Community and Covid-19: How “Buy Nothing” Groups Build Neighborhoods and Promote Justice during a Pandemic

By: Elizabeth Kimble

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect views of the Journal, the William H. Bowen School of Law, or UA Little Rock.

Remember when you were able to knock on your neighbor’s door and ask to borrow a cup of sugar? If that seems like a relic from a long-ago past, your local Buy Nothing group is for you. Started in 2013 as a hyperlocal gift economy experiment, the Buy Nothing project is now an international phenomenon that expands the definition of “next door neighbor,” even during a global pandemic.

Each community group follows the national guidelines as a starting point, but has the flexibility to adapt to local concerns. The central tenet asks participants to “Give. Ask. Gratitude.” Each is equally important in creating a Buy Nothing gift economy. Neighbors give what they have freely, ask for anything they need, and give thanks and celebrate their new-found goods and friendships.

Gift economies are fair and equitable, distributing goods from an equal standing of abundance rather than a top-down, charitable hierarchy. A gift of cardboard boxes or scraps of fabric may be as needed in someone’s life as an entertainment center, and in a Buy Nothing economy, neither is prioritized above one another. This allows all neighbors to participate in both giving and receiving, empowering participants to strengthen bonds with one another rather than taking a hand-me-down and moving on.

Neighbors can gift items, time, talent, or self. Money is never exchanged, and even referencing outside purchases is verboten – no recommendations on where to find an item or service is allowed, instead encouraging members to come up with solutions and resources within the neighborhood. For example, members can ask for and receive rides to their doctors’ appointments, reducing reliance on for-profit companies like Uber and making a friend in the process. Although not an intended side effect, this frees up capital for members to use for other purchases and allocate resources in a more mindful way.

Members have also spoken to how knowing that their items will go to “good homes” where the item is truly wanted and desired has spurred them to declutter in ways they would not have previously. Gifting versus dumping has also led members to reduce their consumerism – cleaning an item to gift has led to thoughtfully considering what comes into their own home. This reduces buying new on impulse and encourages members how to “make do with what they have.”

Buy Nothing groups are uniquely situated to mitigate both the economic and emotional side effects of Covid-19. Community is fostered over social media, allowing easy access for a home-bound, isolated population. Contactless pick up and/or delivery fosters the exchange of goods in a safe environment that follows CDC guidelines. While the Covid-19 pandemic limited organic networking and community building, local Buy Nothing groups promote a protected way to build relationships and travel without risk of infecting the community. Gifting has also made housekeeping easier and more manageable; which is “no small thing” in a pandemic.

Buy Nothing and other gift economies can further economic justice in their redistribution of goods and services. Programs that stretch participants’ resources “alleviate financial strain across fragile networks and generate more time for relationships.” Such policies can break cycles of poverty by rectifying economic vulnerabilities and increasing resilience. Members have been fed, clothed, and even housed. Buy Nothing groups also advance environmental justice by recycling and reusing items, keeping them out of the landfill, and in a broader sense by reducing the demand for new items.

Of course, Buy Nothing groups have not been free from controversy. Original groups often followed classic redlining divisions, and exacerbated existing inequalities. The work of dismantling racist legacies is an on-going process and groups struggle with moving forward even at present. While there are no easy solutions, Buy Nothing groups can consciously address ingrained injustices in communities. Strong communities are revolutionary – if you are interested in joining or starting a Buy Nothing group, please see

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