Illustration by Brian Chang

Free Market

Looking around my room, I find it is full of things I don’t need anymore: the shoes I recently bought online that are just a little too tight, the stack of books I’ve read and probably will never pick up again, the hair accessories that don’t mesh well with my new haircut. Some of these items certainly might be more useful to someone else. But where is the best place that they could go?

For many New Haven residents, the answer to this question is simple. The Buy Nothing New Haven group on Facebook, with over a thousand members, offers community members an opportunity to give away items they no longer need. Members can also ask for items or services that they want––a plant-sitter, dog food, children’s clothes. The group, run by admins Rai Darwinsdottir and Catherine McGuinness, is a part of a global project, with chapters across the United States and beyond.

At the core of the project is a push to prevent people from purchasing new items or throwing away unwanted, but still functional, ones. In a world where people tend to overconsume––with websites like Amazon where one can purchase almost anything and expect it at their door in a few days––this group aims to prove that there are other, more sustainable ways to give and receive. And unlike thrift stores or online markets like Facebook Marketplace, no one involved in Buy Nothing makes any money. In the words of Alexa Carey, a Buy Nothing Global Team Member, the gift-exchanging project is “revolutionary.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has both limited Buy Nothing’s in-person gift exchanges and provoked a greater need for those gifts. “We really didn’t know how to respond,” Carey told me. She called the Buy Nothing group a “lifeline” for people struggling financially. “Because [Buy Nothing groups] are gift economies, they were essential to people,” she said.

In a statement on the Buy Nothing Project website from March 2020, co-founders Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller required that all local groups adhere to the government guidelines in their area. When gift giving was not possible, they encouraged more “gifts of self,” like checking in on fellow group members, especially those who might live alone, over the phone or video chat. “We know how important it is for us to stay connected to each other, to look out for each other, in as many safe ways as possible,” they wrote. 

Still, local groups had to determine if they would allow contactless sharing of essential items and how they would change their restrictions over time. In New Haven, Darwinsdottir explained that they have transitioned entirely to porch pickup, with no face-to-face contact. While this change has limited the ability of members of the community to interact with one another, she is grateful that the project can continue. “I don’t think it has changed the core of the resulting project, but [face-to-face interaction] is something that we would like to do again once this is over,” she told me.

Looking back on the project before the pandemic, Carey fondly remembered her first gift exchange, back when she was starting her own group in 2015, in South Windsor, Connecticut. She received a French press, but to Carey, the material gain of a new appliance was not the most important part of the interaction. “I went in, and then I met her kids, and I met her cat, and they were asking me all these questions and it was just really fun,” she recalled. “We’re friends to this day. And I guess that her friendship is something that I value more than the French press.”

Darwinsdottir similarly recalled one of her first exchanges, in which she gave away a baby toy to another community member. “I remember that a mom asked for it, and then she sent me a picture of her baby playing with the toy,” she explained. Given the joy she felt when she was able to see her gift put to good use, Darwinsdottir encourages members in her group to make “gratitude posts” upon receiving a gift. “It’s always nice to go to the page again and say thank you, and maybe tell a story of why it helps you, or why you were happy with it.”

In addition to these tangible gifts, people can give other, non-material gifts, which Darwinsdottir categorized as “the gift of self, the gift of talent, and the gift of time.” One example she offered is a community member offering to take care of someone else’s plants while they were on vacation. To her, the project is much more than just a place to give and receive items, but a place to engage with one’s community and support others.

”Our interactions and our guests are grounded in people, and they’re grounded in narrative,” Carey emphasized. “They’re not grounded in things, or in money…It’s wonderful, but it’s also really messy.” She recalled an instance in the South Windsor group when a woman who had just undergone a mastectomy was giving away her bras. “The story of this woman as a survivor is so much more important than the material of a bra,” she noted.

In her eyes, the Buy Nothing Project challenges modern consumerism, centering gratitude rather than material items. “Consumerism is really predicated on this idea that we have very little, and that we always need more, so it’s about constantly filling this emptiness,” she said. “Gratitude is really the antidote to that. It tells us that we have enough. And that we have to give.”

—Kaylee Walsh is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College and a Copy Editor

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