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Organic Commerce: The Age of Swapping and Sharing


[Photo by Jill Ettinger, A Clothing Swapper]

Despite what we may be told by politicians or economists, it doesn't take a genius to recognize that the economy has not fully recovered from the recession that was supposed to have ended in 2009. Rising food and fuel costs are making headlines daily. CBS news magazine, 60 Minutes, just aired a segment that highlighted an alarming number of children who are legitimately homeless and often go to school hungry. Not only could we all use some creative ways to save money, but we could also benefit from honest-to-goodness community connections that make us feel wealthy in ways immeasurable by bank accounts.

When we're so used to spending money in a sterile and vapid exchange between store shelf and cashier—or mousepad/computer screen—the act of discussing your needs or actively trading your belongings with someone else is strange at the very least, and exhilarating in ways unexpected. It may, in fact, lead to stomach knots, doubts and grumbles that soon turn into joy, giddiness and anticipation of the next event.

Gift Circles


[Photo by Jill Ettinger, A Gift Circle]

A gift circle is an open forum where people come to help each other and share their needs and services. For example, perhaps you need a ride to the airport on Tuesday and Bob needs a new garden hose. You may have an extra hose, or he may already be going to the airport on Tuesday. Or maybe someone else in the group can help. The gift circle is reciprocal through its design, meaning you may not directly help Bob even if he directly helps you.

The concept belongs to a man named Alpha Lo, who started the circles in the Bay area. Similar to a Time Bank, but without having to log a certain number of hours, a gift circle may satisfy someone's need with little effort. Time Banks require members to serve hours in order to spend them. But that may not be feasible for people with busy schedules.

At my first gift circle, I was in desperate need of someone to help me with a computer program. No one could help. I offered my services: writing, baking awesome vegan cookies. No one needed those either (I find it hard to believe no one needs cookies…), but one of my fellow gift circlers had some questions about yoga, and specifically the studio where I received my teacher training. I was able to answer some questions, make some recommendations and he eventually took classes at the studio. Other needs were met almost instantly—rides to the airport, someone got a desk chair, compost bins, et cetera.

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From the Organic Authority Files

At my second gift circle, I begged (and am still begging if anyone wants to help!) for a ticket to the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Fest in Los Angeles next month. Sigh. No luck yet. But no matter. Sitting in the gift circle is in and of itself, a gift. Listening to my friends and the community openly share their needs and their gifts seems like something we should all be doing more of these days.

The Swap


[Photo by Jill Ettinger, Clothing Swap Founders Melissa Massello and Amy Chase]

An unseasonably cold February evening in Los Angeles warmed up with lots of free champagne and the prospect of "new" clothes at the clothing swap being held in West Hollywood. Founders Amy Chase and Melissa Massello got the idea to turn their favorite past time into a business: swapping clothes with friends. Most of us (women at least) have done this. Whether with a sister, cousin or BFF, there's no reason to let good clothes go to Goodwill before our loved ones get a chance to snag 'em up.

The clothing swap is a thrill. Though it costs $20 to get in—you can leave with hundreds of dollars in clothing. You bring a bag of wearable, preferably designer digs, and you get a bag to fill. The Swap team sorts and sets up your used wares on racks and tables. Anxious girls (I saw one guy there too) sip free champagne, snack and chat while waiting for the room to be prepared. Then, the doors open and the women move in. Some eagerly rush to racks and start grabbing, others hesitate and move more methodically. It doesn't take long before all of the clothes are gone, bags are stuffed, and it's hard to tell whether cheeks are red from all the champagne, the swapping or both.

To get the full experience, I brought some clothes to swap that had just been taking up space in the closet for years. A few dresses, a nice pair of Calvin Klein slacks, a sweater, some cute spring tops, even a necklace and some scarves. I walked out with 5 pairs of pants, 4 sweaters and 3 shirts. All look brand new. All of what I brought was gobbled up quickly, too. I didn't see any of my items at the end of the night except for one shirt, which I wasn't sure I was ready to part with anyway, so yes, I brought it back home with me.

Like the Gift Circle, it's nice to see people sharing in a group. Although I don't know whose clothes I took home, I know they were there, and maybe even took some of my things home too. As for the $20 to get in, a trip to a thrift store nowadays will cost you a lot more than that, and last I checked, they don't serve champagne.

For truly free items, there's and the free section on Craigslist, and sites like, where parents fill boxes with outgrown baby clothes and swap with other parents. And Time Banks keep popping up all over the country.

On a recent episode of Oprah, author Dan Buettner referenced research that showed joining a community group that meets just once a month has the same effect on our happiness levels as doubling our income. That's powerful. And in addition to building community, what if that meeting also provided you with things you otherwise had to pay for?

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