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Bartering is back: Meet the people swapping goods and skills

This old system allows people and businesses to outsource tasks, learn new skills and treat themselves without spending a cent

Greg and Marta of Flower & Bean on Cork Street, Dublin, which regularly accepts produce grown by customers in exchange for coffee and cakes

Back in our grandparents’ day, there was nothing extraordinary about exchanging a morning’s labour for a pair of sturdy boots, or a dozen eggs for a basket of firewood. But over the years, we became less interested in bartering with our friends and neighbours, and solely reliant on money for every transaction.

But fuelled by a combination of the cost-of-living crisis and growing awareness of the need to implement more sustainable living practices, more and more people are returning to an old-fashioned system of exchanging goods and services between friends and neighbours and even strangers online.

“We are very aware of the need to preserve the future of the planet,” says Sara Harrison, who is living in Dublin, but is originally from Wales. “There is so much stuff wasted every single day, that it literally makes me feel ill at times. So my partner, Dom, and I do all we can to ensure that we do our bit to mitigate this. I have been buying clothes from charity shops for as long as I can remember, but in recent years have started swapping stuff with friends and even people I don’t know.

There is a feelgood factor to it, knowing that you have helped someone out with something they need

“When my daughter has grown out of something, I will ask around to see if anyone with a couple of kids will exchange her item for a piece of clothing from one of their older children. I have also been doing this with my own clothes and those of my partner – so if we tire of them, I will try and do a swap, so it feels like we’re getting something new.

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“We often have friends come and do handiwork, like helping to paint our livingroom or tile the bathroom – with reclaimed materials of course – in exchange for various things such as a cooked dinner, some artwork for their wall or even a foot massage. It might sound a bit cheesy, but it really works well – we are saving money and the planet at the same time.”

Johanna Somers totally relates to this and says that she and her husband Ross are “very active members” of their local freecycling group in north Dublin.

“For us as a family it’s all about sustainability and reducing waste and landfill,” she says. “So anything which is surplus to requirements – from toys, books and garden equipment to apples from the orchard or even a jar of marmalade from a Christmas hamper – are put up on the freecycle. You can also post for items you need or would like to borrow. I have a foldable table which I’ve lent out at least five times, as well as cake stands, ice buckets or dog-related items from my dog-grooming business, All Dogs Great and Small. I love helping people.

“I also love feng shui and, living in a large house with four small children, clutter is in abundance, so freecycling and bartering is just the thing, because if you’re finished with something, chances are that someone else will want to use it. It’s also great to see the items which we have passed on coming up on the freecycling page for their third or fourth home, particularly baby toys and accessories which are only needed for a short period of time.”

Along with her own three children – Ava (9), Sophia (7) and Jamie (4) – the Laois woman also shares her Dublin home with a mother and three-year-old child from Ukraine. When they arrived, she was able to find all the necessary baby equipment and clothing from the local freecycling community.

“Not only are we saving money, but we are also reducing waste, recycling and creating a more circular economy,” she says. “There is a feelgood factor to it, knowing that you have helped someone out with something they need.”

It was these benefits that prompted Carla Rosenkranz from Westport, Co Mayo, to take things a step further and set up an app called Barterchain, where members can swap their skills and services for free using “match-making technology to find a direct trade”.

Her “light-bulb moment” came while finding herself “cash poor” when living in Madrid four years ago. She wanted to do a yoga class, but couldn’t afford the fee, so offered to teach English in exchange.

“Within a week I was getting yoga, Spanish lessons, massages and my house cleaned, all through bartering,” she says. “I felt so liberated, as money was no longer a limiting factor in life, and I went on to barter my way around Spain and Italy. When the pandemic forced me home, I couldn’t stop thinking about barter and how many people it would benefit, so I dedicated myself to creating a platform which would make services more accessible to all.”

The peer-to-peer platform, which went live earlier this year, allows members to choose categories of services they are interested in, then the “algorithms do their thing and generate a list of potential barters”.

Flower & Bean on Cork Street, Dublin, regularly accepts produce grown by customers in exchange for coffee and cakes
Flower & Bean on Cork Street, Dublin, regularly accepts produce grown by customers in exchange for coffee and cakes

“We’ve taken inspiration from other popular match-making apps like Bumble and Tinder – and incorporated their swipe function,” says the 27-year-old. “But instead of swiping left and right to find love, we’re swiping to find barters. When two users swipe right for each other’s services, it’s a match, and a private chat unlocks. From here they can get to know each other, negotiate and come to an agreement. It’s up to the two users involved to decide on the terms of trade and to find a fair exchange.

