“Gifting economies” are making a comeback.

Residents of the D.C. region are giving away things they no longer need to others in their community and, in return, asking for items they do need from their own wish lists. Buy Nothing, a gifting project in dozens of countries, has seven groups in D.C., with three more in the works.

And it’s no wonder: in an expensive city, the idea of exchanging or bartering items instead of paying full price for them is appealing. It’s also a more responsible environmental choice.

Cory Chow, a Buy Nothing community moderator, and Annette Olson, the founder of Climate Steps, join us to discuss why these exchanges are on the rise.

Produced by Laura Spitalniak


  • Cory Chow Moderator for Buy Nothing
  • Annette Olson Founder of Climate Steps; Project Director at the American Association for the Advancement of Science


  • 12:32:20

    KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. The Buy Nothing project began as an experimental gift economy in the year 2013. The local-based Facebook group gained popularity, and now has chapters in 30 countries. With seven groups in D.C. and three more on the way, Buy Nothing's popularity in our region is only growing. And the effects it has on communities are more than just financial. Joining me in studio is Cory Chow. Cory is a moderator for the Buy Nothing project. Cory, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:32:49

    CORY CHOWThanks for having me.

  • 12:32:51

    NNAMDIAlso with us is Annette Olson, the founder of Climate Steps, and I thank you for joining us.

  • 12:32:56

    ANNETTE OLSONThanks. It's wonderful to be here.

  • 12:32:59

    NNAMDICory, explain how a Buy Nothing group functions, for listeners who are not familiar.

  • 12:33:03

    CHOWSure. So, Buy Nothing is a network that offers people a way to give, receive, share, lend an expressed gratitude through hyper-local gift economies. So, it's about setting aside the scarcity model of our cash economy in favor for a more collaborative approach of sharing the abundance around us. So, these communities are on Facebook. Like I said, they're hyper-local, so you will join according to what neighborhood that you live in, and then can gift and receive through the group online there.

  • 12:33:35

    NNAMDISo, when you talk about the scarcity of our cash economy, I'm assuming that means there are limits of how much we can purchase. But in the Buy Nothing economy, there are absolutely no limits of how much you can either give or receive, so to speak.

  • 12:33:48

    CHOWAbsolutely. You can give and receive freely with no limits.

  • 12:33:52

    NNAMDIAnnette, in addition to running Climate Steps -- and, by the way, I know Climate Steps is an environmental resource hub, but exactly what do you do?

  • 12:33:59

    OLSONSo, in addition, I'm an environmental scientist by training. I got my doctorate a long time ago, studying mongooses, of all things. (laugh)

  • 12:34:09

    NNAMDIA mongoose.

  • 12:34:10

    OLSONYeah. But I, for now 23 years, have been doing strategic planning for the federal government outreach. And now I work for a nonprofit downtown, AAAS, American Association of Advancement Science, helping build research capacity.

  • 12:34:32

    NNAMDIOkay. You are also a member of a D.C. Buy Nothing group. How does this group align with your eco-friendly goals?

  • 12:34:41

    OLSONSo, I've always been very, very eco-friendly, and I always have used groups like Free Cycle or Craigslist. Joined the Buy Nothing group in my neighborhood about a year-and-a-half ago, but only recently did I make the connection to climate change with kind of really Buy Nothing. I started Climate Steps about two years ago and found out, in the process, that, really, the secular economy, which Buy Nothing groups contribute to, is vastly important to fighting climate change. So, I've really been grateful for the opportunity for the Buy Nothing groups to help create system change in our communities to help support the circular economy.

  • 12:35:33

    NNAMDIBuy Nothing is an eco-friendly concept, is what you're saying.

  • 12:35:36

    OLSONYeah, yes, very much so.

  • 12:35:38

    NNAMDICory, how did you get involved with the Buy Nothing project?

  • 12:35:41

    CHOWSo, I've always been passionate about keeping things out of landfills and cutting consumerism. So, I must've found it on a website that had something to do with that. It's been a while. (laugh) I started the...

  • 12:35:53

    NNAMDIToo many transactions in between years.

  • 12:35:55

    CHOW(laugh) I started the first group in about 2014. So, once I heard about it, I was excited to go join my own Buy Nothing community. And I found out that, actually, we didn't have any here in D.C. So, I went on the Buy Nothing website and requested to start a group. The rest is history.

