On the surface, it may appear as though the world is run by the almighty dollar and the hungry appetite of a consumerist monster fed by greed and gluttony. Natural resources are eaten up at an alarming rate and consumers are left feeling dissatisfied by the stuff they are surrounded by. This is troubling for individuals concerned with the health of the planet. At what point can we no longer pressure the earth for more output while ignorantly spitting back pollution and waste? Luckily, there are alternatives to this conventional, unsustainable economy that exist below the surface, being fostered by communities that desire more mindful and conscious resource-use.

A gift economy is an exchange method that does not rely on monetary compensation for goods or services. Such desired items are simply “gifted” to the receiver by the giver. Exchanges may occur where only the giver and receiver interact, such as through the “free” section of Craistlist.org or Freecycle.com. Or, exchanges may happen in a more public place, in the view of a community such as a Buy Nothing group on Facebook or the local farmer’s market. Gifts could be anything and everything a person is willing to give or is asking to receive and might include rain boots for a child, old picture frames for an art project, a barbecue, or even a jar of peanut butter. While there certainly is joy in being able to easily get rid of unwanted items in your home, or being able to obtain something for “free” you would otherwise have to buy, the implications of a gift economy for the planet are highly desirable and very much needed.

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What is Our Current Consumption Doing to the Planet?

In short, our current consumption patterns are not sustainable. We want and need goods and services to maintain our lifestyles, but we also have to worry about things like climate change, water conservation, waste reduction, and threats to biodiversity. Alternative methods for consumption, such as a gift economy, offers consumers the opportunity to tread a bit lighter on planet earth.

Reducing Food Waste

Food waste is one phenomena that can be reduced through a gift economy. The EPA estimates that 28 percent of municipal landfills were composed of food waste. According to United Nations Environment Program, roughly 30 percent of all food in the United States is thrown away every year. While some of this happens earlier in the supply line and out of reach of consumers, a portion of this statistic is due to mismanagement of food by the consumer. Food spoilage or a decision to throw away a still-edible product has far-reaching impacts on the environment and community. Wasted food is food that did not end up in the hands of the hungry. The water and land used to produce the food is, essentially, also wasted. And any fuel and chemical inputs that went into the food’s production causes pollution without an actual payout in calories and nutrition for the consumer. Further, if the food ends up in the garbage as opposed to a composting system, valuable space in a landfill is eaten up by products that will produce methane. This fuels climate change. Those seemingly harmless leftovers you throw out and the apples you never got to eat before they molded suddenly carry a bit of weight, don’t they?

While a gift economy cannot solve all of our needs, participating in such a system offers opportunities to relieve some of the unnecessary pressure our consumption puts on the environment. You may not be able to use the five browning bananas on your kitchen counter, but you may be able to gift them to someone that wants to make banana bread.

Cutting Down on Electronic Waste

Electronics are another form of waste that stands to be improved upon by gift economies. While the EPA estimates that only 1- 2 percent of the solid waste stream is composed of electronics, these items present a challenge to waste management systems. A great deal of energy, as well as, a diverse number of resources goes into the manufacturing of electronics. And they must undergo complex recycling processes or otherwise present potential hazardous disposal in a landfill.

Obviously, many electronic items become obsolete or broken over time and must face some sort of disposal plan. But what about electronics that are simply sitting in storage and, despite being functional, are not actually being used? Perhaps this may be a working laptop an individual keeps in their closet after they’ve upgraded to a new model, or a television they store in the garage after purchasing a larger, sharper screen for the Super Bowl. In a study released by the EPA, an estimated five million tons of electronics were in storage in 2009; this stat is comprised of computers, televisions and mobile devices, amongst other items. That is five million tons of material that might serve a purpose to some willing and needy individual and yet it’s idling in storage. Despite the number of functioning electronics sitting in storage year after year, sales for new electronics continue, thus putting greater demand on the environment to yield resources while also absorbing more pollution and waste.

Obviously food and electronics only encompass some of the goods we purchase and use on a regular basis. But their trends in continued sales alongside continued waste are prime examples of a problem our society has with consumption. We demand more even though we don’t use what we already have.

Maybe your spouse purchased a new laptop for you for Christmas, but your old and fully functional laptop may find a home in the hands of a college student. You may be looking for a winter coat to add to your wardrobe and want to forgo buying a brand new one off the rack.

Opportunities to Reduce Waste

Each of these scenarios is an opportunity to reduce demand for more resources, as well as, the production of more waste. Items already in existence are utilized in place of brand new products and the planet is better off for it. This is the beauty of the gift economy: we do not always need to rely on the conventional market to meet our needs in an unsustainable fashion. Instead, we can act within a system that places more value on the use a product can provide, rather than its monetary value and newness to the market. It’s about making the most out of what we’ve already got instead of demanding more from the earth.

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So, How Can I Get Started?

If you’d like some platforms on which to explore gift economies, look no further! Maybe you’re going on vacation and won’t be able to drink that unopened gallon of milk before you leave, you’ve got an exercise bike gathering dust in the garage, or you’d like to find some scrap wood for raised garden beds in your backyard. Consider looking to gifting or receiving these items within your community. Utilize the “free” section of your local Craigslist page to find items to receive as well as post ads for things you’d like to gift. Explore what the Buy Nothing Project is all about, and consider joining your city’s group to start gifting with your neighbors. Freecycle is another such group in which you can both gift and receive items from individuals local to you.

As you begin to explore alternatives to our conventional economy, you’ll surely find new options for skating around the current consumption model and participating in the world in a whole new way. Be creative, think outside the box, and don’t be afraid to challenge yourself to etch a more sustainable path as a consumer!

While a gift economy cannot solve all of our needs, participating in such a system offers opportunities to relieve some of the unnecessary pressure our consumption puts on the environment. You may not be able to use the five browning bananas on your kitchen counter, but you may be able to gift them to someone that wants to make banana bread.

Image source: UnitedNationsPhoto/Flickr

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