The holiday season is supposed to be about the spirit of giving. But all that giving can come at a steep price: overconsumption and more waste.
What if you could immerse yourself in a community that offers generosity year-round — without expecting anything in return?
Just a few miles outside of West Philadelphia sits Lansdowne. It’s only one square mile of Delaware County, but the borough is home to more than 10,000 people — and a thriving “gift-giving economy,” where “Buy Nothing” is the motto.
Buy Nothing Lansdowne, a local offshoot of a growing nationwide internet campaign known as the Buy Nothing Project, has a private Facebook group with more than 1,400 members.
The rules of participation are simple: As long as you live in Lansdowne, you may give, receive, lend, and borrow. Just no money, no selling, buying or trading. All items, acts of service, and even time are free, no strings attached.
On a recent brisk Thursday morning, Anna Gavin, an administrator of the group for two years, took a 5-minute drive from her house through the town’s narrow streets to pick up some scarves and pencils from Diane Echternach.
Echternach had posted a “give” in the Facebook group, and Gavin responded with interest. Soon, they were face-to-face: Gavin receiving the benefit of the items, Echternach finding a different kind of benefit, solace.
Echternach’s mother-in-law, a lifelong resident of Lansdowne, recently passed away. Clearing out her house has been overwhelming, she said, but Buy Nothing Lansdowne has provided an additional route for items to find new homes other than the dumpster.
“I love my Buy Nothing community and wanted to see some of her items remain in Lansdowne, so that was definitely helpful for me to be able to go over,” Echternach said.
Before the scarves, she had given away a wicker porch set that received a lot of interest.
“We ended up choosing a woman who lives in our neighborhood, so that we know that that set will be nearby our house, and we can’t wait to see it when she’s finished painting it,” Echternach said.
Gifts and asks can be as small as wingtip dress shoes, moving supplies, or six cans of cat food. They can be as grand as entire furniture sets, refrigerators, or bookshelves. They can be as practical as a ride to the train station, as educational as a lesson in Microsoft Office, or as social as looking for friends to bike with.
Though members of the group may come for the goods, they stay for something completely different.
“I lived here in Lansdowne for 15 years, and we knew our immediate neighbors. We didn’t know them well, and then we had kids, and then we kind of saw some people who had kids. But again, we didn’t really connect. And then I joined the Buy Nothing group,” Gavin said.
Her connections have flourished. Her block has become a close-knit group with its own group chat. Gavin has made friends with other parents in the school district, and she sees familiar faces in lines at the grocery store. She thanks Buy Nothing for making that possible.
“I live in the far northwest corner. I’d go all the way to the southern southeast corner to pick things up. And Lansdowne has beautiful houses and beautiful trees and beautiful neighborhoods, and now I see all corners of that,” Gavin said.
As member Regina Colburn sees it, kindness shouldn’t be an exchange. “Kindness is a subversive and political action… Kindness is inherent in the way that we need to live our lives,” she said.
Diane Young said the group has helped her connect with the community in a way that hasn’t happened in a long time, especially since a lot of her friends have either passed or moved away. “I met another wonderful lady just a couple doors down that we have developed a real nice friendship. And now I think it’s a wonderful thing, because a lot of people moved to this area and don’t know a soul,” she said.
Marie-Luise Faber reached out to WHYY News to highlight Buy Nothing Lansdowne. “Hopefully, that inspires some other towns and communities to jump in.” Faber said in an interview.
The origin story
The Buy Nothing Project began in 2013 as the brainchild of best friends Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller, both of whom noticed waves of consumer plastics washing up on the shores of Bainbridge Island, Washington. They decided that it would be best if people simply bought less.
“It was becoming really clear to us that there’s just so much excess out there that we don’t actually need to all have so much stuff,” Clark said.
What started as a neighborhood social experiment quickly grew. Bainbridge Island soon saw several Buy Nothing Groups pop up, and the project spread to Seattle and Southern California.
“It’s a much more sustainable way of being, but you’re weaving this web of interconnectedness that becomes more and more sort of intricate, but more sort of fascinating over time, because we come to know each other through our stuff,” Clark said.
Since then, the concept has spread to 44 countries. The Buy Nothing Project says it has more than 4.27 million members in roughly 6,800 Buy Nothing-affiliated groups — like the one in Lansdowne.
Jessica Pointer is another Buy Nothing Lansdowne administrator, and with Gavin and Ramsey Beyer (one of the founders of the group), she moderates the group’s posts. All it took were a few weeks of training from the national branch. Now, Pointer promotes the group quite often as a way to build a sense of community.
