The Buy Nothing Project promotes communal gift-giving, free of charge

The Buy Nothing Project promotes communal gift-giving, free of charge

Buy Nothing groups in the Dane County area offer all the free items you could think of, all while building community

Jami Dugan, a fourth grade teacher at a Sun Prairie elementary school, was spring breaking with a friend when she noticed her constantly checking her phone.

Concerned, she asked what was grabbing her friend’s attention, and her friend responded saying she started a Buy Nothing group on Facebook for her town.

The project is meant to create a “hyperlocal gift economy,” her friend explained, allowing neighbors to give unwanted things away and ask for anything they might need. Everyone who heard about the group joined, and people posted nonstop, she said.

Dugan immediately thought of her students who needed extra layers for winter, or at the worst of times, enough food for their family. She realized creating a group for Sun Prairie could make the difference for a student staying warm in the frigid Wisconsin winter or having a full belly.

Dugan soon became an admin for Sun Prairie’s Buy Nothing group on Facebook and saw the community coming together to help each other out.

“Someone will say ‘I have a friend who is homeless,’ so I definitely try to dig around the house for them, even if it’s just an extra paper towel roll or toilet paper or canned green beans that have been in my pantry,” Dugan said.

Combating consumerism

The Buy Nothing Project, founded by Rebecca Rockefeller and Liesl Clark in 2013, started in Washington and has expanded to over 6.5 million members worldwide, according to their website.

This is how it works: members from a shared, small area make a post in the group offering an item, and others comment on the post or message the giver to pick it up. The policy is to leave the item outside to be picked up to promote a contactless exchange due to Covid-19 concerns.

The goal, according to the founders, is to reduce waste and combat overconsumption while simultaneously building neighborhood communities.

This kind of gift economy has the added perk of reducing environmental footprint and contributing to a more sustainable lifestyle. Things get used and reused, borrowed and given away, so waste gets significantly reduced.

“When we moved from Appleton to Monona, I can’t tell you how many things I put out on the curb, and it all went. Two years ago I would have taken it all to the dump,” Sharon Blake, a member of the Monona/Southeast Buy Nothing group, said.

Buy Nothing groups in the Dane County area now range from around 400 to 4,000 members with five to 10 posts per day.

Stories from the community

Amy Lynch, another Sun Prairie schoolteacher, said many teachers take advantage of the Buy Nothing group created by Dugan, obtaining things that aren’t necessary, but add to the classroom. For instance, floor lamps, puzzles, plants and extra coats.

“I don't use the Buy Nothing group for things that we need, because I can ask the school district for all of those things. It's great for things like lamps where it might enhance the school experience, but would be difficult to justify spending money on to the district,” Lynch said.

Blake initially found value in the group when her daughter, who was pregnant at the time, was seeking baby clothes, a highchair, toys and other necessities

Seeing how fast babies grow, all of the things parents end up buying only get used for a couple years before being banished to the basement, but that’s where Buy Nothing comes into play. It allows families like Blake’s to save money and reduce spending habits by sharing old items.

Dugan said the groups also reflect a larger pattern of trends in the world. For instance, during the baby formula shortage, she noticed women offering what they didn’t need to other moms.

Scrolling through the page, it’s common to find neighbors offering up their unwanted food, and there are always comments claiming it. This not only offers further essentials to those in need, but it also serves as a sustainable approach to food waste.

Blake echoed this, saying that after Thanksgiving, she saw posts giving away half-eaten pumpkin pies and other leftovers.

When the price of eggs started skyrocketing, Dugan said Sun Prairians who owned chickens rushed to offer their eggs, free of charge, to the community.

‘A great resource for the Madison community.’

The appeal of Buy Nothing groups as opposed to a typical trading or selling group, according to members, is the convenience of them, their community aspect and the gratification of helping someone out.

“When you're selling things, there's a lot of back and forth. And if you're only making ten bucks, to me, it's not worth the time. If it's going to take any time, I'd rather just say, ‘If you want this, here it is,’” Lynch said.

Kat Friedrich, a member of the Monona group, said a former roommate inconveniently left behind over $250 worth of kitchen supplies, but she gifted it all to someone in the group who was moving to a new apartment. “It was useful for me to give it all away,” Friedrich said, and presumably useful for the person moving, too.

“The group is a really great resource for the Madison community,” Friedrich said. “It definitely, I would say, is one of the fun things about living in Madison, so I really enjoy them.”

“I receive a lot of thank yous,” Dugan said. “I’ll put some clothes on the porch and someone will pick it up and then message me later showing their teenage daughter wearing it, so it has become like a community in that way.”

“I joined skeptically because it seemed like the stuff that is put in the group is stuff that nobody wants, but it wasn't that at all,” Lynch said. “For people who haven't tried a Buy Nothing group before, I encourage them to join for like a month and give a few things away that they couldn't otherwise.”

Buy Nothing groups are available as Facebook groups or, depending on the area, an app. To find a group in your area, visit their website at https://buynothingproject.org/find-a-group and search for the region you live in.

On Facebook, there are groups for the majority of the Dane County area: Sun Prairie, Monona/Southeast Madison, Middleton, Waunakee, Shorewood Hills, Mt. Horeb, Fitchburg, East, West and South/Central Madison and Verona. Note that each group has its own rules and members must be 21 or older to join.

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