in it,” she said. “The most moving thing is the gift of time and talent. I work in digital marketing and have some spare time, so there are a lot of things I could do to use my skills to help out the community. The gift doesn’t necessarily have to be a thing.”