  • 12:36:13

    NNAMDIReally? Because it's my understanding that Buy Nothing is in 30 countries at this point?

  • 12:36:19

    CHOWWell, yeah. So, the founders of "Buy Nothing," it started off in Washington in 2013, I believe, Washington state. And so they have a centralized website where people can go start their own group for their neighborhood. And so they support -- there are some more like regional admins who help people get started at a neighborhood level.

  • 12:36:45

    NNAMDIIs Buy Nothing limited to goods, or can members also exchange services?

  • 12:36:50

    CHOWThey can definitely exchange services. So, one thing that we love to see people do is exchange gifts of time, is what we call them. So, people can request help moving or they can offer -- we had someone offer transpersonal coaching sessions, which was really neat. We had somebody actually ask for some help removing a dead bird from her porch, which was a funny one. (laugh)

  • 12:37:16

    NNAMDIAnd got the help, didn't they?

  • 12:37:17

    CHOWYeah, so many people offered to help, and then she kept the group posted with updates about how the bird removal journey was going. So, yes, there's...

  • 12:37:30

    NNAMDIIs there a greater need for the exchange of goods or the exchange of services, or is it unfair to compare them directly?

  • 12:37:35

    CHOWWhat we have been seeing most in our group -- and I think which is representative of most groups -- is that usually people will be sharing furniture, clothing, household items, things like that. But, at the same time, there's so much value in gifting time and services, because those end up really being the points where connections are made and communities are strengthened. And the people build trust and feel like a community really has each other's backs.

  • 12:38:10

    NNAMDIAnnette, what kind of impact can a Buy Nothing group have on a community?

  • 12:38:14

    OLSONWell, there are kind of two different impacts that Buy Nothing groups have. One is it kind of helps create a system change overall in terms of how people gain goods. And that can impact the environment in terms of manufacturing, transport, etcetera. In terms of the community, people don't have to go as far to, you know, shop. But the main way that Buy Nothing groups can help communities in an environmental way is to help build resilience. Kind of like what Cory was saying in terms of, you know, gifts of time.

  • 12:39:03

    OLSONThere's a member of my Climate Steps group who's in a Buy Nothing group in Georgia, I believe, and her basement flooded. So, she went onto Buy Nothing and asked for help, and people came over. And they helped clean out and drain her basement. And if there was a tree to fall during a disaster like a hurricane or other fierce storm, you could borrow chainsaws and have people come over and help each other. It really helps kind of build that community resilience that will be important as climate change becomes more impactful in the area.

  • 12:39:42

    NNAMDIIt certainly seems to build a shared sense of community, so I may have answered this question, Cory, but I'll ask it to you, anyway. Why do you think these groups are so popular in the greater Washington area here? Why do people join?

  • 12:39:54

    CHOWI think, in D.C. there's so many people who are really passionate about -- well, I mean, this is a city that draws people so often for jobs. And so we have a lot of people who are passionate about what they do, passionate about making a difference. And I think that, for D.C., that these groups have been so popular because it gives them another way to connect with their neighbors, to reduce their consumption and things that they put into landfills. And it's another outlet for them to make a difference, in that way.

  • 12:40:26

    NNAMDISame question to you, Annette: why are these groups so popular in this region?

  • 12:40:31

    OLSONI think my answer's very similar to Cory's, in that people here really believe in walking the talk. And they're very aware of global issues and regional environment issues and want to make an impact. And so I think also people are very connected to the internet here, versus my parents, say, in East Texas. (laugh) So, they are aware of the tools and opportunities on the internet for doing stuff like this.

  • 12:41:10

    NNAMDICory, what is proper etiquette in a Buy Nothing group? What can members not do?

  • 12:41:17

    CHOW(laugh) So, be civil is a number-one rule we have.

  • 12:41:23

    NNAMDIThey cannot be uncivil.

  • 12:41:25

    CHOWNo hate speech, no threats, no harassment. We typically don't talk about religion or politics in these groups. It's just not really the place for it. Aside from those basics, we encourage people to slow gift, is what we call it. So, we encourage when people share something, to let the gift simmer for a couple days before choosing a recipient, so that it gives everyone a chance to see what's posted. And it helps us avoid the feeling that we all need to be glued to our screens in order to receive a gift. And, also, that dissuades, you know, people from it being just the same folks getting the gifts over and over. And it helps distribute the gifts more widely.

