Could bartering become the new buying in a changed world?

September 16, 2020
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London-based nurse Marjorie Dunne joined Barter United Kingdom after spending five days in hospital with coronavirus in April. The group, which she originally joined to get rid of a few unwanted items unearthed during spring cleaning, ended up helping Dunne through one of the toughest times of her life.

“It really helped me out with meals for my family,” says Dunne. “I didn’t have the energy to cook, I was spending a fortune on online grocery shopping and having meals brought to the house was a tremendous help.” Members of Barter United Kingdom, which started on 23 April and had 1,300 members as of early August, swapped curries, roti and cakes for Dunne’s dresses and DVDs.

Around the world, people have been turning to swapping, trading and bartering during the coronavirus pandemic, whether to do their bit for the local community, save money or simply source hard-to-find baking ingredients. With economic uncertainty looming and anxiety levels soaring, barter is becoming an emerging alternative solution to getting by – and staying busy – amid Covid-19.

‘Barter was a natural solution’

The increase in bartering is nowhere better exemplified than in Fiji, which inspired Dunne’s London group. The country has a long tradition of barter, known as ‘veisa’. It’s only grown amid Covid-19, and Fijians have harnessed modern technology to connect even more people.

“I knew that money would be tight to stretch out and even harder to come by. I asked myself what happens when there’s no more money? Barter was a natural solution to that,” says Marlene Dutta, who started the Barter for a Better Fiji group on 21 April. Its membership is just under 190,000 – more than 20% of Fiji’s population. Items changing hands have run the gamut – pigs for kayaks, a violin for a leather satchel and doughnuts for building bricks – but the most commonly requested items have been groceries and food.

“The primary reason for setting up the Facebook group was to help offer a solution to our current economic situation,” says Dutta. Fiji’s tourism-dependent economy has been hit particularly hard during the pandemic, with an estimated 100,000 people losing jobs in an industry that contributes around 30% to Fiji’s GDP and employs around a third of Fiji’s total labour force.

“The economic hardships people are coping with are driving the rediscovery of bartering,” says Shera Dalin, co-author of The Art of Barter. “The same thing happened during the Great Recession. When times get harder, people turn to barter.” Similarly, more than 300 barter organisations cropped up during the early years of the Great Depression in the United States, says Dalin. “American currency was hard to come by during the Depression and barter helped assuage that need,” she adds.

While Fiji’s barter explosion has affected the whole country, other groups across the world have been working at state, city or community levels.

“I invited all of my friends and it just grew. We had 1,000 people in less than 24 hours,” says Veronica Coon, who started her Facebook barter group in the US state of Nevada on 15 March. It now has more than 5,600 members. The most popular items traded have been hard-to-find groceries like flour, yeast and eggs, as well as baby wipes, disinfecting spray and masks.

More than 20% of Fiji’s population has joined the Barter for a Better Fiji group to trade goods (Credit: Marlene Dutta)

Bartering time

Along with goods, some people have been trading another precious commodity that they may have had more of recently – time.

‘Time banking’, which started in Japan in the 1970s, and in the US in 1992, is seeing a jump in popularity. Members of a time bank spend one hour helping another member, and can receive one hour of help in return. People offer and receive things such as piano lessons, painting services or language teaching.

“We have definitely had more interest as an organisation, with four new time banks starting after the onset of lockdown,” says Kerri Tyler, community engagement and communications manager at Timebanking UK. Founded in 2002, the group has never seen such a spike before, adds Tyler.

During Covid-19, many UK time banks have been helping the local community. In Gloucester, members of the Fair Shares time bank have been picking up prescriptions, shopping and making food parcels for those hardest-hit by the economic crisis. In Merseyside, the Our Time time bank, whose aim is to tackle social isolation faced by people with mental health problems and help them engage in the local community, has been helping connect isolated people by setting up video calls and quizzes as well as doing regular wellbeing checks on its most vulnerable members.

The reciprocal nature of time banking means people are more inclined to accept help, seeing it as an exchange rather than charity, says Reyaz Limalia, who runs Fair Shares. “A lot of people still have this view that volunteering is charity one person does to another. It’s a really demotivating thing for that person who is receiving the help.”

Barter expert Dalin notes that those keen to try bartering need to come to it with time on their hands and an open attitude. “Traders need to be patient. Bartering takes more time than buying with cash,” she says.  “Since bartering is so personal, it’s important that traders not have a ‘win-at-all-costs’ attitude. While it’s better to have swaps that are relatively equal in value, the most important thing is that all parties are satisfied with the result.”

Bartering business

Bartering isn’t just for individuals looking for baking items or help with grocery shopping, however. In ‘barter exchanges’ for business, participating organisations try to increase their yearly business by 10% to 15% through swapping their services for the services of other businesses.

Businesses are increasingly interested in joining barter exchanges, which have “doctors, lawyers, service companies, retailers – you name it”,  says Ron Whitney, President of the US-based International Reciprocal Trade Association, a non-profit organisation founded in 1979 that promotes and advances modern trade and barter systems.

Members can exchange their professional services for barter credit, which they can then use to ‘buy’ the services of another member. Most times it is not a one-on-one trade. For instance, a landscaper would do a $5,000 landscaping job for a local dentist’s office. That does not mean he has to trade his labour for $5,000 of dental work; rather, he has an account at a barter exchange [“think of it almost as a credit card account”, says Whitney], which is credited 5,000 trade dollars and he can spend that amount on any of the hundreds or thousands of members in that exchange.

Whitney estimates there has been a 20% increase in member sign-ups to barter exchanges during the pandemic. “Barter exchanges are seeing more activity and gaining more interest than ever before because cash is tight, credit is tight,” he says.

The limits of barter

The increase in barter has forged stronger community connections for many. But it’s unlikely that people will ditch spending in general for a totally swap-filled life.

“[Barter is] a nice way of showing a bit of community spirit and solidarity with people without money changing hands. That is more about the significance of the signal that you’re giving than the true economic significance of the transaction,” says David Miles, professor of financial economics at Imperial College Business School in London. He adds that the draw of barter is likely the personal aspect of the exchange, especially during the pandemic. “Sometimes the swapping and there not being money changing hands makes it seem a much more communal, gentler, kinder, non-commercial thing about helping people.”

So although the barter economy is currently strong and strengthening, Miles says barter has a limit. “In almost any country in the world, it only works for a tiny proportion of things,” he says. “You’re not going to buy electricity by offering to provide a service.”

Time-barterer Limalia, too, acknowledges the sometimes-limited scope of bartering, but points out that scaling up is not necessarily the point. “People understand how a small act of kindness can make a drastic difference to somebody else’s life,” he says. “We’re not going to change the world – we’re not even going to change the whole city – but, actually, that one hour you give to help somebody else will make a difference to them.”

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