‘Buy Nothing Project’ comes to Berkeley to promote gift economy, getting to know your neighbors

Stevie Jeung started a Buy Nothing group for south Berkeley. Photo: Mary Rees

It seemed like an idea that was “so Berkeley” — buy less, give away what you don’t need, and get to know your neighbors. But when Parisa Jorjani searched on the national Buy Nothing Project website, she was surprised to find that there wasn’t a Berkeley group for her to join.

“Berkeley has a long tradition of leaving stuff on the curb,” Jorjani said, “but I didn’t find one for Berkeley.”

So she contacted the national organizers and created one herself. In mid-July, Jorjani became the local admin for the Buy Nothing North Berkeley/Berkeley Hills (South) group. By late October the group had grown to 98 members, Jorjani said.

The Buy Nothing Project encourages people to give away things they don’t need or to offer services to people — neighbors — within their own hyperlocal group. Each group has its own Facebook page. Members post on their group’s Facebook page when they need something or want to give something away.


To be eligible, you need a Facebook account. You are matched up with a group based on your ZIP code, cross streets, proof of age (you must be at least 21), and not being in another BNP group.

Jorjani, an attorney, is currently on maternity leave and says she has more free time than usual. Her baby was three-and-a-half months old and sleeping more when she began the group, so “things were starting to look up,” she said.

“I started with neighbors because it’s a very neighborhood-specific group,” Jorjani said. “I joined some local moms’ groups and advertised there. There are some other buy-sell groups in the area, not affiliated with the Buy Nothing Project, and I joined them.” She also advertised it online through Nextdoor, which is also divided by neighborhoods.

“I like the fact that it’s specifically for people who are like-minded,” Jorjani said. “In the Buy Nothing group, it’s free giving and receiving. On Nextdoor, even if it’s a nominal fee, there might be bartering or nasty comments. This group is a lot more nurturing.”

One of the tenets of the Buy Nothing Project is gratitude, Jorjani said.

“The community-building has been really refreshing,” Jorjani said. “In contrast to ‘mine first!’ or ‘me, me, me’ this is more community-based and gratitude-based.”

Further, said Jorjani, “the things exchanged are of higher quality. [Members] know that at some point, they’ll receive something they need.”

“I’m a big gardener. Early on I gave away a lot of succulent cuttings,” Jorjani said. “Then one day my iPhone charger was fried. I needed an iPhone charger. I thought, ‘Why not post to the group?’ Someone responded that they had a few extra, and they dropped it by when they happened to be walking by.”

“It was convenient,” Jorjani said, “and just amazing.”

Stevie Jeung, a Ph.D. student in school psychology at UC Berkeley, first heard of the Buy Nothing Project at work last spring, when she was pregnant and thinking about the impending accumulation of baby paraphernalia.

“One of my coworkers, who lives in Oakland, said, ‘You should join your Buy Nothing group and pass things along,’” Jeung said.

She went online to the Buy Nothing Project website.

“I looked, but there were none in (her part of) Berkeley,” Jeung said. That seemed strange to her. “This seems like a very Berkeley thing!”

By August of this year, Jeung, who lives in south Berkeley, decided, “I want to do this. I’ll see if anyone else wants to.”

Jeung was motivated by having a baby, knowing she needed help, and wanting to know her neighbors, and, of course, there were “so many baby things that you use so briefly, and we have a small apartment.”

Jeung put up flyers around central and south Berkeley and has recruited 66 members to Buy Nothing Central Berkeley/South Berkeley. Anyone living in the area between Hearst Avenue and Ashby Avenue, to the north and south, and between Telegraph Avenue/Martin Luther King, Jr. Way and Sacramento Street to the east and west, is welcome to join.

That’s a broad footprint. However, once the number of members reaches a certain critical mass, the Buy Nothing Project regional administrator will split the south Berkeley group, geographically, into smaller, even more, hyperlocal groups, Jeung said.

Jorjani said that groups are split up when their membership hits the 1,000 to 1,500 mark.

On the Buy Nothing Project website, there are links to each local group’s Facebook page. However, the idea of the Buy Nothing Project has spread faster than the volunteers who update the official website can keep up. According to the BNP website, there are groups across the U.S. and in 24 countries, including China and Vanuatu — but nothing is yet posted for Berkeley.

The BNP’s reliance on Facebook as its communication platform is a barrier for some potential members.

“Some older neighbors said they don’t like Facebook,” Jorjani said. “Unfortunately, it’s a requirement.”

An important principle of the Buy Nothing Project is keeping it local, forming a “hyperlocal gift economy,” Jeung said, “but that’s also what makes it hard to get it started.”

While there are a lot of movements, such as Freecycle, that are designed to circulate used items into re-use, “the Buy Nothing Project is a hybrid between that and building community,” Jeung said. It’s also more local. Only people within your geographically defined area will get notices about what is offered. You can’t give it away to someone from across town or from out of town.

“You can join one group only, the group where you live so you can literally ‘give where you live.’ This is what builds community,” according to the BNP website.

“You’re not allowed to sell or trade anything,” Jeung says. “You come to give or to receive.”

“It’s really very ‘no-strings-attached,’” Jeung said. “You’re not really thinking about the value of what you’re giving away, and we don’t discriminate between ‘want’ and ‘need.’”

Sherri Kron moved to Berkeley in mid-September. (At her request, we’re using a shortened version of her last name.)

“I love Buy Nothing!” Kron said.

She was very active for the last few years in her local Buy Nothing group in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. She liked “being able to meet neighbors, being able to reduce waste, and being less a part of the consumer wheel and [instead] be part of the gift economy,” Kron said.

“I think I used it pretty equally for giving and getting,” Kron said. “I used it up to the last moment — I gave away some (unused) moving boxes.”

Although it was not listed on the BNP website, “Fortunately, in random Facebook searching, I found the (south) Berkeley group,” she said. “It was that important to me that I was going to start one if I didn’t find one.”

She and her boyfriend had downsized before the move, but after getting to Berkeley, “I did give a few things away,” Kron said. “Some asked about a ‘porch pick-up.’ I answered that I work from home, and I would meet them. That way I met a neighbor who’s a massage therapist. We both work in wellness, so we talked a few minutes about that.”

“I think it’s a good way to meet people,” Kron said. “I would discourage people from doing porch pick-up. You actually meet your neighbors, as opposed to living among strangers.”

With Buy Nothing, Kron said, “you have to go a step further than just leaving things outside. It’s, ‘I give it to you.’”

The only downside Kron ever found was that “it can be a little annoying when people flake,” she said. “You arrange to be home to give something away, and they don’t show up.”

But, “that’s as negative as it gets. I don’t consider it a big deal,” Kron said.