  • 12:42:10

    CHOWWe also encourage people to, like I mentioned before, gifts of time, and it's a great thing that we like to see people ask for and people receive. Aside from that, it's not too much of a strict community.

  • 12:42:26

    NNAMDIIs there anything that cannot be given away?

  • 12:42:29

    CHOWThat's a good question. I think medications. If you need a prescription, that's one that we don't allow.

  • 12:42:37

    NNAMDII can see that.

  • 12:42:38

    CHOWI'm assuming things like weapons. (laugh)

  • 12:42:43

    NNAMDIBut what happens if you find that a member of a Buy Nothing group accepts a gift with the intention of selling it?

  • 12:42:49

    CHOWGreat question. So, we do allow people to sell gifts, as long as they disclose that that's their intention. So, actually, we haven't had anyone do that yet, because people tend to want the gifts for themselves. But if they do receive a gift and then turn around and sell it without letting us know, then one of the moderators will reach out and let them know that the rule has been broken and ask them not to do that again. And then if it continues to be an issue, then they'll be removed from the group.

  • 12:43:24

    NNAMDIAnnette, are there any downsides to these groups being neighborhood-based?

  • 12:43:28

    OLSONReally, the only one that I can kind of think of is the potential for the re-gifting to continue to happen, to happen within a particular level of income. So, for instance, you know, if you're in a very wealthy community and the re-gifting happens just within that wealthy community, then a lot of people will lose out, and a lot of people who may be in more need of a particular item. So, besides re-gifting, I would encourage people to think in terms of also donating some things that might be useful for others that, you know, just kind of help spread the wealth.

  • 12:44:21

    OLSONAnd, for instance, Cory was mentioning, we were talking a few minutes ago that sharing news of clothing swaps or drives or something like that is also, I think, important, so that -- yeah.

  • 12:44:37

    NNAMDIWell, what's the best thing you've received from your group?

  • 12:44:40

    OLSONI would have to say that I just got this incredible computer roller bag that is beautiful. And I love it, I need it. The other best thing was candle-making equipment. So, I just -- I have a history of making candles with my dad, and I saw that and I was, like, oh, yes, I want to make candles. So, yeah.

  • 12:45:05

    NNAMDIHow about you, Cory? What's the best thing you have received from your group?

  • 12:45:09

    CHOWMy favorite gift was when someone offered the transpersonal coaching sessions with tarot cards. And so I took them up on that and had a session with them. And it was actually really transformative. I got some good advice and insight from that.

  • 12:45:26

    NNAMDIAnd we should emphasize that there is the option, as you pointed out earlier, to borrow or lend. It doesn't necessarily have to be giving and receiving. There's also borrowing or lending involved. Cory, what advice would you give to new members?

  • 12:45:41

    CHOWRead the rules, please. (laugh) And then just, you know, jump in. It's a fun experience to get involved with, and it's a social experiment. So, you know, ask for something that you need. Post something that you have and no longer need. And there's no wish or gift that's too small or big.

  • 12:46:03

    NNAMDIDoes it ramp up during the so-called giving season, from Thanksgiving to the Holiday Season?

  • 12:46:08

    CHOWYes. So far -- I mean, this group is only a couple years old, but so far, we've seen that, certainly, especially when people receive gifts that they might not necessarily need right after Christmas. And then there's a whole group of people who potentially could put that item to use.

  • 12:46:26

    NNAMDIOh, yeah. If you are curious to try your hand at the Buy Nothing project, we have you covered just in time for the holiday shopping season. You can find our guide for fining gifts for everyone on your list without actually buying anything at our website, on kojoshow.org. Cory Chow is a moderator for the Buy Nothing project. Cory, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:46:47

    CHOWThanks so much for having me.

  • 12:46:47

    NNAMDIAnnette Olson is the founder of Climate Steps, and who is a participant in the Buy Nothing project. Annette Olson, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:46:56

    OLSONThank you.

  • 12:46:57

    NNAMDIThis segment about the gifting economy was produced by Laura Spitalniak. And our conversation about the connection between walkable neighborhoods and social mobility was produced by Margaret Barthel. Coming up tomorrow, repeated incidence of racist threatening graffiti at Salisbury University have sparked fear among students. You'll hear from the university president and students about what is being done to address it.

  • 12:47:19

    NNAMDIAnd two years later the family of Bijan Ghaisar still waiting for answers about the circumstances surrounding his death. They will be here to share their story. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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