Buy Nothing Bainbridge: A Gift Economy Movement that has Morphed into a Global Phenomenon
Buy Nothing? It’s sounds like an oxymoron, but in truth it’s the name of a gift economy movement – Buy Nothing, Share Everything – that was started nearly a decade ago by two Bainbridge Island women, and has since gone global.
If you’ve trolled the Internet looking for just about anything over the past several years, chances are you stumbled across the Buy Nothing Project platform (https://buynothingproject.org/).
Simply put, Buy Nothing offers people a way to give and receive, share, lend, and express gratitude through a worldwide network of gift economies in which the true wealth is “the web of connections formed between people who are real-life neighbors,” says co-founder Rebecca Rockefeller. There’s no cost associated with participating on Buy Nothing. It’s free. There’s no buying, selling, trading or exchange of money.
Rockefeller started the innovative online marketplace with island buddy and fellow environmentalist, Liesl Clark, around 2013, and it has since mushroomed into something of a worldwide phenomenon with more than 6.5 million members across the globe, and 7,500-plus established communities located in 20 countries.
If that wasn’t enough work to keep them busy, the high-energy entrepreneurs have written a book – “Buy Nothing, Get Everything,” available on Amazon and other online book-selling sites. What’s more, they’ve created a separate app for users and potential users (which, thus far, has had more than 650,000 downloads); they do a regular podcast preaching their philosophy; and in the coming year, are mulling a fundraising campaign to help monetize their efforts.
“We believe that communities are more resilient, sustainable, equitable, and joyful when they have functional gift economies,” says the 53-year-old Rockefeller, who grew up on Bainbridge and met Clark while trying to navigate the local Free Cycle Network. The latter is an online platform used by people who wish to keep items out of the waste stream by attempting to recycle or repurpose them.
“She’s my best friend,” Rockefeller says of Clark. “We were constantly getting into trouble (on Free Cycle) by giving away too many things and saying too much,” in their descriptions of each item.
After fomenting their budding kinship, the two moms soon found each other volunteering at the Commodore Options Home School program and began advocating for more environmental stewardship. “We realized that much of the beachscape around us was washed-up plastic, plastics of every shape, color and size,” Rockefeller recalls. “We spent years collecting and inventorying those plastics and learned that they come from each of us, from our homes, our cars, our workplaces. They wash down our watersheds into our oceans.”
“We started the Buying Nothing Project in an effort to stave off pervasive plastics in every ecosystem on Earth by encouraging each of us to Buy Less and share more.”
The movement started innocently enough with a potluck at Waterfront Park on Bainbridge. “We encouraged people to bring whatever they wanted as something extra (that they could share) – food from gardens, chicken eggs, whatever they thought would work for a gift economy,” Rockefeller remembers. “I brought something I didn’t want and left with something magical.”
The Buy Nothing Project started slowly on Facebook in the summer 2013. “We had 100 (followers), then 200, then 300,” Rockefellers says. “Several months into it we had people asking us to set up groups… (Now) pretty much wherever you live, there’s a group devoted to Buy Nothing.” The organization’s app – launched in 2021 on Black Friday, the traditional start of the holiday shopping season, of which Rockefeller jokingly calls “Buy Nothing Day” – makes it that much easier for volunteer leaders and groups to form and participate. Depending on the density of someone’s neighborhood, the Buy Nothing app has a built-in feature that allows users to set a radius of between two to 20 miles to make it easier to establish groups.
Rockefeller says that from Bainbridge Island to Port Townsend and throughout Kitsap County, there are at least 20, if not more, Buy Nothing groups operating independently. “Our goal is to bring people together,” she says, reiterating the site’s reoccurring theme. “We’re enabling people to build a sense of community. Anyone can participate at anytime.”
So what do you do exactly on the site and how do people benefit? Participants of Rockefeller’s and Clark’s gift economy essentially operate on three levels: by expressing gratitude, asking for a service or an item to borrow or keep, or by giving an item or service that someone else could use or may need.
For example, someone might have tangible goods they want to share, an available service, such as accounting or weeding, or a willingness to share an experience. The latter could be something as simple as gifting concert tickets, or a bit more complicated like sharing a week in someone’s Hawaiian time-share.
“The more common situation,” Rockefeller explains, are “parents helping kids, or kids helping parents” who are moving in or out, “and they have a garage full of stuff” they want to gift and share with their community.
Participants basically put together a profile of themselves, add an address and contact information, and voilà, they’re ready to share or receive a gift or make an offer for a particular service. “It only takes a couple of minutes,” says Rockefeller. “The more personality you put into the description (of a particular gift), the more people are going to respond.”
Whether they are offering a tangible product or a specific service – “gifters” typically choose the recipient of their offer and communicate through private messaging as to the mechanics of completing the transaction.
After majoring in political economics and social change, with an emphasis on feminist theory at Evergreen College, Rockefeller held down a number of different jobs over the years, including as a dental assistant and a kayaking guide in the San Juan Islands. She says her varied background has made her uniquely qualified to launch and run the Buy Nothing Project.
But after years of starting up the formation of new groups, she and Clark have handed off much of the heavy lifting to a cadre of volunteers. “All those private groups are led by volunteers now,” says Rockefeller. “It’s all part of the gift economy.”
Closer to home, the duo’s own team of special volunteers answer emails and questions from participants, help set up groups and deal with a variety of other tasks, such as monitoring the organization’s web site. “We do accept contributions and know (down the road) that we eventually want to widen our investment pool.”
Towards that end, Rockefeller and Clark are experimenting with ways to monetize their operations with perhaps a membership model or a premium subscription approach that will allow participants to take full advantage of what the Buy Nothing Platform has to offer.
“We’re trying to figure out what our revenue (stream) will be going forward,” Rockefeller says. “None of these things are created yet, but we’re working towards all of them.”
Clark, 56, has recently been busy meeting with angel investors and venture capital firms, including Kayak co-founder Paul English, to raise a round of seed funding. English has committed $100,000 to the venture, contingent upon the participation of a lead investor.
The pair says the financing is key in their effort to morph the grassroots gift-giving movement into a revenue-generating startup and app developer. It would also allow them to hire Silicon Valley entrepreneur and former Intuit executive Hugh Molotsi, who’s considering joining the company as chief technology officer, and pay a dozen or so core volunteers located around the globe.
Meanwhile, the two businesswomen are trying to “offset the world’s carbon footprint” by allowing people to gift and share their tangible goods rather than having them end up in a landfill.
Portions of this story appeared in the most recent issue of Tideland Magazine.
Core Principles of the Buy Nothing Platform
- We believe our hyper-local groups strengthen the social fabric of their communities, and ensure the health and vitality of each member.
- We come from a place of abundance ~ not scarcity.
- We believe in abundance, we give, we ask, we share, we lend and we express gratitude.
- We are a gift economy, not a charity. We see no difference between want and need, waste and treasure.
- We do not buy, sell, trade, barter, or otherwise exchange money for items or services.
- We measure wealth by the personal connections made and trust between people.
- We value people and their stories and narratives above the ‘stuff.’
- We are inclusive at our core.
- We value honesty and integrity in all our interactions.
- We view all gifts as equal; the human connection is the value.
- We believe every community has the same wealth of generosity and abundance.
*Images and logos used with permission
If you’d like to read more articles from The Island Wanderer Blog website, click here, to subscribe to The Island Wanderer Blog, click here.
ADVERTISE WITH US! We offer exceptional rates and packages for advertisers, to learn more, contact us at Contact Us | THE ISLAND WANDERER