The amazing Freecycle story
An Internet community grows around the idea that one man's trash is another's treasure, reports Fortune's Marc Gunther.
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Three pairs of women's shoes. A box of record albums. Stereo equipment. A stovetop. A quill and ink bottle. A wicker basket. An acoustic guitar. A dehumidifier.
As I write, all those things and more are being offered for free on my local Freecycle Network. By the time you read this, they'll be taken. As the saying goes, one man's trash is another man's treasure.
With more than 4,000 Freecycle networks operating in 75 countries, and with more than 3.5 million members signed up to give things away and take them, that's lot of trash or treasure, all of it kept out of landfills. (To find a Freecycle Network near you, you can visit http://www.freecycle.org/.)
The Freecycle Network is an amazing Internet phenomenon. In four years, it's become one of the most effective environmental groups around. It's also an example of how social networking - the connections between people made on such Web sites as MySpace and Facebook - can be used to address social and environmental problems.
"What is really interesting about Freecycle," says Daniel Ben-Horin, the founder of a nonprofit Web site called TechSoup, "is that unlike a lot of virtual communities, something very concrete happens."
"It appeals to people's thrift, to their green impulses and to their sense of community," Ben-Horin says. "I think that's brilliant."
Last spring, TechSoup organized a competition and conference called the NetSquared Innovation Awards in which Freecycle was one of the winners. Backers of the NetSquared event include Cisco (Charts, Fortune 500), Yahoo! (Charts, Fortune 500), Microsoft (Charts, Fortune 500), Ensemble Capital Management, Ready Talk and Symantec (Charts). As a winner, Freecycle gets a small cash grant - about $10,000 - and technical assistance, including help from Citizen Agency, a leading Web 2.0 marketing firm.
I've used Freecycle for years - giving away a TV set, a desktop computer, a bed and a chest of drawers. My daughter and her roommates used Freecycle to furnish an off-campus house during their senior year in college. Using Freecycle is a cinch: People with something to give post a message in a free Yahoo discussion group, those who are interested reply and it's up to the donor to decide who gets the object and set a time for passing it along. About the only rule is that everything posted must be free, legal and suitable for all ages.
Freecycle's inventor, a man named Deron Beal, estimates that the network keeps the equivalent of 300 tons of stuff out of landfills every day. Beal, who is 39, started Freecycle in 2003 in Tucson, Arizona, when he noticed that a lot of useful things were being thrown away; he worked at the time for a nonprofit group that combined recycling with job training. As an experiment, he started an e-mail list to give stuff away among people he knew. When a local newspaper wrote about Freecycle, Beal's list grew from 80 to 800 people - and he worried that it would become too big to manage.
Little did he know that millions of people would eventually get with the program. "It grew like bonkers from the get-go," Beal says. "You just needed a forum that made it cheaper and easier to give things away, rather than throw them away." Many people, he says, tell him they get greater pleasure by de-cluttering their attics and garages than they do by getting things for free. "You're making somebody's day and it feels good," he says.
Beal himself gave away a bunch of things before he got anything from Freecycle. "It took me a year and half before I got something," he says. "It was a George Foreman grill. But my wife's a vegetarian."
Freecycle has had its share of growing pains and controversies. While local Freecycle groups are run by volunteers, Beal is something of a control freak, his critics say. He has fought in the courts to protect the use of the Freecycle trademark, and came under fire when he decided to accept a $130,000 sponsorship from Waste Management Inc. (Charts, Fortune 500) , the largest garbage company in the United States, which has a long history of pollution problems. (The company says it is trying to clean up its act.) Some Freecycle activists broke away from the network, and they have formed a rival network at http://www.freesharing.org/.
Today, Beal is Freecycle's only paid employee. Its budget is about $100,000 a year, from the Waste Management sponsorship and a grant from the Merck Family Fund. Beal says he has had offers to turn Freecycle into a business but declined because, he says, the group's philosophy is to "let go of ownership."
Beal says: "I was getting all kinds of calls from venture capitalists saying they could make us money. They would have immediately designed a central Web site, and generated ad income. It would have been a lot easier to do it that way."
As Freecycle expands its own Web presence outside of Yahoo, it may sell Google (Charts, Fortune 500) ads to generate income. Right now, the local networks are organized as Yahoo! Groups and don't collect any advertising revenue.
TechSoup's Ben-Horin says Freecycle shows how the Internet, by tapping into the energy and intelligence of users, can address a range of vexsome problems. Other winners of the NetSquared awards were Maplight.org (http://www.maplight.org/), a group that looks at the relationship between campaign contributions and legislative votes, and Miro Open Source Open Standards Video (http://www.getdemocracy.com/), a free, open-source Internet TV platform.
"Our goal is to raise a new field of Web-enabled, Web-based social benefit projects." Ben-Horin says.