During economic downturns, when there is a keenly felt shortage of jobs and cash, people have historically adopted barter systems. The world’s most established bartering-style system is Switzerland’s wir: the German word for “we” as well as the abbreviation of Wirtschaftsring, which translates loosely to “economic circle.” In 1934, the economy in Switzerland had tanked—as it had in much of the world. Two businessmen who were facing bankruptcy, Paul Enz and Werner Zimmermann, gathered 15 of their associates in Zurich and hashed out a solution: a mutual credit system.
This sort of scenario was so undesirable that societies must have created money to facilitate trade, argues Smith. Aristotle had similar ideas, and they’re by now a fixture in just about every introductory economics textbook. “In simple, early economies, people engaged in barter,” reads one. (“The American Indian with a pony to dispose of had to wait until he met another Indian who wanted a pony and at the same time was able and willing to give for it a blanket or other commodity that he himself desired,” read an earlier one.)
Her answer came, finally, in an unlikely place: at a bar on Robson Street in Vancouver during the Winter Olympics. It was close to midnight, and she was waiting in line for a drink. All around her, people were partying—except for the two women in front of her, who were dissecting the differences between tax-free savings accounts and RRSPs. Simmons barged in to their conversation. “What do you want to know about TFSAs?” she asked. “What’s your goal?” She pulled the two aside and, for 20 minutes, gave an impromptu finance session. As a gesture of thanks, the two women bought Simmons and her group a round of beer. “I can’t afford financial advice,” one of them told Simmons, “but at least I can give everybody here a beer.” Then, Simmons felt like a cartoon megawatt bulb appeared over her head. It is all you can do, she thought. It is all you can do. There, in the middle of the crowded bar, she blurted, “Oh my god! I’m bringing barter back!”
The man who arguably founded modern economic theory, the 18th-century Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, popularized the idea that barter was a precursor to money. In The Wealth of Nations, he describes an imaginary scenario in which a baker living before the invention of money wanted a butcher’s meat but had nothing the butcher wanted.“No exchange can, in this case, be made between them,” Smith wrote.
Barter, the direct exchange of goods or services—without an intervening medium of exchange or money—either according to established rates of exchange or by bargaining. It is considered the oldest form of commerce. Barter is common among traditional societies, particularly in those communities with some developed form of market. Goods may be bartered within a group as well as between groups, although gift exchange probably accounts for most intragroup trade, particularly in small and relatively simple societies. Where barter and gift exchange coexist, the simple barter of ordinary household items or food is distinguished from ceremonial exchange (such as a potlatch), which serves purposes other than purely economic ones.
Toronto’s online Freecycle network, where 27,000-plus members can give, and get, things for free, provides a variation on bartering. Last April, Toronto hosted one of its first gift circles, which, as the name suggests, encourage small groups to form gifting communities—groups of 20 that give and take from a pool of goods and services depending on their needs. Torontonians can also swap skills at justfortheloveofit.org, a freeconomy community that spans 174 countries. On the site, members share talents that range from useful (dog walking, yoga instruction, electrical work) to questionable (boycotting, ear candling, loving) to weird (tree whispering, culture jamming, puppet making). When it comes to alternative economies, the creative possibilities are vast, but they all speak to the same desire for something different—anything other than what we have.
Nowinska says one of the biggest challenges Swapsity faces is that new barterers think they have nothing to offer. So they offer bad trades. Yet most people have hundreds of skills—from cooking to networking to scrapbooking. The trick is learning to recognize the value of your skills, your knowledge and your talent. Bartering attaches value to things that are not always recognized, or highly valued, in a cash economy—often hobbies that people can’t make a living on but love to do. One Barter Babe trades her homemade canned goods for gifts—mostly other crafted items—she can give away at Christmas. A Swapsity member has traded pounds of fiddleheads she picks at her mom’s house in the country for feng shui sessions.
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In late 2012, Toronto even got its own spinoff of Trade School, a model that originated in New York in 2010. The Toronto Trade School holds classes—on anything from spoken word to origami flower–making to bicycle maintenance—and invites students to “pay” with an item or service from the teacher’s barter wish list. It has hosted more than 70 classes.
The first 23 Barter Babes to join were friends and former PH&N co-workers who wanted to support Simmons. They mostly traded items and services to help out with the launch party: a lot of food, a press release, coat racks, silent auction items, courier services and social media consulting. Barter Babe No. 24, Grace Poon, was the first person to sign up for the project with whom Simmons had no prior connection. In exchange for Simmons’s financial advice, Poon provided graphic designs for an investment presentation (which Simmons still uses today). She remembers being excited, but also nervous: it was the first trade she’d made with someone who didn’t feel obligated to give her unconditional support. She needn’t have worried.
Bartering does have its limitations. Many bigger (i.e., chain) businesses will not entertain the idea and even smaller organizations may limit the amount of goods or services for which they will barter (i.e., they may not agree to a 100% barter arrangement and instead require that you make at least partial payment). But in an economic crunch, bartering can be a great way to get the goods and services you need without having to pull money out of your pocket.