What went wrong with Freecycle in the UK?
Sarah Lewis 30th September, 2009
The recycling network has seen its UK groups halve in number after members lost patience with its 'autocratic' US leadership
Since its inception in 2003, the online world of Freecycle has looked to many like a paragon of an environmentally conscious grassroots movement. But over the last month, simmering tensions in the network have boiled over, resulting in more than 40 per cent of the 510 UK Freecycle groups breaking away to form an independent network called Freegle.
Freecycle is, in essence, a giant internet-based swap shop, made up of thousands of localised groups allowing users to give away stuff they don't want any more, and receive stuff they do want. The rules are simple: whatever you give away must be free, and you can't keep taking without giving.
The aim is to keep useful things out of landfill, and although there are no official figures as to how much waste the network has kept above ground in the last six years, with nearly 5,000 groups in over 70 countries, and a total membership tipping 6.5 million people, it's hard to deny its success.
So why has it all gone wrong? Cat Fletcher, one time moderator of Brighton Freecycle and creator of replacement group GreenCycleSussex, says the founding US network was becoming increasingly 'autocratic and unreasonable'.
'We'd been trying to negotiate with the Americans for years but it wasn't successful. The guys in the US just didn't reply,' she says.
The Freecycle concept began innocently enough. A man called Deron Beal started the first group in Arizona and as the idea spread, anyone was allowed to set up with the name Freecycle using the Yahoo Groups messaging service.
Just over a year later, in August 2004, The Freecycle Network (TFN), which acts as a central administrative body for all Freecycle groups, filed an application to trademark the word Freecycle and imposed stringent rules on its usage. Genericisation in any form was forbidden. Anyone claiming to be an 'active freecycler', or to be in the process of 'freecycling some old stuff', would be guilty of trademark infringement.
In 2006, groups on Yahoo using the word freecycle, or any similar sounding word, were targeted and told to shut down. Yahoo itself deleted one group on the request of TFN, but Freecycle Sunnyvale retaliated, bringing a trademark opposition lawsuit against the network, which in turn responded by bringing a law suit against Freecycle Sunnyvale owner Tim Oey for trademark infringement.
The rulings in both cases said the word 'freecycle' could be used generically. But Beal kept this quiet, with Oxfordshire moderator Andy Swarbrick insisting no one was told about the court decisions and strict rules as to the use of the word held in place.
While all this was happening, moderators who contacted the American network to question decisions or make suggestions for improving Freecycle in the UK - such as implementing a Freecycle area at local tips - were told to leave their positions.
‘Any moderators expressing opinions not exactly in alignment with what the Americans wanted were being deleted from their groups and asked to step down,' says Fletcher. 'These people started groups out of the goodness of their hearts and devoted thousands of hours of time. All of a sudden they were told to go, just for expressing an opinion’.
Neil Morris, who resigned as director of the UK Freecycle Network in September, and is now an active member of Freegle, says: ‘Volunteers were being told they didn't fit within the organisations. I didn't think it was right. You just don't do that. I had more or less managed to prevent people being forced to leave, but when I scaled back from being so active to work on my PhD it became very clear that the people filling the space were going to work the way Deron wanted them to, rather than to speak for the autonomy that had been building up.'
Tensions came to a head when a combination of internal and international politics caused Cat Fletcher to feel she had no choice but to delete the Brighton Freecycle group and invite its 16,000 members to join GreenCycleSussex.
Fearful that Beal would delete their accounts and ban their free-recycling activities, and buoyed by the actions of Fletcher, moderators across the country began removing their groups from the Freecycle Network. The following day, a group of moderators decided the exodus of some 190 groups was large enough to warrant creating an independent network - Freegle.
Morris insists Freegle wasn't premeditated, but a logical response to an immediate need.
‘Everyone tried to stay within Freecycle,' he says. 'The people who left were the people who had taken leadership and grown Freecycle to make the UK the country with the highest proportion of freecyclers in the world. I quite honestly don't know why Deron has done what he's done. I'm actually gobsmacked that someone would allow an organisation that has such great potential to be run the way it is run. You need to enhance the enthusiasm and efforts of volunteers, rather than hold them back.’
By the end of September, Freegle had gained about 43 per cent of the original UK Freecycle membership and is continuing to grow. Deron Beal and the US Network made no comment.