Does it sound like I live in some parallel universe? Well, in some ways I do. I live and revel in the world of FreecycleTM, a modern day gift economy in which people give away things that they no longer need for free to other people through an online group.
The Freecycle NetworkTM is a non-profit organization that started in Tucson, Arizona, in 2003 in order to recycle waste in Tucson and keep landfills from encroaching on the desert landscape. Founder Deron Beal was working for a non-profit that had accumulated things that it no longer needed, and he had the idea of creating an online forum where people could easily post what they had to give away. The idea gained popularity in Tucson and membership swelled in a matter of months. The network has now grown into a strong grassroots movement of people in countries as far flung as Oman, Bolivia, and Turkey.
How it works is fairly simple. Interested individuals request approval for the formation of a Yahoo group, which, once approved by the network, will start accepting members. Usually, membership is defined geographically. For example, I belong to two groups: one for Decatur and one for Metro Atlanta.
Members of the group can offer whatever it is that we have at home or at work but do not need anymore. Maybe a rolling chair, bath products, a cell phone, or even unused (of course, unexpired!) groceries. To preserve the integrity of the group, people offer items that are either gently used or used but still in good condition. The idea is not to exploit the group’s largesse or to use the group for clearing trash from home; rather, we voluntarily “gift” items we no longer need or want to members in the group. Once you make an offer through a post on the group’s list serve, you wait for responses from other members who are willing to take the items. You correspond with the person you choose, and arrange for a date, time, and place for pick up. While almost anything can be offered, it has to be legal. No alcohol and no adult-only items. The rule is “keep it free, legal, and appropriate for all ages.” Members are also allowed to post messages asking for items that they need, but are limited to making “Wanted” posts once a week.
When I joined the Decatur group two years ago, I was not an active member. I would often check the messages but never would bother to offer or accept items. But now, I have mobility (I did not own a car two years back), live in a bigger apartment, and have a more stable roommate (a husband) making it worth my while to stay active in the group.
FreecyleTM seems to work well. I have so far given away cameras, jewelry, moving boxes, lamp shades, kitchenware, stereo players (for which I received more than 30 requests), and much more. I have also received lamps, bath products, kitchenware, vases, and then some! Bath products, you wonder? Yes, the ones that are offered are more often than not barely used or even better, new! I have great satisfaction in knowing that what I do not need somebody else needs and will put to good use before the shelf life of the item wears out.
Take a moment and look around you. I’d be willing to bet that strewn around that room are things that you may never really need but are still just sitting there, staring at you, as a bleak reminder of that crazy shopping spree two summers ago.
I look around me and have already spotted some useless vases passing off for tacky decorative pieces, candles that won’t ever be burnt as they’re not as fragrant as the packaging claimed, and one throw pillow too many. Now, I may never get around to giving away those throw pillows, but I live everyday knowing that I am surrounded at home and work with things I do not need and have not used in a while and that, one day, I will be overcome with a sense of je ne sais quoi and will post a deluge of messages on the group offering items and beseeching members to come and get them! What’s better, I also know that there will be folks out there who have been meaning to buy a throw pillow or two, or a candle or two, for whatever reasons. I know that my trash will be somebody’s treasure.
I’ve heard people say that giving is always so much more rewarding than receiving. Bah, humbug, I said! Wait until I get all those free goodies from FreecycleTM! After a year of active participation, I would have to grudgingly agree with those altruists. It does feel better to give away something that you have owned. It is not merely a disembodied email to which you respond. Almost all the items I have given away, I have personally handed over to the receiver. The idea that in some small way you are bringing a few moments of cheer to an absolute stranger’s life gives far more pleasure that receiving a new Bath and Body lotion for free.
FreecycleTM is only one outgrowth of the environmental movement. (Here I have to differentiate between the environmental movement and the trend that is environmentalism. The trend is more sympathetic toward what I would call materialistic environmentalism, where one goes out and buys recyclable grocery bags or replaces halogens with CFCs. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) The FreecycleTM philosophy draws from other lifestyle movements such as voluntary simplicity, anti-consumerism, and self-sustaining communities.
One need look no further than Auroville in Pondicherry, India, for a fitting illustration of successful experiments in community self-sustenance. Furthermore, many of these movements (at least in the United States) date back to the early 1960s. More recently, there have been several Malcolm Gladwell-esque “tipping points” that have spurred an explosive interest in going green: recent debates about climate change, peaking with Al Gore’s Oscar winning documentary, The Inconvenient Truth; rising oil prices which have contributed to rising food prices; a plethora of books that have aroused interest in ethical food and consumption practices,(e.g. Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma); the economic downturn; and finally, the online activism demonstrated by millions of bloggers who have made it their life’s mission to follow ambitious goals in simple and ethical living (e.g.: www.100milediet.org).
Participating in the gift economy is an easy first step to challenging larger issues such as conspicuous consumption and climate change. It also takes the edge off the penny pinching that we’re all forced into with the economic downturn. Why go out and buy a rug at IKEA for $9.99 when I can get a similar, mildly used one for free? On the flip side, why should I dump those corrugated boxes when I could give them away to somebody who’s looking for boxes to facilitate their move?
Researchers studying the Gift Economy observe that groups such as FreecycleTM offer powerful alternatives to financial transactions and interactions. A similar model being explored is reciprocal altruism: things are given away with no written or oral agreement for an exchange, but with the understanding that the giver may one day receive something that she needs from the same or different receiver.
FreecycleTM is not a freebie bonanza. For the community to work, members understand that they cannot grab all that is offered and not reciprocate with counter offers. Now, having said that, I am skeptical about how each community deals with errant, greedy members. The most obvious monitoring is, of course, keeping tabs on the number of “wanted” ads posted on the list serve. Moderators can easily track which members place disproportionate requests for items and can curtail their rights within the groups. But there is not a system in place to check the members who are always first to accept items offered by other members. Notwithstanding these seeming loopholes, the network works!
The Freecycle NetworkTM is not without detractors who have accused it of succumbing to commercial interests because FreecycleTM now has corporate sponsorship from Waste Management, Inc., a leading provider of waste and trash removal services in the United States. Beal, the founder, has also been criticized for being too fastidious about trademark issues. Detractors claim that “freecycle” is a generic term; Beal claims otherwise. These and other issues have annoyed the more radical early FreecycleTM members and supporters—so much so that there are now break-away groups like www.freesharing.org, a loose network of local groups that do not receive any sponsorship.
Still, FreecycleTM now has more than 4,500 groups with more than 5.5 million members in 70 countries. With a global population of over six billion, that may seem like a drop in the ocean, but it is a drop nonetheless.
By the way, I have been trying to pass off this fine portable CD player for months on end in my group. It has one tiny flaw-it doesn’t work. Don’t get me wrong. People often offer articles that do not work, hoping that techno geeks out there will fix and enjoy them. I have had no such luck. It’s SONY to boot! I’ll tell you what: I’ll throw in a pillow and two candles if I hear back from you.
Girija Sankar is a graduate student in Atlanta, Georgia.