When Buying Nothing Gives You More of Everything

You are likely among the throngs of Americans who go gift-shopping in November and December. Maybe it’s for supplies to make homemade candles, or maybe ingredients to bake several dozen cookies. A new television, a new robe, a used book. Face it: You’ll want to buy something.

This year, Americans are predicted to spend up to $682 billion during the holidays, 4 percent more than last year. In fact, winter holidays are the second most profitable “spending event” of the year, according to the National Retail Association, just behind back-to-school shopping. This is good news for retailers, of course, but what does it say about consumers?

Most of us believe climate change is human-caused — 68 percent — and fewer of us see “being wealthy” as essential to the American Dream — 40 percent. To me, that translates into “we see a connection between consumerism and environmental destruction” and “we don’t need things to be happy.” Yet many of us still charge toward retail stores at the hint of a discount.

Fortunately, better options are thriving on social media. Hyper-localized gift-economy groups are popping up all over Facebook, in closed communities where neighbors graciously give their stuff for free. Items range from furniture to food, from automobiles to appliances, and everything in between. I’ve seen people try to find new homes for their pets, and there was once, because of tragic circumstances, a woman offering enough pumped breast milk to fill a full-size freezer.

In my community, there are two main gift-economy groups you can join, both with more than 1,000 members and both managed by volunteers. One is the Buy Nothing Project, basically the mother of all local gifting networks. The movement started a few years ago on Bainbridge Island, just outside of Seattle, and has since grown to over 2,000 discrete Facebook groups worldwide with about 450,000 members, according to its website.

I joined the local Buy Nothing group about three years ago, at first a spectator more…

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