Buy nothing groups are gaining traction in Canada and across the world

With the pandemic in full swing and my neighbourhood nursery closed for the foreseeable future, the options to get new plants and indulge my green thumb close to home were pretty much nil. That is, until a friend suggested I join my neighbourhood Buy Nothing group on Facebook.

Within a day of logging on, there was a post offering “spider babies,” cuttings of spider plants. After replying that I was interested, a direct message told me where I could get them. I picked them up at a house just two blocks away, meeting a neighbour in the process, and bonding over our mutual love of greenery and dogs.

Plants are just one of hundreds, maybe thousands, of things you’ll see listed on Buy Nothing pages. On any day in my Vancouver neighbourhood, you will see everything from offers of clothes, household goods, electronics, furniture, books, sports equipment, food, makeup, toys—all for free.

And while the cost savings is an obvious plus, Buy Nothing groups have two significant benefits: diverting hordes of “stuff” from the landfill and giving items new life, while also building community—something that isn’t always easy in an urban setting.

The Buy Nothing project was started by two friends as an experimental hyper-local gifting economy in Washington State in 2013. The pair wanted to address the “reduce” part of the reduce, reuse, recycle equation. Through gifting existing items and sharing them in a community, those communities are reducing their dependence on single-use items and extending the livelihood of their goods.

Its popularity exploded: In just seven years, it’s become a worldwide social movement, with more than 1.2 million participants in thousands of groups in 30 countries.

There are some basic rules, including only joining one hyper-local neighbourhood group so you can “literally give where you live.” Reselling items is a big no-no. Ditto for posting items for rent or sale, barter or trade. You can ask for items on behalf of someone else—a friend having a baby, for instance—as long as you’re upfront about it.

Offers of goods aren’t the only posts you’ll see in the Buy Nothing groups. Users also post requests for goods and services they’d like to share, borrow or keep (what’s termed an ISO, or 'in search of'). This could be anything from a mandolin to slice veggies to someone who could help repair a pair of pants or, in one notable case, a singular ripe banana to use in a recipe (the request was fulfilled in 10 minutes).

In that same vein of community, posters can offer up services or items they think would be appreciated. In my neighbouhood, a landscaper offered to help people with their yard work, simply because she wanted some exercise.

Expecting her first child, Marla Sellyn was drawn to the Buy Nothing experience because she and her husband were “trying [their] best not to add to the baby waste of the world.”

“It’s a great way to ensure baby gear gets used for its full life rather than just for one baby. It goes to a good home instead of a landfill,” she says.

By keeping an eye on her local group, Sellyn has been able to grab a number of things they needed—or didn’t even know they needed—and have been able to save money in the process. That includes a playpen, carrier, swing, rocking chair, bathtub, stroller, changing table, baby bike seat and bottle warmer.

Living in an urban setting, Sellyn says the group helps to humanize what can feel like living among strangers.

“We even noticed people proactively posting tagging neighbours in other posts because they knew they were looking for something similar. It's a win-win-win—for the giver, the receiver and the neighbourhood,” she says.

Now a believer, she’d recommend it to other moms-to-be to save money, help mother earth and eat other mothers close to home.

Frédérique Brisebois joined her neighbourhood Buy Nothing group almost a year ago and became an admin for the page shortly after.

Her favourite score is a large, flat, Smart TV: “It isn't the newest but it suits our needs and it's great that someone's upgrade means another can have a bit of (previously unseen) luxury.”

Brisebois has seen a lot of interesting things listed, including singled out container lids, bananas and other produce, rabbit poop “which is apparently great as compost,” to tablets and scooters.  There’s also items like puzzles and books “being posted time and time again” recirculated to new group members in the community.

The most common rule Brisebois sees broken is to post alcoholic beverages, but in general people abide by the commandments. She hasn’t had to ask people to leave, other than people who have joined multiple groups (you can’t be in double groups, in the spirit of participating where you live).

One of the Buy Nothing best practices is “Let It Simmer,” which is very different from the normal “go-go-go aspect” of regular free item outlets, like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace, she says. It encourages members to leave their posts up for about a day before choosing a recipient, which can be done by lottery, which is most common, just choosing someone from interested parties. It also gives “a chance for members to disconnect from Facebook without the fear of the first-come, first-served mentality that is often present in other forums,” says Brisebois.

In the past year through her Buy Nothing group, Brisebois has met a lot of people in her neighbourhood, including one she now calls her best friend. 

“I've grown to know my community, who has kids around the same age as mine for meet-ups, who follows the same diet, who is nearly pregnant, just moved in and needing supplies for their home, who is moving away (this part can be hard), who has the same pastime, reading preferences or business as I do,” she says.

“I simply love the feel of small communities and it is hyper-local groups like these that can make big cities feel like a tiny town.”



Becoming a part of your local community’s Buy Nothing movement is as simple as hopping online and answering a few questions. Use this link to find the group in your area. It will take you directly to the Facebook page where you can join. You’ll have to answer three questions and an administrator will approve your entrance.