The battle for the soul of buying nothing

On the one year old anniversary of the launch, the Buy Nothing app had been downloaded 600,000 times, but only 91,000 people used it regularly, not much more than in the beginning. Meanwhile, the Facebook groups from which the founders had withdrawn flourished without them. Worldwide membership had passed 7 million. When I asked what Rockefeller and Clark thought Buy Nothing Inc. would happen if they couldn’t come up with additional funding, they said they weren’t interested in thinking in such fatalistic terms. But when I asked the same question to Williams, the COO, he said he’d thought about it. “We’re adults,” he said. “We have to shut it down.”

However, Rockefeller and Clark had not given up. They decided to change tactics once again. Over Thanksgiving weekend, they changed the Buy Nothing website so that when someone showed up looking for information about starting a Facebook group, they were instructed to fill out a form that would automatically be sent to Rockefeller and Clark. The form asked people if they had tried the app and offered a download link. If they still wanted to start a Facebook group after trying, Rockefeller or Clark would build the group for them.

Rockefeller and Clark may have realized that if they couldn’t compete with Facebook, they’d do better to take charge of what they started. A few days after Christmas, Schwalb opened Facebook and found that her OG group had disappeared. Months earlier, Buy Nothing Inc. acquired trademarks on the phrases “Buy Nothing” and “Buy Nothing Project” and reported the OG group to Facebook for trademark infringement.

Clark and Rockefeller told me that while they wanted to give local trustees flexibility in running their groups, Gifting With Integrity had crossed a line. The group aggressively promoted an approach the founders had rejected; it had combined the Buy Nothing brand with the Gifting With Integrity name; it was the spreading of old documents without what the founders considered a proper attribution. “I can’t say, ‘I’m making shoes, and they’re called Nike, and they have the Swoosh on them, and you should buy my Nikes,'” Rockefeller told me. This was quite a job for Schwalb and her co-managers. For starters, Gifting With Integrity wasn’t asking people to buy anything.

In January, Rockefeller and Clark posted to the Facebook group for local administrators explaining their position. They were just trying to protect their trademark, they said. To that end, they asked that all Facebook groups link to a Buy Nothing webpage. Rockefeller and Clark told me they needed this link so administrators wouldn’t have to make manual updates when the rules changed. But Schwalb noted that the web page was, conveniently, promoting the Buy Nothing app.

To get back on Facebook without retaliation, the OG group changed its name to simply Gifting With Integrity—OG Admin Support Group, removing the Buy Nothing section. They encouraged local endowment groups to change their names as well. Their website states, “We are not affiliated with the Buy Nothing Project and do not support it in any way.” On Facebook, the Gifting With Integrity group has 1,500 members, all of whom oversee local groups.

My own Buy Nothing group, in Fort Collins, was one of those who followed the example of Gifting With Integrity. It is now called the Northeast Fort Collins Gifting Community. A friend shared with me a message sent to the group by an admin announcing the change: “We truly believe in building our small hyper-local community and plan to continue operating on the original principles that make this group great . We don’t want that to disappear in the machinery of the new money-making system.” When I asked Schwalb how many local groups had ditched the Buy Nothing name and adopted Gifting With Integrity’s approach, she replied, “We don’t keep numbers, and we certainly don’t intend to, because I don’t want to get into the Buy Nothing conglomerate.”

In some ways, Rockefeller and Clark’s loss of control reminded me of female inventors who had been denied credit for their products: Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who helped discover the double helix; Lizzie Magie, the game maker who invented Monopoly. But then Rockefeller and Clark had begun Buy Nothing as a counterweight to the capitalist ethic that concentrates wealth and power in the hands of the few while destroying lives, communities and the environment. The project had become a success, certainly thanks to their efforts, but also due to that of the thousands of volunteers who have mastered Buy Nothing. If the movement splintered into an inexplicable mess of local variations – and Rockefeller and Clark didn’t make a dime out of it – it might have been the most fitting end possible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *