Welcome the ‘gift economy’

The sharing economy, driven by commercial platforms such as Uber, has also spurred new forms of charitable giving and free giveaways. A new mix of charity, consumption, and community defines its own economy.

Photo by Simon Hayter/Toronto Star/ZUMA Press/Newscom/FILE
Darci Cheyneis receives a wedding dress from Alexandra Mcqueen through the online community called Freecycle. At Freecycle anything can be posted as long as it is free. Others express interest and arrange the pick up.

Individual acts of charity, even ones as simple as offering a used book free of charge, can boggle the mind of an economist. Giving, for sure, is a transaction. But it is difficult to measure its value. Yet as the “sharing economy” of the Digital Age grows and morphs beyond commercial platforms like Uber or bartering websites, it also opens opportunities for new forms of genuine sharing, often anonymously.

One example is a new “store” in Paris called “Magasin pour rien,” or “Shop for nothing.” It offers recycled goods free of charge to people who need them. It is backed by local government but builds on an initiative in Germany called Givebox, in which individuals create public spaces to give stuff away on a regular basis or to leave stuff, from strollers to irons.

Another new form of giving involves stores or restaurants that allow patrons to pay double for a product or service, such as a meal or a haircut, and “suspend” the extra payment for later use by a person in need. Such places promote generosity and social bonding, although the giving is done with no expectation of reciprocity or credit.

As the French publication Le Monde explains, “For a generation that grew up with free Wi-Fi everywhere, online movies and Wikipedia, the ‘free economy’ is a self-evident truth.”

These new avenues for individual giving are hard to track, unlike traditional donations to big organized charities such as United Way. They break old notions about personal ownership and capitalist markets. Wealth is created in building a community. Goods are repurposed rather than trashed. They create a gift economy outside centralized commercial markets.

Websites such as Freecycle and Freegle have helped expand giving. They accelerate the old practice of leaving one’s unwanted household items on the sidewalk. Yet they also can result in new friendships and shared experiences as goods change hands. The sites help people meet their material needs without having to shop at big-box stores.

“Sharing is the new shopping,” says Adam Werbach, cofounder of another sharing platform, Yerdle.

This is a new model of consumption, one that involves kindness and connection. Givers may not even know the recipients of their generosity. Rather, the focus is as much on community building as on commodity sharing. Economists should be looking for more than the usual ka-ching in this new Internet-mediated, moneyless economy.

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