Are Buy Nothing Groups Really Free?

Op-Ed: The Buy Nothing Project prides itself on gifting “intentionally” to foster connections with your neighbors. That aim wouldn't be lost if we divested from the Buy Nothing model.

(Photo by Sarah Brown on Unsplash)

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After moving into a new apartment two years ago, I welcomed myself to the area by joining my neighborhood’s Buy Nothing group on Facebook.

BuyNothing is a larger project of hyperlocal gifting, where people in a designated neighborhood give and request items —from air humidifiers to plants to half-eaten birthday cake — and can meet people nearby by participating in “circular gift economies.” The Buy Nothing Project reports that as of this year, 5.33 million members belong to over 7,000 individual Buy Nothing groups worldwide.

When a group member chose me as a recipient for nondescript clothing, I received a large garbage bag of what I would discover to be decades-old suit separates. As the euphoria of spreading the free bounty across my floor subsided, I thought, “Have I ever worn a suit?”

On its face, the BuyNothing social movement is about reducing waste, an alternative to our disposable and consumerist culture. But as psychologist and behavioral economist Dan Ariely explains, free items trigger an “emotional charge” that makes people gravitate towards free items regardless of their economic value or alternative options. As part of this emotional response, we may overstate the value of what is being offered so that we forget the downside to acquiring it.

Read more: The Buy Nothing Movement Is Restitching Our Social Fabric, One Gift At A Time

What is the cost of free? The Buy Nothing model restricts group membership by real-estate-defined neighborhoods, confining secondhand goods to circulate within racial and class lines. Adopting these neighborhood divisions reinscribes racial segregation shaped by “redlining,” policies that demarcate where Black residents live. Since the 1930s, the outlined areas have generally remained more segregated and more economically disadvantaged, containing a higher Black population than the non-redlined portions of the city.

Buy Nothing groups embody the insular communities that are conceived and sustained by discriminatory housing policies, enforcing their own barriers to entry. Potential group members can only join one neighborhood group, and are often required to provide their addresses or cross streets to “prove” they reside there. Some groups even have indefinite waiting lists solely at the mercy of one or two volunteer moderators.

Residents of high-income neighborhoods may have more excess belongings to gift in Buy Nothing Groups, in addition to excess time and remote jobs that make gift pickups possible. Buy Nothing groups in lower-income neighborhoods have a much more limited supply of items to circulate.

To its credit, The Buy Nothing Project recognizes and hopes to address some of these realities. The group says on its site that it has begun “to suggest boundaries for groups that were as inclusive of all groups of people as possible and wouldn’t repeat historic lines of segregation ingrained within many communities” after being made aware of several controversies over group guidelines. In response, the project launched an app where gifting is not restricted by any boundaries, though the app has yet to gain the same momentum as groups that use Facebook as its platform.

One of the most frequent questions moderators of these local groups receive is, “How do I pick the recipient of my item?” The Buy Nothing Project rules state that it is up to gifters’ discretion. Some moderators, though, suggest gifting to people who have previously offered the most items, a history that is easily auto-generated and accessible through Facebook. Some gifters add stipulations before choosing a recipient, asking people to state how they’d use the item, not allowing people to resell items, or requiring people to give the items back to the group if they aren’t satisfied with them. These requirements operate under the guise of selecting the most “deserving” candidate, reinscribing classism and discrediting the Buy Nothing Project’s central tenet that all items are free, no strings attached.

Gift-giving is not a new phenomenon. People have and continue to redistribute money, leave unwanted items on their curbs, and send presents to their loved ones. But the pandemic made Buy Nothing groups flourish, as people confined to their homes sought community from the internet and were advised not to travel outside of their direct vicinities. The choice to share our unwanted items during prolonged social isolation and global shortage of goods is no easy feat. But, as legal scholar and activist Dean Spade describes, projects that create a shared understanding for why people do not have what they need and care for the most vulnerable can transform this act of giving into a radical one.

As Buy Nothing groups grow, they divert resources from more accessible forms of care and inadvertently deepen economic and racial disparities between neighborhoods. Researchers warn that affluence is commensurate with food waste and over-purchasing. Alternatively, curbing goods or bringing items to “free stores” and community fridges allows any passersby to claim the item and reduces community policing. With thrift stores and second-hand shops, individuals can travel to a store in a higher-income neighborhood to access second-hand brand-name clothes and goods. It also fosters random, face-to-face interactions that allow for increased community building across racial and economic lines.

The Buy Nothing Project prides itself on gifting “intentionally” to foster connections with your neighbors. That aim would not be lost if we divested from the Buy Nothing model. The ability to set expectations and communicate the needs of individual communities is a crucial feature missing from the Buy Nothing Project. If we can be intentional with who we want our possessions to go to, we can be intentional about broadening who we are in community with.

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Carolyn E. Lau is a Chinese American born and raised in New York City. They are a graduate student at Columbia University studying Asian American studies and urban politics. 

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