Last season’s winter coat that your toddler has outgrown, but is still in great shape. The random extra food that came in the grocery order. The puzzles that are too familiar to be challenging anymore. What happens to these items that have plenty of life left in them, but maybe not with your family? Enter your local Buy Nothing Group: a hyperlocal gift economy dedicated to reusing, repurposing, and sharing material and non-material resources among members. Read on to learn more about how these Buy Nothing groups that foster community, especially during pandemic times.
The Buy Nothing Mission
The Buy Nothing Project was founded in 2013 by two neighbors in Bainbridge, WA, and has since grown to be an international phenomenon. The mission is simple and straightforward. Participants can post anything they’d like to give away, lend, or share amongst neighbors. Ask for anything you’d like to receive for free or borrow. Keep it legal, keep it civil, no hate speech.
The material benefits are that participants can reduce consumption and waste. A good example of this is birthday party supplies: somehow the package always comes with more than enough plates or candles needed, and they never match whatever theme the honoree chooses next time. But, someone else would probably love to use those remaining items. Make a post in the Buy Nothing group and see what happens. You’ll get some cleared-out storage space and someone else’s birthday party gets the perfect touches.
The community benefits stem from the hyperlocal nature of each group. Each group has neighborhood boundaries that keep the groups from getting too big. Hoboken has two groups and Jersey City has five, and prospective members are required to answer questions about their location before joining a group.
The point is to “give where you live.” The giving nature of the group builds community connections based on giving interactions and creates a platform for neighbors to ask for what they need. Some ‘asks’ may be, a ride to a doctor’s appointment, an ingredient for a recipe, or even a good thought on a hard day. Both material and non-material items are permitted.
Buy Nothing in Practice
This all sounds great, but how does it work in reality? We talked to some members of the Downtown Jersey City Buy Nothing Group to hear their experiences. A common thread amongst participants was how satisfying the experience was, both as a giver and a recipient. As member Sarah Shanahan says, “It’s such a simple idea with such a profound impact. It makes getting rid of things that are no longer needed or loved so much easier and scoring something you’ve been looking for (or not!) is so much more satisfying than buying it.”
Catherina Rojas is an administrator of the group and said that the positive interaction that centers around a gift exchange is energizing. “Giving feels so much better than taking. It’s great to go through the things that I haven’t used and think about how someone else could use it.” Member Nancy Malhotra echoed that sentiment, pointing out that the Givers are as important as the Askers, in terms of making the group’s dynamic work: “You feel very grateful, being able to be in a position to give.”
Another commonality is the desire to live a more sustainable life. Part of the group’s mission is to reduce waste, so finding a second life for unwanted items and promoting a secondhand market is attractive to many members. Almost every member we talked to mentioned the goal of diverting items away from the landfill. Nancy pointed out that, “There’s very little we can do on the larger scale, but this is easy, in terms of reducing waste. The group really taps into the ideals of reduce and reuse, but with a community perspective.”
Member Emma-Tei Kyono says that nearly everything in her home is either secondhand or thrifted, in an effort to be more sustainable. “I try to wait 1 week to 30 days before purchasing a new item and use that time to research the most sustainable purchase and to search the BN page. I’ve been able to get a lot of simple odds and ends I needed like a travel coffee mug, thank you cards, a steamer, new headbands.”
Member Quinn Curtis says that “Getting rid of things in a productive way is very satisfying.” She pointed out the experience of needing only a small amount of something or using something that is needed for only a short period of time. “I needed to use a stud finder to hang a shelf. I was able to borrow one for a couple of days from another group member. It saved me from having to make another purchase for something that I didn’t really need.”
Participating in the group has changed Catherina’s approach to purchasing. She says, “because we live in a society that is so consumer-focused, it’s easy to accumulate stuff. We don’t realize if we actually need it. It’s great to go through my things that I haven’t used and think about how someone else could use them. Participating has changed the way I see material possessions.”
Jen Dao, another member, shared a similar attitude shift. Jen and her family moved to Jersey City during the pandemic. During the move, she had given away many of his clothes. Through the Buy Nothing Group, she has been able to get many age-appropriate items for him. Of particular note is a coat that was shared at the right moment: the exact type of coat in his size was offered right as the seasons were changing. It was even in his favorite color.
