On a beach on the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington state, Liesl Clark and her children wandered across the white sand, bundled up in winter jackets and beanies, enjoying views of the mainland north of Seattle. Liesl’s son began building a fort with driftwood and grabbed what he thought, at first, was washed-up kelp. But it was a PVC pipe. And quickly they realized: The entire beach was covered with plastic, large and small, from a car bumper cover to minuscule balls of Styrofoam.
Clark soon called her friend, Rebecca Rockefeller. “You have to come with us,” she said. “You’re not gonna believe what we found.” The next day they collected bags of plastic trash. Spoons. Pens. Toys. Lighters. Food containers. Soda bottles. You name it, they found it.
For the next month, the two moms and their kids returned to the beach, collecting and inventorying plastic, attempting to understand its origins. The plastic wasn’t washing ashore from distant countries, they discovered. It was local. And the problem, they soon realized, is not just that plastics don’t decay, or that animals mistake them for food, or that they’re overwhelming the planet (the world’s oceans contain between 15 and 51 trillion pieces of plastic, according to the Center for Biological Diversity). The problem is also our consumer culture, which encourages us to buy stuff — and then discard it.
Nearly four years after their beach discovery, Clark and Rockefeller took a bold step to address the problem. In 2013, they founded Buy Nothing, a “gift economy platform” where members can offer or request free items and services. The concept is simple yet radical: Give away stuff instead of tossing it. Ask for things you need from others. Buy less, share more. For the duo and their eager participants, Buy Nothing has become a lifestyle, a movement, and a community. Originally a local effort in their home of Bainbridge Island, Buy Nothing now has 5.3 million members in 44 countries across several platforms.
The appeal goes far beyond giving away a couch or requesting a fishing rod. Members experience joy through giving. They provide services, such as picking up prescriptions for elderly neighbors. They bond with people from different backgrounds and feel more connected with the world around them.
“We’ve seen people adopt children. We’ve seen people fall in love. We’ve seen people meet their new best friend,” says Rockefeller.
For both women, Buy Nothing’s waste-not philosophy was instilled at an early age. Clark’s family lived all over the world, from Chile to Nigeria, and her parents were frugal. “There was a family joke that every cheese in the fridge was blue cheese,” she says. When the family lived in New Hampshire, her parents built a house using recycled and reclaimed materials from an old barn in Pennsylvania. “We even went to an abandoned quarry and collected all the stones to build the foundation,” she says.
Rockefeller’s family was influenced by her late grandmother, Inge, who fled from Poland with her family during the Holocaust. “She brought us this sense of gratitude and taking nothing for granted, using things up, being clever and resourceful, and making everything you need,” says Rockefeller. “It came from a place of deep trauma, but we brought it to life in ways that were fun.”
An example of Inge’s thrifty joy: She would crochet stuffed animals for her granddaughters using reclaimed yarn and no patterns. “The animals would be multicolored and they would end up with a head and three tails and six legs — they’d be unlike anything you’d ever seen,” she says. “Then she would stuff them with plastic bags that she saved from her bread. I grew up with really crinkly stuffed animals.”
As adults, Clark and Rockefeller met online through a local freecycle group. The two shared an enthusiasm for items that seemed, well, less practical to other members.
“I knew nothing about Liesl except she always posted really interesting things and I was the only one who was interested,” says Rockefeller. “It would be like, ‘Slightly Broken Planter Pots.’ And I would say, ‘Ohhh — I want those.’ And I would post something like, ‘Things That I Dug Up in My Garden.’ And Liesl would say, ‘Ohhh — I want that.’”
The freecycle moderator occasionally scolded them for overhyping their online offerings.
“We would try to talk it up like, ‘Here’s a pile of rocks — you really want these,’” Rockefeller says.
After their beach experience and analysis of washed-up plastic, the duo responded by attempting plastic-free grocery shopping. But they soon realized they needed to think bigger. “The real head-turner for us was asking, ‘Beyond grocery shopping, how can we not just bring less plastic into our homes, but not bring in more stuff?’” says Clark. “Can we rely on our neighbors for things, even food, that we may need or want?”
Two dramatically different experiences cemented their thinking. Clark and her family regularly went to Nepal, where they saw a gift economy in action. “These villages have no stores,” she says. “You can’t buy anything there. People took care of each other.”
Rockefeller, meanwhile, suddenly became a single parent with two kids and no job. “I had to apply for food stamps for the first time in my life, and it was such a horribly demoralizing process,” she says. A native of Bainbridge Island, Rockefeller had previously volunteered for the local food bank. “I had brought in canned food and suddenly I’m the person going to pick up Campbell’s Soup. The people are lovely, but the process I went through with our government to apply for benefits made me feel like a societal leech. It’s like it was designed to make me feel horrible about myself. I desperately wanted a sense of dignity and worth for myself and for other people.”
When Clark returned from Nepal, their ideas merged and led to Buy Nothing. Initially it was a Facebook group. The pair asked friends to join them in a social experiment: Instead of buying a coffee maker or a toy or a coat, ask each other if they have one to share. The response was immediate — and enthusiastic.
“Within the first few hours, people were joyful and they were making connections with new people,” says Clark. Some received hand-me-down clothing. Another received a base for a blender carafe. By the end of the first week, close to 600 people had joined. Residents in a nearby community soon asked about starting a group. Then one popped up in Bellingham. And in California. “By the end of the year, we had several hundred groups all over the country and one in Canada, and there was interest in Australia, and it’s been growing ever since,” says Clark.
The isolation and economic hardships brought by COVID only increased the appeal of Buy Nothing’s give-and-receive model. Since the pandemic began, membership has more than doubled. Clark and Rockefeller have written a book, The Buy Nothing, Get Everything Plan (in true buy-nothing spirit, they encourage you to borrow it from a library), and on Black Friday 2021, they launched a Buy Nothing app. The model will only keep growing, they believe, particularly among younger generations. Rockefeller sees this with her daughter, who just started college.
“Her generation is keenly aware that their lives will be deeply impacted by climate change,” she says. “They’re not into empty consumerism that damages the Earth. I think it will be hard for them to imagine a time when people didn’t just share things with each other.”
Ken Budd is the author of The Voluntourist. His work appears in the 2020 edition of The Best American Travel Writing.
This article appears in the September/October 2022 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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