Buy Nothing Groups

Buy Nothing groups have taken sharing to a new level of sophistication. I had known of the program for about a year and finally joined a Facebook group for the county I live in. The idea is that goods are listed for exchange and no one is allowed to charge money.

I speak from my experience with American neighborhoods. I’m keenly interested in how these norms compare internationally, but I have no expertise. A curb norm that persists today is that, if you put something on the curb to indicate that you are about to throw it away, then anyone is welcome to take it at no cost.

Craigslist (founded in 1995) enabled people to connect on the internet to sell and swap unwanted goods. Craigslist has a “free” category. It is understood for Craigslist users that quality of goods will be lower in the free section of the website.

Facebook Marketplace, as far as I can see, is encroaching on the territory of Craigslist. If you are active on Facebook already, then it’s easy to use Marketplace. I have bought and sold household and kid items through Marketplace. I have benefitted from and contributed to the sharing of used goods for free, with coordination via Facebook Groups. I haven’t personally used Craigslist in years.

So, even without the work of the Buy Nothing founders, there are ways to share used goods with neighbors. What is the appeal of Buy Nothing? I may have to mostly move on from this, but obviously social status and pro-social norms can explain a lot of the behavior.

Furthermore, why would anyone give away their stuff (it’s not all used, some is brand new in the box) in a Buy Nothing group. It takes some work and you earn no commission.

People (at least the people I know) feel a crushing guilt for throwing away something that could be used by someone else. We were raised on the phrase “how dare you throw that food away when there are starving children in [place]”. So, these people will put in some effort to connect their unwanted goods with a recipient who can use it. It’s not like I’m putting a $10 bill in a box to avoid guilt, but being part of these groups takes time in which I certainly could have earned $10. Opportunity cost, and the failure to account for it, is key to making sense of these behaviors. I would never have paid cash to join this group.

Economists say “there is no such thing as a free lunch”. What about a free coffee maker, new in the box? Is there such a thing as a free coffee maker? Not quite.

Someone who gets a coffee maker at zero price from these groups has to

  1. Start and maintain a Facebook account. Get into the private Facebook group.
  2. Communicate in a way that is not offputting to the people (mostly women) offering free stuff.
  3. Arrange a pick up time and place.
  4. Travel to and from the location – often that means the “buyer” comes all the way to the “seller”.

I posted a curtain rod on the Buy Nothing group as soon as I joined. One woman messaged me about it. When she found out where I lived she said it was too far and not worth the trip. So, now I face the prospect of throwing it away (God help my soul) or letting it gather dust in my house for yet more weeks.

I have a sense that economically significant transactions are going on here, outside of the reach of the statistics we like to possess for serious analysis. Data on item quality, retail value, and the distance for pick up would certainly be interesting.

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