Some may argue that capitalism is ruining the planet. I agree, but I also think it’s more complicated than that. One thing is for sure though. We produce a lot of stuff we don’t need, and a lot of us could benefit from saving money on a new pair of pants. Fashion is only one example of an industry that produces new, unsustainable products at a staggering rate, and the worst part is most of it goes to waste.
The answer? Trading, sharing, and buying used.
Buying used isn’t a novel concept. Many people choose to give away their old clothes as opposed to throwing them away, and a lot of people, like me, benefit from the reduced prices of such goods. It’s okay that someone else wore my leather jacket before me.
Trading and sharing are perhaps lesser-known practices. There are many formal ways this is done, such as community libraries, tool libraries, community gardens, bicycle libraries, and I’m sure many more. There are also more grassroots-type sharing practices like local clothing swaps, little free libraries, and carpooling with colleagues to work. Some people have figured out ways to make this into a lifestyle. Then you get down to the most immediate network of friends and family, and here is where the possibilities are unlimited.
Trading as a concept: goods and services
Not only is it much cheaper to get that potato peeler that your friend stopped using three years ago, but it’s also a way of building community. Chances are that you also have something you want to get rid of, and your friend might want it. People move, people embrace minimalism, and people need to sell things.
You can trade goods for goods, goods for services, or services for services, and I’ll bet there’s a lot more we can do if we just think outside of our usual Western ideological framework. Here are some examples of goods and services, from obvious to things you might take for granted:
- Goods: food, both raw and prepared; kitchenware; furniture; clothing and fabrics; tools; vehicles; art, all kinds, including visual and written
- Services: fixing things; sewing and knitting; performing art; hosting; organizing and planning; editing emails, resumes, or written materials; tutoring and educating; providing emotional support
You may be thinking to yourself that some of these services are just things friends do for each other, and you would be right. You may be thinking that viewing these trades as requiring reciprocation is an unfortunately capitalist view, and in many cases, I would agree. The point I am making here is that these things we share and do are inherently valuable, and therefore it is not unreasonable of us to expect things in return when we need them.
Learning new skills and helping each other advance
This year I began volunteering to help my friend with his garden. This may be viewed as a one-way service where only I am helping him, but he is actually helping me too. He is helping me get outside, work my muscles in a fun and rewarding way, providing me with great company, and he is offering to share his bounty at the end of the season. Less grocery shopping for me!
I also have friends who look at my work before I publish it, and sometimes I look at theirs too. I have a friend who looks at some of my professional emails before I send them. She is great at email etiquette. That same friend asked me to teach her the violin the same evening she taught me how to do the Charleston dance. It will take more than one evening for either of us to be any good at those things, but that was a really nice evening for us both.
Many of us live in a world where we are programmed to believe that money is the best way to acquire new goods and high-quality services, and that you have to work your ass off for the money to do that to deserve a comfortable life. It’s a myth. You don’t have to buy into it if it isn’t serving you. At the end of the day, when making these community-based trades, you aren’t doing something wrong. If someone does not like the trade agreement or feels they are being taken advantage of, it is their responsibility to tell you that. You aren’t at fault if someone feels salty about the five tomatoes you gave them for a freshly made cutting board. The trade doesn’t have to end there.
This is all true, but knowing and feeling it is true are two different things.
Understand that this is not the norm in Western society, therefore it is uncomfortable
If you’ve read this far, I want you to ask yourself, how many sustainable living blogs have you read? How many of them have you actually applied to your life? If that answer is less than you want, are you judging yourself for that?
Please don’t! Adapting to a new lifestyle takes time. A “lifestyle” is made up of habits, and habits can take a long time, one 2009 study says from 18 to 254 days, to form. And we have all kinds of mental blocks about certain habits.
There may be exchanges of guilt and frustration between traders. Many of us are not adequately taught how to ask for what we need and expect, communicate boundaries, or share our emotions in healthy ways unless we are privileged enough to have a therapist. We have to learn to navigate these feelings in ourselves and others, and that takes awareness and growth. It also takes knowing people you trust.
These kinds of practices of sharing are more common in collectivist cultures. In the individualistic societies of North America and Europe, we are expected to “fend for ourselves,” and this creates a stigma around asking for help. However, in Asian, African, and some Indigenous cultures, there is more sharing. For example, a Kwakwaka’wakw potlatch is a Kwak´wala community practice based solely on sharing.
The trade doesn’t even have to be perfect to be agreeable to both parties. There just has to be adequate trust and communication. And some people may disagree with this whole process. They may think you are “being a mooch,” and that’s okay. They can think that. You don’t have to involve them in this practice.
The rewards are worth it. It is so easy to build community when you open your eyes to your own needs and your own skills and goods. We can share so much with each other. We have great potential for growth, creativity, and companionship. I believe that this is a way to live your values while also making life easier in an increasingly isolating, damaged, and expensive world.
So the next time you need to get a new table or a pair of shorts, ask yourself, does a friend of mine have these items in my size?
How do you want to build community in your life?