money is no object

More people are inventing ways to get what they want without spending a cent, writes Kate Gibbs.

In the face of a spiralling financial crisis, an increasing number of people are taking their financial fate into their own hands, shunning the inevitable downturn for a more personal approach to buying and selling that does not involve money.

This burgeoning economy based on bartering, swapping, promises and services has been dubbed the “freeconomy”.

From using local exchange trading systems (LETS) involving bartering skills and goods, hosting swap parties and “shwapping” to shirking the traditional supermarket for home-grown pumpkins that you can trade with a neighbour’s glut of tomatoes, the freeconomy takes many forms. One clinical psychologist receives tennis lessons in return for showing his coach how to incorporate psychology in his teaching. One gardener clips hedges and weeds in return for a room in a Sydney family’s Katoomba weekender.

An expert in consumerism at the University of Southern Queensland, Andrew Mason, says people feel a lot of the financial problems are out of their hands because it’s happening at a global level.

“There is a lot of doom and gloom about,” he says. “But some people are reclaiming their own finances. Our consumer practices are one of the few areas in which we have individual choice. By rethinking how they spend their money, people are taking back control.”

University of Sydney anthropologist Stephen Juan says people can’t continue to consume the way they used to, so are inventing new ways to get what they want and need.

Juan, who has covered social trends, says: “As economic times get worse, people will do this out of necessity. And if they’re not doing it for economic reasons, they’ll be doing it for ecological ones.”

The City of Sydney and Planet Ark hosted Sydney’s biggest Swap Party last month at Martin Place. The organised event saw Sydneysiders bring three items – from clothes, CDs and general bric-a-brac – to swap for something they’d prefer. Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore swapped one of her chokers for a pair of red high heels. Planet Ark estimates that getting a single cotton dress from a swap party instead of a high-street store saves about 22,000 litres of water.

The idea of interweaving a love of fashion with eco-responsibility was not lost on knitwear designer Kirsten Frederick, who founded the Clothing Exchange business that runs regular clothing swaps. The next event will be on Monday at 10A Fitzroy Place, Surry Hills. Entry is $20, with registration by 6.30pm, and the exchange begins at 7pm. Any leftover clothes are donated to charity (see clothing exchange.com.au).

As well as helping the pocket and the Earth, the idea of living without cash has instilled a new zeal around the community. Whether via organised global online networks or over-the-back-fence deals, the freeconomy depends upon people engaging with others.

Community is one of the main impetuses behind Angela Budai’s involvement in the freeconomy. Budai, a 32-year-old union official, bakes cakes in return for clothes for her young son, swapping chocolate sponge for an hour of babysitting and exchanging macaroons for a series of second-hand books.

Another freeconomist, 46-year-old Tim Ramacciotti, uses the global online network called Freecycle to give away things he can no longer use.

Putting into practical use the idea “one person’s trash is another’s treasure”, the Freecycle network pulls in more than 2000 new members a day worldwide. From old pots and pans to a bulky deep-fat fryer, Ramacciotti offers items on the East Sydney online notice board instead of throwing them to landfill. In exchange, he’s picked up an alarm clock, bedside tables and a couple of lamps.

Sydney-Illawarra LETS co-ordinator Eve Lichtnauer says LETS networks have prompted a new creativity around skilled labour. In Western Australia, for example, out-of-work people are encouraged to sign up in order to retain and use their skills while they’re looking for a job.

“It can create more opportunities and it stops people sitting around at home waiting for something to happen,” Lichtnauer says. “It creates opportunities for them and they get something in return, even if it’s not money.”

Juan believes that people are feeling empowered by taking control of their lives. “It’s really important that people think they are contributing to solving problems,” he says.

“In this way, the freeconomy enables people to regain control.

“As long as individuals are not able to solve the world financial crisis, this is, at least, one economy we can rely on.”

Let them eat cake

What does it cost to have a professional permaculturalist come into your home to teach you how to sow seeds, pull out weeds and to weave little shoots around bamboo sticks? For Angela Budai, 32, it costs a few banana cakes now and then.

Budai and her 17-month-old son Liam had a skilled gardener show them how to make use of their large, otherwise weedy, block in Roseville by building and maintaining a vegetable patch. And the service was free thanks to the local energy trading systems (LETS), where people can trade goods and services using currencies other than money.

Instead of forking out cash to pay for the gardening, Budai bakes cakes – banana, chocolate, scones, biscuits and macaroons. Cooking earns her operas – the Sydney-Illawarra LETS currency (one opera equates to about $1), which she then uses to “pay” for the things she needs, such as a gardener whom she pays 20 Operas an hour.

Budai says she didn’t want to make a business out of baking and she doesn’t have the disposable income to pay for a gardener. She bases the “cost” of her cakes on the time it takes her to make one. In exchange, she has picked up a series of fantasy books, as well as vegetables and some clothes for her young son.

“I’m not a greenie,” Budai says. “But it makes it easier to live in the world I’d like to imagine I live in. I’ve never been completely eco-conscious but if everyone does their own little bit, it makes a difference.”

For more information

* NSW LETS groups: www.lets.org.au/nsw/nswlets.html

* Sydney and Illawarra LETS: www.auslets.org/sydney/media/

* Freecycle: www.freecyle.org.au

* Clothing Exchange: www.clothingexchange.com.au

 This article was published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 4 December 2008.

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