Free SpiritA primer on the gifting economy.

Free SpiritA primer on the gifting economy.

  • Words Debika Ray
  • Photograph Luca Anzalone

Photo: Courtesy of Ahluwalia Studio

( 1 ) Dryer lint can serve many useful purposes: As hamster bedding, as package filler and—when stored inside a toilet paper tube—as a fire starter. Failing that, it’s also biodegradable and can be put on a compost pile.

“Find your abundance mindset. Give away or ask for anything you want.” This is the inspiring, sweeping slogan of the Buy Nothing Project, an online community committed to exchanging free stuff among local people that was founded in 2013. A few decades into the internet era, the distribution of our excess resources online is a familiar concept: A similar platform, the Freecycle Network was founded a decade earlier in 2003; Gumtree, Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace are all full of people off-loading their unwanted possessions.

The Buy Nothing Project built on these concepts, but its founders, Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller, had loftier ideals: not only to be a means of exchanging goods, but to be a hyperlocal social movement that would ultimately create stronger bonds and encourage a spirit of generosity. “We exist to build resilient communities where our true wealth is the connections forged between neighbors,” its website states, before claiming 7.5 million members across 128,000 communities around the world.

Clark and Rockefeller also differentiated the platform from other networks in that it encouraged requests, not just offers, and that it wanted to make people feel good about whatever they had to give—however bizarre. “Literally, we want people to come in and offer their onion skins and their chunks of concrete,” Rockefeller once told the magazine Wired. Today, the things people exchange range from the usual furniture pieces and household items to the unexpected (breast milk, a rug covered in dog poop) to the seemingly useless (a half-eaten pizza and dryer lint).1

Like many idealistic social projects, as the Buy Nothing Project has grown, it has attracted criticisms. Some are predictable: Of course, it won’t solve poverty and the environmental crisis on its own; it doesn’t tackle the underlying structural causes of inequality; online groups predicated on personal interactions always run the risk of becoming monoculture or exclusionary. Other critiques are more practical: The exchange of regulated items, such as medicines or safety equipment, is potentially dangerous. 

What is perhaps more interesting is that, through this prism of formal exchange, seemingly worthless commodities are magically finding value—the lint and pizza remnants are just the tip of the iceberg. Are we simply incapable of resisting the urge to consume? Or is there something about the notion of “free” that encourages a tendency to hoard? After all, there’s no limit to how much free stuff you can afford.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the kind of mindful consumption encouraged by the craft movement: objects produced in small batches, thoughtfully—often by hand—and usually given quite high prices to reflect the labor and materials. Such prices force people to think twice about buying, but also exclude anyone who can’t afford them.

There is no doubt that we have, on this planet now, more stuff than we will ever need, making any attempt to curb excessive production and encourage a mindful approach to consumption worthwhile. Making ethical choices should be an option for everyone, regardless of means. And whether free or consciously expensive, it’s clear that price is rarely an indicator of value—it’s simply a way of signaling our own priorities. The methods we choose matter little, as long as we start by asking if we need something at all.

Photo: Courtesy of Ahluwalia Studio

( 1 ) Dryer lint can serve many useful purposes: As hamster bedding, as package filler and—when stored inside a toilet paper tube—as a fire starter. Failing that, it’s also biodegradable and can be put on a compost pile.

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