“We’re so used to being on social media, I think you can almost just get, like, this non-social way of life and not have connections. We need that. People don’t realize that we need it until you get it, and then you’re like, ‘Oh, this feels good.’ It’s better than being behind a computer,” Pointer said.
She’s received a crochet lesson from a neighbor, but she’s also seen a great many goods passed along within the group — things that could have just as easily seen the inside of a trash finding their way to the home of another.
“That humbled me to realize — stop throwing stuff away. Ask people if they want it, and if they need it. So what? Put it outside, and they’ll come get it,” Pointer said.
The same Thursday morning Gavin picked up a gift, Pointer was having one dropped off. It was a plant stand courtesy of Lisa Ivery. Ivery had never heard of Buy Nothing until Pointer told her about it.
The concept of the group was a little hard for her to believe at first, Ivery said, and she waited to participate in it because she was in awe of the process. After a while, she decided to join in and give.
“It’s a way to free yourself, because everybody’s got something they can get rid of. And I think it’s nice to give it within your community,” Ivery said.
Growing up in Lansdowne, Ivery said, she could count in her head the number of other Black families who called the borough home.
“It’s nice to see the evolution of the town,” she said. “My parents were also almost victims of the redlining. They were going out with real estate agents, and they were only showing them particular areas of certain suburban towns, and they kind of pushed past that. I ended up having the house that I still currently have now in Lansdowne, so it’s nice to just see the change, the evolution, and see more people that look like me, and just a nice, diverse group of people.”
The administrators have had tough conversations about inclusivity. One question has haunted Gavin as the group receives requests from the streets bordering Yeadon: “Are we reinforcing redlining by not letting in people in other neighborhoods?”
Though she wants Yeadon to start a group, Gavin doesn’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past, and she also doesn’t want to lose focus of the goal of fostering a community with neighbors.
Clark, of the Buy Nothing Project, thinks those feelings are completely valid, and said it’s something the national branch has had to come to grips with over the years. In fact, Clark has become a strong proponent of getting away from the concept of a group created with hard boundaries.
“I think, if we can do away with the boundaries, I think it’s going to help us to not repeat historic redlining and lines of segregation. I think that these are really important conversations. We haven’t gotten it right, for sure. We’re all trying, and I think that for every community, it’s really important that we all have these discussions and just figure out what’s going to work best in terms of inclusivity, not exclusivity, and equity for all community members,” she said.
That’s part of the reason Buy Nothing has rolled out an app — so people can expand their boundaries as they choose, rather than be limited to the lines of their communities.
Meanwhile, in Ambler and a host of other places …
Buy Nothing groups are active in Upper Dublin in Montgomery County, Doylestown in Bucks County, Malvern in Chester County, and in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia, among places in this region.
Colleen Johnson, of Buy Nothing Ambler/Blue Bell/Lower Gwynedd, stepped into the admin role as that community grew. With more than 1,000 members, it may sprout a second group to maintain a hyperlocal feel.
However, it is also becoming aware how reinforcing boundaries could segregate people along class lines.
“So it would be like West Ambler and East Ambler or something like that, but you also have to look at the socioeconomics of people,” Johnson said. “So Blue Bell tends to have more wealthier people in a sense, so that they might have bigger items to gift. There’s a lot of renters in Ambler. There’s a lot more established people in Blue Bell and Lower Gwynedd, so we have like a good mix of people.”
She’s noticed that the demographics of the gift economy skew more toward women, yet Johnson said that hasn’t stopped her husband from participating and bringing home more stuff than they can handle on occasion — though they always make it work.
Part of the benefit of being an admin is being able to see the inner workings of other groups. That’s where Johnson saw her favorite thing gifted.
“Someone’s relative was going into hospice, and he wanted peanut butter Girl Scout cookies. And it wasn’t Girl Scout season time — but one of my members had them in the freezer,” Johnson said. “And so … I drove it to her, and she brought it to her relatives. So it was like a little train. But we were able to fulfill someone’s last request, and it didn’t cost anybody anything.”
Items can change hands quite frequently. Gina Carrozza, an administrator of Buy Nothing Pilgrim Gardens/Drexel Hill, said a “Happy Birthday” lawn sign became quite popular in her group.
“So much interest was on it, we started doing a sign-up sheet. So we had one post and everybody would sign up, and every day almost somebody else had this sign,” Carrozza said. “And [it] lasted about six months and I think went through 75 people.”
