Our kids know to not get us “things” as gifts over the holidays. We’ve worked hard to demonstrate that consuming less at holiday-time means less hassle of managing a household of stuff for the year to come. But, how can we take this one step further and try to bring-about a community-wide movement of buying less “stuff” and consuming what is already around us? I’ve found one way to do this: Get proactive, find the perfectly-shareable things that are out there, and help jumpstart collaborative consumption, i.e. sharing what’s already in our midst.
When I was a little girl, I had dreams of owning a shop and offering everything for free. I wanted to take money out of the bargain and let those who truly needed a loaf of bread simply have it, no strings attached. I imagined the happy faces when my clientele would realize they could take it home, along with the freshly ground peanut butter and handmade jellies. I didn’t have a business plan for this sort of shop, of course, but I knew it would thrive somehow. What I didn’t know then was that I was dreaming of a gift economy. Experience now tells me it works, and it can be a huge success.
Six years ago, my friend Rebecca and I started a local free food gathering that happened every Saturday morning before the farmer’s market. Gardeners would bring extra produce they’ve grown and home cooks would offer fresh baked and canned goodies. We’d see grass fed beef being shared, vegetable seedlings, and locally-caught crab at our gatherings. Everyone would bring a basket and take home their fill of produce, fruit, flowers, and other consumables. Participants departed enriched by the offerings and the knowledge that their food bills would be much less that week. A sharing economy is joyful. It brings neighbors together to share their bounty and eat locally-grown, caught, and foraged foods.
Taking this successful model of collaborative consumption further, Rebecca and I wanted to help take the burden of buying out of the holidays. What if we opened a “Buy Nothing, Give Freely Gift Boutique?” The idea is truly simple: Every family has, for example, toys their child outgrows and most are made of plastic. Or perhaps families have clothing, jewelry, kitchen items that they never use. Why not offer them up to others in exchange for free goodies that you might be able to give to family members or friends? I tend to have excellent toy karma. So, we have plenty to keep 10 families happy for years. So every autumn, I start boxing up our unwanted toy bounty in preparation for the free gift boutique.
We also have an arrangement with a local school that conducts a gift boutique for their students. When their shop (of donated gifts) closes, they want to get rid of the nice housewares and toys quickly so we pick up those boxes of goods and add them to our mix so kids and adults can browse for gifts for family members of all ages. Some families come with toys and items to share in the shop and others come simply to gather much-appreciated gifts. All are welcome.
The holiday boutique idea is a one day, once-a-year event and pure joy to see the happy faces and thoughtful children as they think of everyone in their family they’d like to find a special something for.
We took this idea about a thousand steps further and created The Buy Nothing Project, which has grown into a worldwide social movement of hyper-local gift economies set up in communities all over the globe. At last count, we have well over 1500 groups and we’re approaching 200,000 members. We’re like Freecycle, but our emphasis in on community-building.
Yet, this year I didn’t have the time to host a holiday boutique here in our home, so I collected the items from the school, had my kids go through their toys, and I purged things from our housewares, and we’ve simply been offering them up to the community through our local Buy Nothing group. A truck-load of items that I got from the school has been given away, with only 1 box left for Goodwill. Families are so happy to receive items to relieve the burden of gift-buying, and perhaps free up some funds to spend locally.
My reasoning is this: If we all just take our perfectly-usable unwanted things to Goodwill, we’re removing those items from our community wealth. If we continue to share them with our neighbors, offering up what we no longer need or use, our community benefits in small but measurable ways by buying less stuff in general and saving that money to spend nearby: in a local restaurant or shop, for travel and exploration, for concerts and exhibits, for education. Over the holidays, there’s so much right here in our neighborhoods that’s shareable. The key is to seek those items out, and divert them away from the landfill or anonymous charity, and circulate them throughout the community again and again. I’m warmed by seeing my children’s dollhouse gifted 5 years later to yet another family. These things last many lifetimes, and sharing them sends a message to manufacturers that we don’t need to make so many, especially of they’re well-made.
So, I look at our “stuff” as a community asset. Things we should keep circulating around our neighborhoods, for reuse, so we don’t go out and buy the same things over and over, producing the mountains of waste we see heading each week to the landfill. If we change the way we handle our stuff, add sharing into the picture, we can make a huge impact on our planet. In fact, each gift, in our original Buy Nothing Holiday Boutique, had a printed reminder of where the gift came from, the benefits of a gift economy, and the responsibility we each have as stewards of each item, ensuring that it stays in our materials economy, and not in our landfills or oceans, for a long time hence.