The Moneyless Economy in the USA
The free and shared goods economy is creating community resilience and alternatives to trash culture for millions of people.
Humans have a serious stuff problem. We keep making and buying new things when most of the time we could find those things in great condition, secondhand. Instead, we’re making trash at such a rate that as of 2023 an unfathomable 40 percent of the ocean’s surface was covered in trash islands, and there were literally more than a ton of trash for each one of the 8 billion people on this planet (9 billion tons, and growing).
If these heaps of waste (the lion’s share of which is produced by corporations rather than individual households) aren’t mortifying enough to drive people toward the free economy of reuse, maybe the lack of a price tag is—especially given the staggering wealth gap and cost-of-living crisis in the United States. Whatever people’s reasons might be for participating, the free, moneyless economy is flourishing in America.
Roughly 250 million people were still visiting Craigslist worldwide each month in 2022, 27 years after the site was launched in 1995—and many of those Craigslist users are posting and sharing goods under the site’s popular “free stuff” section. About eight years after Craigslist was launched, Freecycle Network came online in 2003. More than 9 million Americans were still using Freecycle as of 2020, which I detailed in an article that year. And then there’s the relatively young Buy Nothing Project, which turned 10 years old in July of 2023. In addition to providing a digital space where people can request things they need, post things they’re giving away, and share gratitude, one of the B corp’s social benefit model goals is to encourage people to organize community and local events around buying nothing.
Walking on the beach with their children in Washington where they both live, Buy Nothing’s co-founders Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller became alarmed at the amount of trash—and in particular microplastics—they were seeing along the shoreline. Clark said the two of them started the Buy Nothing project in 2013 first as a “social experiment” to try to slow the cycle of waste in their own community.
“What we found with that first experiment in our own hometown—which we’ve since seen replicated over and over and over thousands of times—is that when you start sharing with your neighbors, whether you’re borrowing or lending or whatever, you’re actually also launching a traditional gift economy where you can ask for whatever you need or give away anything that is legal to give away,” Clark told me in a July 2023 interview. “What happens is that people start to get to know their proximal neighbors. First of all, it’s convenient to pick something up from someone who lives really close by versus going to a store to buy something.”
In the localized gift economy that can start to form, people begin to source materials within what is called a circular economy.
“You keep those items circling throughout the community, which means that you are connecting with each other,” she said. “The stuff is right there, but in order to get the stuff and to perpetuate this culture of reuse, you’re actually also getting to know your neighbors.”
Clark said the project was the co-founders’ way of taking action toward a solution to stave off waste.
“There’s: ‘reduce, reuse, recycle,’ and with this we were thinking, how about just ‘refuse,’” she said. “Before you go out and buy that thing, especially that plastic thing, consider asking your neighbor for it.”
Clark points out that rather than each household needing to own its own individual garden tools, camping gear, lawn mower, baking supplies, and so on, neighbors within a community could be sharing these items. Chances are that the tools or other resources we need to perform any given task are available right down the street.
“Someone might have some cake pans that they can loan out to you for that baking project,” she said. “We don’t have to outfit all of our homes with exactly the same stuff. We can actually connect with each other and borrow those things. I have someone coming over to borrow some camping gear soon, for example.”
Over the years, Buy Nothing has been gaining popularity—not through any marketing on the part of the organization but through word-of-mouth and organic growth, Clark shares—with about 7.5 million people around the world participating in their local Buy Nothing Facebook group; as of 2023, there were 7,500 of these social media-centered community branches, and counting. The Buy Nothing app, which has only been around for about two years, is also zeroing in on 1 million users, and Clark said it is getting about 1,500 new users a day through just organic growth, without any marketing.
During the early years of the COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2020, Clark shares, Buy Nothing’s community groups just about tripled—likely due to the economic effects of the pandemic as well as the level of isolation people experienced through lockdown and distancing practices.
“We found in the pandemic that Buy Nothing could really strike a chord with people who were even more isolated [than many already are in our society],” Clark said. “So sharing with neighbors was a way to bring us out of our isolation, without having to have physical contact with them. You could go to someone’s front door without actually having to connect in person, and people were connecting online.”
Buy Nothing’s model varies from that of Craigslist’s “free stuff” and Freecycle in that it is focused on community groups, gatherings, and events organized by and for local communities around the world. The idea is that a global reuse economy will emerge community by community.