Melinda Levandowski, an admin of Buy Nothing Jenkintown/Wyncote, happens to be a professional organizer and declutterer by trade. She said we buy too much stuff and it stresses us out.
The value of Buy Nothing, she said, is that it provides an emotional exchange when we can find a home for things of sentimental value.
“You can actually match your stuff up with what you think it’s worth in that emotional value, like you can find a taker that values it and that you can pass it along to,” Levandowski said.
She’s big on the neighborly spirit, even online.
“I do send out reminders every once in a while, like, ‘Hey, everyone, here’s how you’re polite in comments.’ And, ‘Here’s how you talk to people on the internet.’ And, ‘Here’s how you gift, and here’s how you receive,’ but otherwise people are just generous, and people kind of get it,” Levandowski said.
Ally Sabatina, of Buy Nothing Broomall/Newtown Square, has flipped the script on the role of the admin. She and the other admins have began asking their members for recommendations about how the group can best function to help everyone in the community — not just those on Facebook.
“As our group has gotten much bigger and we have kind of polled our group members, we feel it’s important to support community resources just as much as we support the heart of our group,” Sabatina said.
Liana de Lara, an admin of Buy Nothing Conshohocken, has noticed that gifts and asks can reflect the holiday season, but she has also seen that they can reflect the hardships facing the community, such as losses from Hurricane Ida.
“It hit Conshohocken pretty bad. There’s been a lot of asks that have been going around … like ‘whole house got affected, so does anyone have extra dishes? I’m just starting at a new place,’” de Lara said.
And in the pandemic …
Things nearly ground to a halt in many groups as the coronavirus hit, but it brought out the best of Buy Nothing Lansdowne.
Mother and daughter Gillian and Caroline Lancaster came to the United States by way of England in 1988, though Gillian says, “I moved to Pennsylvania in 2004. And I’ve been living in Lansdowne, but hardly knew anyone because I was working and I was never here during the day.”
Caroline Lancaster has lived in the Philadelphia area since the 1990s, but she didn’t make her stop in Lansdowne until the pandemic. She was bored, and her mom needed help cleaning out the house. (Both women are self-employed graphic designers.)
Gillian Lancaster admitted that she has a bit of an obsession with Facebook, and that’s how she came across Buy Nothing Lansdowne.
“I mostly lurked to begin with, because I didn’t completely get the idea of just asking for something and people would just provide it. It seemed a little alien,” Gillian said. “And so the first thing I did was actually lent somebody a music score, because that felt safe. And I got such lovely, positive feedback from that I thought this actually probably would work. So when Caroline came, I told her about it.”
Because Caroline didn’t initially live in Lansdowne, she was only allowed to join on a probationary level. The duo soon started to give out crafts and goods. They really enjoyed seeing people give and receive items both big and small.
“It’s one of those things that might not make sense from the outside; once you’re in the cult, it suddenly makes sense,” Caroline said, laughing as she added, “It’s not a cult.”
They soon found a way in the pandemic to leverage the generosity of Buy Nothing to assist their neighbors.
“And then there was a food box program which we decided to help take part in, because we have a porch. And I had time and why not,” Caroline said.
A neighbor with a van, Deborah Van Dornick, and her son Jonathan Cairnes had connections to places giving out leftover food. They also made sure they weren’t taking food from other places in need. Soon, the Lancasters fashioned their porch into a makeshift food pantry, where people could drop off food or come and pick some up.
The Lancasters usually were not outside when people were picking up food, because they didn’t want anyone to be uncomfortable. Still, people in need of food would leave dish soap, because they felt like they should leave something.
“There should be no shame in needing food. Everyone needs food. And during the pandemic, a lot of people didn’t qualify, especially in the beginning didn’t qualify for any extra help. And there was a huge amount of need, because a lot of people around here are paycheck to paycheck,” Caroline Lancaster said.
That wasn’t Caroline’s only passion project using Buy Nothing resources. She turned unwanted Harry Potter books into origami, bookmarks, and key chains. She has sold them, but she doesn’t pocket the change. Instead, Caroline donates 100% of the proceeds to trans organizations that help change laws for the better.
Gillian Lancaster said that seeing acts of giving warms her heart, especially in the pandemic, when there has been so much death.
Caroline said giving should be thought of as an act of service to the community as opposed to the individual.
“And it’s so nice to reframe giving, instead of a reciprocal thing. Like, I’m giving you something to show you how I care about you. You’re my town. You know I love you. So, let’s take care of each other. Why not?”