Buy Nothing groups are changing Austin, one neighborhood at a time
At the beginning of the pandemic, Mindy Wong started baking bread.
The Wells Branch resident isn’t typically a bread baker, but she was spending so much time at home, she thought, “Why not?”
“I didn’t know how dedicated I was going to be to it,” she says, so she turned to her local Buy Nothing group on Facebook to find some proofing baskets. Her group is one of more than 80 Buy Nothing neighborhood groups in Central Texas, where people give clothing, books, furniture, food, school supplies and anything else you can think of, including those proofing baskets Wong was after.
Wong’s bread-baking waned over the year, but not her love of her Buy Nothing group. “People give away nice things that they could sell, but rather than worry about the money, they just give it away,” she says. “That’s the side of humanity that I want to spend my time seeing online.”
Buy Nothing groups started in the Pacific Northwest in 2013 and have now spread to some 30 countries with more than 1.5 million participants.
It’s an entirely volunteer-run movement built on the principles of a gift economy, where exchanging money, bartering or trading is not allowed.
Gift economies date back thousands of years and are based on members of a community pooling resources and sharing what they have. People can join only one Buy Nothing neighborhood group, which keeps each community hyper-local, and unlike Nextdoor, another popular community app, the groups do not also function as a community bulletin board for sharing news about a neighborhood.
Founders Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller started the first Buy Nothing group on Bainbridge Island eight years ago, and Austin’s first group launched shortly thereafter, says Jennifer Lansdowne, who is one of thousands of admins who help run the groups, admitting new members and helping maintain the integrity of the online community.
Lansdowne says that some people join the groups out of a desire to save money or reduce clutter, but many environmentally conscious people are also drawn to the idea of buying less stuff. “People come in for the free stuff, but then they end up looking through their stuff to find what they can give away.”
Although the groups have guidelines, there are few rules, mostly that you can’t give anything illegal and you can’t barter or exchange money.
“Money totally changes the dynamics of it,” Lansdowne says, so you won’t find GoFundMe accounts or referrals to people’s businesses. Some people do make personal connections through the groups that lead to business transactions outside the platform.
Every neighborhood in the Austin area now has a group. Tarrytown and downtown were the last areas to form groups, Lansdowne says, and some groups that were initially large have “sprouted” into smaller groups. The first South Austin group, for instance, spanned from MoPac to Interstate 35, and now there are about half a dozen groups in that area.
The founders, who published a book called “The Buy Nothing, Get Everything Plan” last year, have received some criticism for not building anti-racism work into the groups sooner, especially around how the geographic boundaries are established. When some groups split into smaller groups, they sometimes do so along well-established redlines, which have long segregated communities. Admins and users are now asked to actively address the ways white supremacy and unconscious bias prevent equitable access and participation.
Since helping launch the third Buy Nothing group in Austin, Lansdowne has volunteered at the local and national levels, mostly to train other admins and coordinate a group of translators who have allowed the group to share its rules and primary documents in 18 languages.
“I don’t know of any other organizations that are entirely voluntarily run that are this big,” she says.
Lansdowne says that one of the reasons these Buy Nothing groups work differently from a charity is that resources are not distributed based on need, which means people are not asked to prove their economic status in order to receive. Anyone is allowed to claim any item or any number of items, and gifters can give whatever and however they like to whomever without any strings (or tax benefits) attached to the donation.
Recipients are usually notified in the comments or in a private message about where to pick up the item.
When she first got involved with Buy Nothing, Lansdowne was preparing to have her first child, who is now 8. She’s now a stay-at-home mom with two kids who spends several hours a week on Buy Nothing, giving, getting and redistributing stuff.
She says she’s had "a total mindset shift” about what she has and what she needs, how she’s raising her kids and how she views work.
“It’s turned into a lifestyle,” she says.
Her kids now think like their mom when it comes to buying or sharing things. “If they want new Hot Wheels, they ask if we can ask for them on Buy Nothing,” she says.
Nothing is too small to give away. One of her kids was snacking from a package of nuts in the backseat of the car recently. “He said, ‘I’m done with my nuts. We can Buy Nothing them,'” she says.
Asking strangers for a tangible item often empowers people to ask for other things, such as borrowing lawn care equipment or information on how to start a garden. If someone wants to teach a skill, like how to bake bread, they can offer it in the group and invite whoever says they are interested. Lansdowne has seen people who have a large amount of stuff to give away host a free garage sale.
Although the Facebook platform has been how these groups have been able to expand so quickly, Lansdowne says many people eventually take this spirit of giving offline. Some passionate Buy Nothing-ers are also working on an independent platform called Soop that is under development.
“The point was never for the group to be an end-all, be-all,” she says. “The hope was to get people used to this way of living and this system of exchanging goods.”
It’s common for people to have hesitations at first because of social conditioning around asking for or accepting charity. “People say, ‘I hate asking for this,’ but that is what we are here for," she says. "We want to give you our stuff.”
Some groups organize meal trains for people who are sick or have babies. “It’s mutual aid stuff,” she says. “You can ask your circle of friends, but when you can put it out in the community and ask a stranger, it’s powerful.”
Lansdowne says she is in awe of the generosity she witnesses in her group. One member had houseguests unexpectedly one night, so she asked to borrow air mattresses, and within half an hour, she had three.
“It’s not that I didn’t think the world was generous, but it felt uncomfortable for people to ask, and for some reason, this makes it comfortable.”
Gabi Leite, who is part of a Buy Nothing group in Northwest Hills, says that the fact that no money changes hands is what makes the exchange so special. It’s radical, in some ways.
“It’s a give-from-the-heart situation,” she says. “That’s the reward.”
Mary Pierce, who coordinated two large holiday dinners and gift giveaways that started from a Buy Nothing group, is a user who has found an entire community of givers who welcomed her to Austin when she moved from North Texas just over a year ago. She often posts physical things she or her teenage son no longer need, and she’s quick to ask for anything they might also want. She also will offer her time, sometimes in two-hour chunks, just in case anyone needs her to run an errand or do a home repair.
Like Pierce, when Lansdowne moved to Pflugerville a few years ago, she made a new group of like-minded friends through her Buy Nothing group.
“You get to know people through giving that you might normally never meet, and then you realize that people are awesome,” she says.
During the pandemic, people have been particularly drawn to Buy Nothing groups, not only to cut down on expenses but also to get rid of clutter that might otherwise be taking up space in a home where they are spending more time.
Lansdowne sourced almost all of her kids’ school supplies this year from Buy Nothing and the rest from Austin Creative Reuse.
Lansdowne's kids love to use sidewalk chalk, so early in the pandemic, she asked if anyone in the group wanted some chalk decorations in front of their home. A number of neighbors said yes, so her kids set out to create chalk art on strangers’ front sidewalks and driveways. She says the act of giving away something they love doing to people they don’t know gave her kids a sense of purpose that they were bringing cheer to people in their community during a dark time.
Then someone gave them more chalk.
“There’s this power in the universe,” she says. “Things will work out if you just let them be.”