“After a successful barter, the two users are asked to rate each other, and then they both receive a token – which is like ‘proof of barter’. These details are visible on a member’s profile, so you can see how skilled and active a user is before deciding to engage with them.”

Trust me when I say that the connections which come from this type of exchange are personal, meaningful and long-lasting

Bartering can work in just about any locality, as sheep farmer Richard Mannion can attest to. He lives in Mayo with his wife, Veronica, and their two children, Caroline (19) and Richard (18), where he is part of the local Climate Action Group, which has five subgroups, one of which focuses on circular economy.

“The group grew out of our local food-sourcing group, who had a WhatsApp group, sharing gardening knowledge, seeds and sometimes produce,” he says.

“It has been a year in operation, and thousands of items have exchanged [between almost 250 members], including household items, furniture, clothing, footwear, paintings, schoolbooks and even hardware such as scaffolding, timber, roofing material and lawnmowers. It has also been used to source bicycles and other items for our Ukrainian visitors, especially over the Christmas period.

“The benefits are massive, and as well as reusing and recycling, it is also eliminating cost – and because it’s all local, even the elimination of car journeys and the associated emissions to Castlebar (100km round trip) to buy new items is a huge plus, as well as the elimination of visits to the dump in Newport to dispose of items.

“The group is now looking at setting up a repair shop or a repair directory in our area.”

On her search for seasonal and hyper-local ingredients, Marta Wincenty-Cichy, baker and co-owner of the Flower & Bean café on Cork Street in Dublin 8, forages in forests, buys fruit from local farms, or picks edible flowers, and invites locals to share their produce in exchange for cakes, coffee or a simple lunch in the café.

“We are always happy to barter,” she wrote on a local WhatsApp group recently. “If anyone has any spare fruit, vegetables, edible flowers or herbs, we can swap and I will bake something lovely with the super-local produce.”

Marta of Flower & Bean on Cork Street, Dublin, which regularly accepts produce grown by customers in exchange for coffee and cakes

Since opening this time last year (they are celebrating their first birthday this weekend, with healthy food workshops and an exhibition of artwork by local children), “our kitchen has accepted autumnal fruit including apples, plums and pears, flowers of lavender, fuchsia and nasturtiums, wild garlic, sage, thyme, rosemary and even eggs from happy wandering hens,” she says.

“This year we’ve been grateful to receive lots of rhubarb and made summer lemonade free on tap for all customers. A few weeks ago we used giant courgettes grown in The Tenters to make cake, summer soup and quiche. Every barter brings tasty surprises!”

Rosenkranz, who used bartering skills to help establish her app – obtaining business advice, a new logo and branding design – says the future is very much geared towards this sort of interaction as an increasing number of people want to reduce both their outgoings and their carbon footprint. “We’re at a point in time where our current systems are failing many – but everyone has skills and gifts which make for the perfect cashless exchange,” she says. “There are so many benefits, ranging from financial to social.

“There is just so much beauty in barter and it allows you to outsource tasks, try new things, learn new skills and treat yourself – all without spending a single cent. Be it for yourself, your household or your business – it’s always an efficient, resourceful and sustainable way of getting what you want. And it seriously creates such abundance, it’s the perfect remedy for a mindset of scarcity.”

Flower & Bean on Cork Street, Dublin, regularly accepts produce grown by customers in exchange for coffee and cakes
Flower & Bean on Cork Street, Dublin, regularly accepts produce grown by customers in exchange for coffee and cakes
Flower & Bean on Cork Street, Dublin, regularly accepts produce grown by customers in exchange for coffee and cakes

The tech entrepreneur says there are also social benefits to bartering as people engage more with each other than they would if they were simply ordering something online or paying for a service.

“There is a human element to it,” she says. “I feel that one of the greatest unmet needs today is connection – and barter gives us the occasion to interact and share, and to create communities based on respect and reciprocity – particularly bartering locally, which allows us to truly connect with the faces and places we see each day.

“Even being able to barter online creates endless opportunities, and links us to people we wouldn’t meet otherwise. And trust me when I say that the connections which come from this type of exchange are personal, meaningful and long-lasting – it’s like social prescribing for loneliness, and our trial members have been absolutely buzzing. So we’re really excited for more people to get involved and to watch this community grow.”

For a comprehensive list of freecycle and bartering websites and groups in your local area, see circularliving.ie. Local community Facebook and WhatsApp groups can be a good place to swap goods and services