The week that Netflix released Marie Kondo’s new series “Tidying Up,” thrift stores across the nation received a massive influx of donations. Based on her best-selling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which was translated into English from Japanese in 2014, the series inspired countless Americans to take stock of their possessions and shed unwanted items. Kondo’s minimalist philosophy of living, where people surround themselves only by items that bring them true enjoyment, runs at odds with the maximalist drive behind consumer society.
A minimalist myself (outside of my massive book collection), I picked up Kondo’s book a few months ago, hoping to glean a few tips. Though she often strays a little too far into pathetic fallacy, I found her a mostly likeminded companion in her pursuit of a serene home environment. It felt like validation for my (admittedly annoying) compulsion to clear surface spaces and put away stray items around the house.
I think about the messy way I used to live before moving out on my own (my high school room was a disaster) and realized that my rather abrupt shift towards cleanliness marked a complete change in my way of thinking. I used to fear not having things: that if I threw away my beloved childhood keepsakes, I would miss them or if I donated clothing, I would regret it. It seemed that if I let anything go, it meant that I didn’t value that item. Then my parents moved from my childhood home and I was forced to take stock of everything I had kept over the years. It was overwhelming, but eventually I reduced the heaps of possessions into one box of my most cherished childhood items. I didn’t miss any of the donated clothes or costume jewelry or stuffed animals one bit – the memories I had of those items were enough.
One of the most difficult lessons of minimalist living is learning to divorce memories from physical items. This is a constant theme through the “Tidying Up” series. Kondo does not preach a devaluation of all material goods, but instead urges people to take control of their relationship to things. The longer you live with a minimalist mindset, the less purchasing a high volume of consumer goods may come to appeal to you. I personally go through my closet with each change of season and donate items that I no longer wear (even if it’s only a couple of things). I love clothes (a lot), but since beginning this practice a few years ago, I find that I buy less and look forward to purchasing items with greater longevity, as I have come to recognize the types of items that phase out of my closet quickly. Over time, my wardrobe has gotten smaller, but I enjoy the things inside it more. I no longer worry about missing a donated item.
Some critics lampoon Kondo for urging people to throw away heaps of possessions arguing that this will lead to an increase of items heading to landfills. I would argue the opposite. Whether in 30 years from today or right now, these unwanted things already accumulated in people’s homes will end up in either donation centers or landfills. Following Kondo’s “KonMari” method in the long term necessitates a change in purchasing habits. After the purge, your consumption should decrease as should your lifetime accumulation of goods. Many have also criticized Kondo (in rather a bigoted fashion) for ordering people to give up their possessions, but she is not making any demands of her clients. They seek her help and they decide which items to discard. It would seem that the real fears lie in Kondo’s ability to unhinge the consumerist drive to buy, buy, buy.
In one particularly poignant episode, a man sits on the floor surrounded by over a hundred boxes of expensive tennis shoes. He confesses that he went into $10,000 of credit card debt to buy these shoes, but that he had never even tried on many of them. This fascination with sneakers sprung from childhood in a time when Air Jordan launched one of the most effective marketing campaigns in history. His sense of release was palpable when he decided to try on his collection of shoes and keep only the ones he would wear. He was released from a commodity induced trance as he vowed to change his relationship to footwear.
Kondo’s ideas are not particularly revolutionary (though major kudos to her excellent folding techniques). I would argue that the popularity of her minimalist approach marks a shift away from the consumer culture that took hold of our society in the mid-twentieth century. This century’s economic crisis has disillusioned many from relying on purchasing goods to achieve happiness. Let us hope that this “tidying up” trend pairs with a wave of more conscientious buying and a lessening of the commercial grasp on the American psyche.