Sunday, September 02, 2018

If I buy nothing, can I re-sell it?

About five years ago, Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller launched the Buy Nothing Project (, in an effort to encourage people to give away what they don't need and ask for what they need rather than to purchase it. The two founders launched the project from Bainbridge Island, Wash., and used a Facebook group to connect givers and takers.

Because the founders strive to establish what they call "hyper-local gift economies," other Buy Nothing groups have launched on Facebook in thousands of different locations. The founders set out some rules of engagement, the chief of which is that "dishonesty will not be tolerated."

Those giving stuff away post an item with a description online and those interested express interest. The giver gets to decide who among those interested gets the item and gives instructions for pick up. The substantial list of rules holds that individuals can belong to only one group and it must be in a community in which they live.

A quick perusal of my local group includes everything from boxing gloves to a complete IKEA Stuva loft bed. Items are quickly snapped up with new items being posted regularly.

A reader we're calling Phillipe, alerted me to his participation in one such group. He noticed that a lot of stuff being offered was the kind of stuff that sold well at his neighborhood's annual yard sale.

"There's no guarantee I'll be chosen as the recipient," writes Phillipe. "But if I get some of the stuff and stockpile it, I can make a few bucks by re-selling it."

Phillipe doesn't want to get kicked out of the group for breaking the rules. But he also has no idea if anyone would catch on to what he was doing if he did it.

Since the groups are designed to be hyper-local, it's not unreasonable to think that some people who posted items on Phillipe's Buy Nothing group might notice them up for sale at the local yard sale. If people finding out about his re-selling of items is enough of a concern to stop him from his plan, then he should re-think whether he wants to go forward. 

If Phillipe had done his due diligence, he would have found that on the long list of frequently asked questions on the Buy Nothing website, it's made clear that no limits are placed on what people do with the items they get as long as it's legal and they don't engage in dishonesty. Re-selling is not against the rules.

Of course, as noted, some posters might see their posted items among those Phillipe is selling at the local yard sale and spread the word that posters might want to avoid choosing him as the recipient in the future. When something is designed to be this hyper-local, people are often up in one another's business.

The right thing is for Phillipe to decide if the risk of being ostracized by some on his local Buy Nothing page is worth his plan. If he determines it is worth it, then he should not be dishonest about why he would like the goods and go ahead with his plan. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


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