The reason Buy Nothing exists, according to its website, is “to build resilient communities where our true wealth is the connections forged between neighbors.”
“It’s nothing new,” Clark said. “It’s what families, I think, did a long time ago when consumerism wasn’t what it is, and when you couldn’t just get something the next day through Amazon. And we feel that there’s a real revival of that coming back, especially among Gen Zers who have no problem with reuse—they often prefer secondhand to buying new. That mentality is sort of becoming revitalized through these gift economies—and then you’re also getting to know who actually lives near you. Otherwise, I think, consumerism often begets isolation.”
Clark pointed out that many people, in communities everywhere, were already participating in Buy Nothing-style gift economies without the digital media aspect, which is something she and Rockefeller discuss in their book, The Buy Nothing, Get Everything Plan: Discover the Joy of Spending Less, Sharing More, and Living Generously.
“We are really trying to promote [the benefits of] people meeting more face to face, person to person, and to doing community meetups, and just generally incorporating that giving, asking, gratitude into everyday life,” Clark said. “So for example, if you’ve got excess produce, just keep it in the back of your car. You might run into some neighbors and be able to gift it.”
Clark shared that one part of the inspiration for starting Buy Nothing came from visiting Nepal, where she and her family witnessed the kind of community resilience that emerges in villages that have no nearby stores.
“In those villages, what you have in your community is literally what you have for your survival, unless you’re going to take a walk for four or five days to the nearest place of commerce—and even that isn’t going to get you much,” she said. “Whatever is brought into the community is used and reused, shared and repaired, fixed and upcycled so that it benefits everyone, in a sense.”
For its first 10 years, Buy Nothing was funded solely through donations from friends, family, and supporters with Clark working on the project full time, Rockefeller part time, and others helping out on a volunteer basis.
The funding went into the upkeep of the website and the creation of the app tools. In July 2023, Buy Nothing launched a “2.0” version of the project, created with the help of volunteer developers, which included an option for members to subscribe and become a “sustaining member” of Buy Nothing and access extra features in return. Among the new subscription-only features was the option to save multiple locations within the app, so if someone wanted to use the app while traveling, or at work, as well as in their home community, that process was more streamlined.
“Until just a handful of days ago [before July 2023], we had been funded by friends and family, and we launched a supporter strand where the Buy Nothing community could also kick in to support, because as we grow, whether it’s on Facebook or on our own platform, our costs go up,” Clark said, noting that at first she and Rockefeller were covering those costs out-of-pocket. Even with community support donations, running the project ad-free while bearing the overhead expenses was becoming untenable, hence the new launch of the 2.0 app. Within days of the 2.0 launch, Clark shared that subscriptions were already flowing in.
“Resoundingly, people are indicating, ‘yes, if you build it, we’ll support this,’ because I think people recognize that this is labor they want to help pay for,” Clark said. “Everybody [on the Buy Nothing team is] still a volunteer, but this is helping us cover the costs of running an independent platform with no advertising, and where we don’t ever sell people’s private data… we’re super excited because this looks like a really viable business model… and now we’re just going to start rolling out more and more features for both the free app and for the subscription model.”
She said over the last decade many serendipitous and unexpected things have come out of Buy Nothing communities—including some “crazy things you wouldn’t imagine could have happened.” For instance, there was a woman who lost her wedding ring in her garden, and then one day almost a decade later decided to reach out to her neighbors through Buy Nothing and ask around to borrow a metal detector.
“She shared something like, ‘I have a general sense of where I may have lost my diamond ring, but I’ve never been able to find it,’” Clark said.
A neighbor did have a metal detector, and the ring was recovered, buried almost a foot down under the dirt in the woman’s garden.
“These gift economies are open and transparent in that everyone gets to look in on what’s happening,” Clark said. “It’s sort of voyeuristic in that you don’t even have to participate in the sense of giving, asking, and sharing your gratitude. You can just look on and observe, and I promise you’re going to feel really great when you see the connections being made, and problems being solved, and people’s needs and wants being met.”
Just as there’s no obligation to participate, there’s no obligation to reciprocate or feel guilty about asking for or taking what you need in the group. One of the stated guidelines of Buy Nothing and its community groups is to “give freely,” “without any expectation of reward or another gift in return.”