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Transition barter habit spreads up the Severn

Gaian Economics bloger Molly Scott Cato writes:
A guest post from Simon Topping of Transition Gloucester.

Transition Gloucester recently held its first barter market, except we called it a “barter party” to make it feel more informal and experimental in case everything went horribly wrong! In fact the event went extremely well and has encouraged us to think how we might develop the idea in the future.

There were ten stalls at the market, held at Hucclecote Community Centre. Stallholders were asked to bring goods or services for their stall, roughly equivalent to ten pounds sterling. At the start of the market each stallholder was given ten “glevums”* with which to trade. They were told that they should try to return ten glevums at the end of the market which was to last for 45 minutes. They were also told that if they returned less than ten glevums then they had probably taken more than their fair share of goods and services on offer. If they returned more than ten glevums then they would have taken less than their fair share.

There was a rich mixture of goods and services on offer: homegrown fruit and vegetables, homemade wine, cakes and bread, mint tea and dried herbs, a selection of “service vouchers”, books, vintage records, low energy electric light bulbs and much more.

By the time the market was closed the majority of traders had exchanged most of what they had brought. Also, most traders ended up with roughly ten glevums, some with a few more, some with a few less. The deadline for the closing of the market encouraged those with too many glevums to make sure they bought something with them because, once the market was closed, the glevums would have no value.

We sat around with drinks after the market to talk about how it went. There were many positives, but also some questions:

Most traders were very pleased with the rich mix of goods they ended up with. We brought a pile of oinions to our stall and went away with a range of other vegetables, two books, a bag of mint tea and a low energy light bulb.

People also appreciated the direct link (in most cases) between the trader and what they were selling. The trader was usually also the producer (even with the books). There was a sense of connectedness in the whole process of producing, trading and, ultimately, consuming.

There was also a feeling that the trading was a social activity, as well as an economic activity – conversations naturally broke out over how goods had been grown or made and how best to use or eat or preserve what had been traded. This social interaction gave added value to what had been traded.

One very practical issue was how you could act as both buyer and seller at the same time. It was hard to move around the stalls to see what was on offer and also be available at your own stall to sell your own goods. Maybe each stall should have both a buyer and a seller.

Some items were in high demand - two bottles of home made wine to be precise! How does the seller decide who to sell the wine to? Should s/he sell it to the person who gets there first – this might favour the fastest movers! Should s/he increase the price of the wine until somebody decides to drop out of the auction? And if the original price of the wine is increased then should the trader remove other items from their stall so that the total value of the goods they are selling is still the same as all the other traders? If not, that trader will have more glevums to spend than everybody else. Or should the wine seller keep the same price but just decide who needs it most!

The sort of conundrums which the barter market produced helped us unmask some of the hidden dynamics of markets, in particular how we measure value. The group who particpated in our experiment in bartering felt very positive about the event and we hope to run a further market in the coming months.

*The Roman name for Gloucester

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