I first read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing in 2015, well before Marie Kondō became a cult figure and a verb. I fell in love with the book immediately. She won me over with the acknowledgement that most of us deeply desire to have neater homes, less clutter, and more harmony, and yet most of us are basically slobs. The engineer in me loved the idea of getting organized by focusing on categories, instead of on rooms or areas, and I was also taken in by her insights regarding the false pretenses that we use to hold on to junk. I committed to following her plan, and made real headway. However, I was pretty sure I’d relapse and be back to disorder, and to some extent I did regress, but I internalized the basics, and I have a calmer, less stormy relationship with my belongings, almost as though I had gone through couples therapy with my stuff.
But I still have some unresolved issues. As an environmentalist who’s concerned about overconsumption, my first reaction was that Marie Kondō is preaching an ideology that hates too much stuff, and presents a vision of a less materialistic lifestyle. And unlike, say, Real Simple magazine, which seems to be about selling new stuff to make it look like you are living simply, Kondō does emphasize that re-organizing shouldn’t mean going out and buying new containers, but that old shoe boxes for example can be used instead.
Interestingly though, Kondō doesn’t frame her advice at all in terms of greenness or environmental sustainability. She is focused on reducing excesses in our homes, but somehow never makes any suggestions that we should buy less. We are supposed to ask if things we have give us joy before deciding to keep them, but she never takes the next step of advising us to stop ourselves at the store and ask if the new thing we are buying is likely to give us joy.She also suggests that the way to clear out our houses is to let go of things we think we might need someday in the future. And if we realize a month later we needed that ethernet cable? Oh just buy another one.
And as for the unwanted items, she devotes no attention to what to do with all the junk. She discourages giving it to friends and relatives, as that may just be adding to their overabundance of stuff. And there is no mention of recycling. Nor is their mention of donating items to charity.
A recent story on NPR related to the carrying capacity of the earth concluded that we would have to reduce consumption by 50% to sustain ourselves on an ever more crowded earth. Can Marie Kondō help us with that challenge? I think she can, because if she can help us be happy with less stuff in our houses, then we should be happy buying less stuff in the first place. Unless the take away from her book is that we can buy a lot so long as we throw it away at the same pace that we’re buying it, i.e. if we don’t hold on to it too long.
Anthropologists talk about the meaning attached to objects, and Kondō gets that, and gives us ways of stripping meaning from things so we can let go of them. She is not persuaded that we need to hang on to gifts, especially when the giver will never know if we’ve chucked it. She is proposing to disrupt some of our deepest cultural norms related to gifts to enable us to purge unused wedding presents and the like. But can she help us disrupt our excessive gift exchange practices so we don’t give and get so many gifts in the first place?
Of course we have all heard that retail consumption is the engine of economic growth. Can we sustain an economy with less stuff? Books like Prosperity without Growth (Tim Jackson) argue that we can, so let’s assume for now that we will not be destroyed by under-consumption. So we do want Kondō to help us get there.
So Marie, in your next book or TV show, consider giving us tips on reducing what we buy. If we buy smarter, we’ll end up with much less to jettison. And please also help us think of better ways to dispose of items that no longer give us joy. We need to determine if our trash is another person’s treasure — and how to get the treasure to them.
¹Leslie Kramer in LinkedIn