Member Sarah Shanahan says that the group has made Jersey City feel a little smaller and more connected. “I regularly check the group as it makes me feel connected to my neighbors. The group’s members are generous and kind and eager to help one another. I’ve also loved meeting neighbors during pick-ups or finding a personal touch someone added to something gifted, like a note in a book.”
Jen Dao said that in particular with the children’s items, she’s been able to meet neighbors with similarly aged children, and learn about the neighborhood.
The Pandemic Effect
How can a group based on coming together survive during a time when the point was to stay apart? Catherina, the administrator of the group, said that the group saw an incredible increase in interest. The beginning of the pandemic, when everyone was cleaning out closets and cupboards, was a big-time for new members to join the group. Members also had to figure out how to exchange items in a way that was Covid-safe.
Contactless pickups were set up, posts were labeled as coming from a ‘Covid-free home’, and masks were de rigueur. Sarah said that members adapted to the times, and some changes are still around. “Offering contactless pickup, and the offloading of hoarded items from early in the pandemic is a regular reminder of its presence in the group.”
Emma-Kei moved to Jersey City in the pandemic. “[The Buy Nothing Group] was a great way to connect with like-minded people. I’ve even made a few friends in my apartment complex from the group. I’ve met neighbors fostering puppies who I was able to pass on items my own dog has outgrown.”
Every member we spoke to said that the group was a welcome presence during a time of change. Sarah said that “it definitely made me feel connected to this community at a time when it felt like everyone was leaving the city.” Catherina echoed this sentiment, saying “Knowing there was a community here, we were all going through the same thing, but with the attitude of being ready to help each other, was very comforting.”
Ceramicist and member Tara Kothari said that the group was an incredible resource to her during the pandemic. “I didn’t have many shows going on, and I posted about four items to give away. It was a conversation starter! People offered to help out; people were sharing pictures of my art they had purchased and shown how they were using it in their homes, and some people came and did their holiday shopping with me. Since then, I have not only donated more of my work, but have also received some great stuff for my ceramic studio: a 20lb bag of plaster, organizing shelf stands, a box of nails, and a 6-foot ladder to name a few!”
A Second Life for Beloved Items
The fun part of talking about Buy Nothing is talking about the gifts. Because the Buy Nothing definition of ‘gift’ is wide-ranging, pretty much anything could count. For example, a ride to a doctor’s appointment would be considered a gift in this context. We asked participants for some of their favorite things to have either given or received, and the answers did not disappoint.
Catherina gifted a vintage dress from her mother’s youth to another member. The dress was probably 40 years old but Catherina was ready for it to move on. The recipient loved it and wore it to a special anniversary date. The recipient sent Catherina a picture of herself wearing it on her anniversary dinner with her partner.
^ Waffles from the waffle maker
Catherina grew up in Miami in a Latin household and didn’t experience having waffles for breakfast, she explained. “As an immigrant child, you always want to do that, even though our parents thought it was weird. The best thing I ever received was a waffle maker. Now I make waffles every Wednesday. I am living my childhood dream. A lot of waffles, Chocolate, strawberry, chocolate chip! I always end up with extras so I can invite friends over too. It totally changed my Wednesdays and I have something to look forward to,” she told Hoboken Girl.
Sarah said that someone else was giving away a car seat and since there were multiple people interested. She was able to offer one to someone who had missed out on the initial offer. “It was so much better than it sitting in my basement or heading to a landfill,” Sarah shared.
^ The Cowboy boots
Sarah was gifted a pair of cowboy boots, which are beloved by her six-year-old and perfectly complete his cowboy ensemble, she told us. “Our two-year-old is equally smitten with them and regularly rocks the much-too-large boots on the wrong feet with nothing but a diaper!”
^ The IKEA cabinets
Emma-Tei received a pair of white IKEA cabinets that she spray painted, added new hardware and a top to form a console table. “It was perfect for behind my couch,” she said.
Quinn was able to lend out a rash guard for another member’s trip to the beach.
^ The air conditioner unit and plant
Quinn received an air conditioner unit and an aloe plant.
How to Join
Most Buy Nothing Groups live on Facebook. Search your neighborhood name plus “Buy Nothing” to find the group in your area. Since most groups have strict geographic boundaries, you will have to answer questions about where you live. A quick review of the group rules, and you’ll be off to the races once you’re approved.