How the underground barter economy is transforming the ways we connect

The Facebook-based trading phenomenon with the dubious name Bunz was unknown to me until a couple of weeks ago when its local chapter turned up in my newsfeed. A network with dozens of chapters, like its close cousin, Freecycle, the Halifax Bunz has 8000 local members and is growing weekly. Clearly, this is an idea whose time has come.

I’ve long been a fan of what might be called alternative currencies, and I’ve often bartered goods and services with friends and acquaintances. Bunz takes this bartering to a whole new level. It’s different from other online classified ad sites like Kijiji or the “buy and sell” pages of Facebook in that it uses currencies other than cash. You can trade your unworn yoga tops for bus tickets, postage stamps, a haircut, or coffee beans, but not a $10 bill. Members simply post photos and descriptions of what they want to trade and indicate what they’d like to receive in return (a so-called ISO, or “in search of” list). As one might expect, there’s a fair bit of junk to sort through, as well as the occasional gem. You’re also not allowed to trade anything illegal.  

It’s easy to think of times when Bunz could come in handy: the post-Christmas letdown as you face a pile of items you didn’t need or want. Your kid jumped a clothing size in just a few weeks, leaving you scrambling for bigger clothes and eager to dump the outgrown set. Your cabinets are bulging with products you never used, but don’t want to just throw away. If you have a spare couple of hours with Bunz, you can clear your skirts of many of these items and make someone else’s day in the process.

A number of people seem keen to trade stuff for food, especially of the home-cooked variety, specifying wine, preserves, baked goods, and meals. Others would like to receive the raw ingredients for their own meals and baking; I’ve seen requests for bananas, root veggies, tinned tomatoes, and flour, among many others. The ubiquity of these requests indicates the value placed on food in the world of barter. No doubt this is an indicator of hard economic times as much as an expression of enjoyment in handmade comfort food; it makes me sad to see the single moms bartering their clothes and household goods for lunch and snack items for their kids.

The happy side effect of a site such as this is the sense of community created by Bunz traders: when a young mom posted a plea for help restocking her larder after losing $100 in grocery money, she was flooded with support.

So was the person who posted a request for a friendly listener when she was facing a mental health crisis. It was touching to read the many comforting replies, gestures of solidarity, and practical advice.

In a society where care for one another is increasingly commodified and de-personalized, the “Bunz effect” is especially gratifying to witness.

I suppose there is always the potential for unfair trades, for those who lie about or exaggerating their life circumstances in order to get the better deal. Still, the generosity I’ve witnessed on Bunz and the grateful thank-you photos some happy traders have posted of their kid riding his “new” skateboard, or the young woman delightedly showing off the boots that pinched the previous owner’s feet make me a believer in its value.


Some recent media coverage of Bunz: