Bartering is back. Well, of course the direct exchange of goods and services championed by Aristotle never went away, but in these straitened times, old practices are being reinvigorated using modern tools.
As the main form of exchange, it’s a bit of a palaver. Imagine going to the market looking for a sack of grain, you have to exchange your two chickens for a small pig, swap that for a nice shrubbery and take it to a local grain farmer who just happens to be doing up his garden. Currency was always going to look more appealing.
But barter still has its place alongside the mainstream, particularly in the midst of an economic crisis. A shortage of cash or an unstable currency can drivealternative local economies – barter schemes are becoming a way of life in parts of Greece and time banks, in which people exchange units of their own time instead of money, have exploded in popularity with the unemployed in parts of Spain.
According to the International Reciprocal Trade Association (IRTA), governments such as China, France and Ireland are considering launching state-sponsored barter schemes. Bartercard, a bartering organisation for small and medium enterprises, has more than 35,000 members and many companies have exchange mechanisms in place. The IRTA says that 30% of business worldwide is done on a barter basis – Mercedes Benz once bartered buses for bananas in a deal worth $65m, and Pepsico had a long-running Russian deal in which it swapped cola for Stolichnaya vodka.
But does it work on a smaller scale? Say I need to find someone to fix my washing machine. LETs schemes, which focus on the exchange of labour, always seemed like a useful sideline to the formal monetary system – but after 30 years of service they are in decline. There’s a limit to what a city-dweller working in the “knowledge economy” (in which you use your head, not your hands) can offer their local plumber, and these community schemes work on the basis of credits that people often find difficult to use. As a subeditor, I could proof-read your novel, perhaps, or check the punctuation on your advertising hoarding. It’s not in quite the same league as an electrician’s ability to prevent your untimely death by toaster.
And what about using all those baby clothes in the loft? Several websites facilitate exchanges – Craigslist, U-Exchange and Gumtree have thriving barter markets. One new site, One Fair Market, focuses solely on direct trade. Swap oranges for shoes, it suggests, perhaps rather optimistically. The site is still in its infancy, but it’s a good example of the way the internet is offering international reach to local exchanges, reinvigorating the concept in the process.
Most modern barter systems involve some form of currency, or credit, substituted for money, avoiding the main problem with direct exchange – finding someone with grain who wants chickens. But what U-Exchange calls “reciprocal barter” (direct exchange), can offer better value for local schemes as you are directly swapping goods of far higher worth to each individual – once the goods are pooled, their value declines relatively. Kyle Macdonald famously turned a paperclip into a house by trading up, but as one barter fanatic points out, trading up in pure monetary terms isn’t really the point – it’s to acquire something that has more value to you personally than whatever you’re selling.
This means, advocates suggest, that you always do better than if you’d just sold it for cash. And then there’s the personal touch, the idea that you’re cutting out big business to exchange directly with your fellow man in an ancient ritual that helps you feel closer to your community. Or you could just get a buzz out of palming off all your old junk.
So would a plumber end up with a houseful of old tennis rackets and slightly worn high chairs? Pedro Veiga, who runs One Fair Market, thinks there’s too much on offer for that to be a problem. “When a plumber sets up his offer he will select the exact categories that he’s interested in doing business (so if he has too many rackets or chairs, he’ll probably select “food and drink” or “gadgets”). And he can change his interests over time.”
Some might advocate getting rid of money altogether but I think the cash genie might prove a little too vast – I’ll settle for offering all my old baby gear to someone … Any new parent plumbers out there?
Baxter, C. (2013). A barter way of doing business | Charlotte Baxter. [online] the Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jan/04/barter-exchange-goods-recession [Accessed 17 Nov. 2015].