‘Can We Buy a Little Less and Share a Little More?’

Nov 29, 2013

What if your holiday shopping involved not spending a single dime?

That’s the idea behind the Buy Nothing Day, a growing movement that challenges the bargain-driven overconsumption of Black Friday and redefines the economics of gift-giving.

And a group on Bainbridge Island is trying to turn the one-day campaign into a lifestyle. Using Facebook, the Buy Nothing Bainbridge group members help fill each other's needs by offering up neglected household items, extending services and unique skills free of charge and building friendships in the process.

Growing a Day Campaign into a Lifestyle

Liesl Clark, filmmaker and co-founder of the Buy Nothing Project, says the project adds two more elements to the familiar eco-mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle”: rethink and refuse. The project, says the Bainbridge Island resident, is about questioning the necessity behind everyday purchases.

“We’re trying to get people to rethink whether they actually need to go out and buy single-use items, especially plastics,” she said.

That’s where the gift economy comes in. In contrast to typical cash or credit exchanges, the gift economy is about sharing what’s abundant, available or perhaps underutilized, and offering it up to the community, no strings attached. It’s not bartering or exchanging, but gifting.

Clark refers to a gift economy as a group of people that comes together to create alternatives to these traditional market economies.

“It is a community of individuals who give, ask for what they need and share their gratitude,” she said.

‘Can We Buy a Little Less and Share a Little More?’

Buy Nothing Project co-founder Liesl Clark at her home.
Buy Nothing Project co-founder Liesl Clark at her home.
Credit Neil Giardino

Clark and project co-founder Rebecca Rockefeller came up with the idea while looking for a way to address the vast amount of plastic washing up on coastal regions in their community and throughout the world. They wondered where it was coming from, and how they can tackle the problem. But, Clark says, they realized they needed to first tackle the issue from a more personal level: “Can we buy a little less and share a little more?” 

The project’s Facebook group is an online rummage sale of sorts, and the rules are simple: “Keep it legal. Keep it civil. No buying or selling, no trades or bartering, no soliciting for cash.”

A Buy-Nothing Birthday for a Young Girl

Liesl Clark often gifts eggs from her chickens.
Liesl Clark often gifts eggs from her chickens.
Credit Neil Giardino

Soon after the project launched, Clark says she and Rockefeller knew they had tapped a need within their community. Now, with nearly 2,000 members, the flagship Buy Nothing Bainbridge group is host to the exchange of up to 70 items a day. Members offer and request a wide array of things such as antique tables, paper shredders, dollhouses, organic coffee beans and pet supplies. And the movement now includes the very young.

“My 8-year-old daughter's birthday was a complete Buy Nothing birthday,” Clark said, adding it’s fascinating to learn even children are aware of how much “stuff” they have, and that they, too, are happy to share.  

A recent visit to the group's site revealed one member is temporarily in need of a wheelchair, another seeks vintage Smurf figurines for her young daughter. Humor is often involved, Clark says, and through gifting, meetings are often arranged, meals are shared and complete strangers become friends.

Of the more unusual requests in the Buy Nothing Bainbridge group, Clark says, was one member’s request for a helping hand in looking around her yard for her escaped dog.

“These are real-world connections made in a virtual environment,” said Clark.

Using the Community's Excess to Help the Needy

Jeff Wenker, Buy Nothing Bainbridge Member and Student Teacher at the Center School.
Jeff Wenker, Buy Nothing Bainbridge Member and Student Teacher at the Center School.
Credit Neil Giardino

Buy Nothing Bainbridge member Jeff Wenker utilizes the group to not just fill his needs, but those of others as well.

Wenker, a student teacher at the Center School, often coordinates with group members to provide necessities to the homeless community along Seattle’s Alaskan Way. 

He routinely fulfills humble requests for sleeping bags, mittens, and backpacks. He’s shared lots of things, from homemade banana bread to waterproof tarps. Recently, he presented an acoustic guitar to one homeless man by the ferry terminal along Alaskan Way.

For Wenker, such gifting has become a therapeutic routine in his daily commute across Puget Sound.

“A smile from a stranger,” he said, “is the first step toward friendship.”

His actions, hardly commonplace, are carried out with the help of a community dedicated to gifting for gifting’s sake.

‘That's the Magic of Social Media that Does Social Good’

Clark and Rockefeller have helped other communities across Washington state and throughout the U.S. start up Buy Nothing groups.

The project currently has more than 40 groups and 8,000 members. That means a lot of administrative work for the duo of late, but they’re up for the task.

“That's the magic of social media that does social good,” said Clark.