Consume This! The Joy of Waste: Minimalism and its Ecological Consequences

In this month’s blog, Jennifer Sandlin and Jason Wallin examine Marie Kondo’s brand of decluttering as both an attempt at re-enchanting the object, and a failure to appreciate that our responsibility for objects extends beyond our domestic spaces.

—Jennifer Smith Maguire (Section Chair)

EPSON MFP image
Photo Credit: Nicolas Lampert, United We Consume

Consume This! The Joy of Waste: Minimalism and its Ecological Consequences

By Jennifer Sandlin and Jason Wallin

Minimalism is having yet another cultural moment, as evidenced by the popularity of blogs, podcasts, books, magazines, and documentaries focused on tiny houses, decluttering, simplicity, and the like. A recent survey found that while most Americans (65%) have no desire to be or become minimalists, 10% stated they already think of themselves as minimalists, and the remaining 25% strive to become minimalist, meaning that 1 in 4 U.S. adults are or hope to become minimalists.

What minimalism actually means to the people surveyed, or more generally as the idea circulates through media and is taken up in practice, is difficult to discern. The idea is ripe for commodification, and even a cursory glance at many of the current “minimalist” trends—many of which are for sale through books, magazines, or speaking tours—indicates the extent to which, as New York Times Columnist David Pogue declared, “Simplicity Sells!

Enter Marie Kondo. The buzz around her KonMari decluttering method and lifestyle movement has been described as “nothing short of a cultural moment.” While she does not call herself a minimalist, she has been swept into the larger cultural trends described above and has become a lifestyle celebrity in North America and across the globe. Her first book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, spent more than 150 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and has sold more than 2 million copies worldwide. That and her second book, Spark Joy, have been published in 42 countries.

In 2015 she was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, and has grown even more popular since the January 2019 launch of her Netflix series, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. She has parlayed this popularity into a booming lifestyle business, which includes a blog, a training program for tidying consultants (at $2700 per training, plus $500 annual re-certification fee), and more books (including a tidying book written for children). She has entered the almost $11.8 billion home organization market by selling her own brand of organizational materials such as a set of three boxes for $89 through her company KonMari, and has also recently launched a campaign to raise $40 million in venture capital funding to further expand her business.

It’s difficult to understand the appeal of Kondo without understanding the broad role of consumption in the Western industrialist capitalist world. Slater argues that consumer culture is inextricably bound up with the rise of modernity, which carried with it the “idea” of “modern social subjects” who were free to craft their own self-identities. Individuals now had to become who they were or wanted to be, and did so increasingly through consumption. Lifestyle choices and consumption patterns thus help create people’s senses of identity rather than their work or family roles.

Consumption is also a social and cultural activity that helps assimilate individuals “into a specific social system and commits them to a particular social vision”, as well as political, as it “represents a site where power, ideology, gender, and social class circulate and shape one another.” In our analysis below, we focus on how participating in the KonMari phenomenon helps individuals orient themselves to particular affective and aesthetic investments in some objects and consumptive practices while helping them ignore their own complicity and participation in the ecological harm that results from generating and discarding mounds of no-longer-wanted goods. The investments and abjections facilitated via the KonMari method, and many “minimalist” practices more generally, constitute social and cultural practices with profound political and ecological consequences.

The popularity of Marie Kondo’s method is ostensibly symptomatic of a new consumer relation to objects of consumption. In his germinal Symbolic Exchange and Death, French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard develops the object’s transformation from its status as a sacred metaphysical referent in pre-modern society to the evacuation of such significance via its forced equivalence to money in late capitalism. In the wake of this transformation and the disposable culture it catalyzed, Marie Kondo’s method dramatizes a seemingly compelling reversal, one that re-infuses objects with meaning. The KonMari method is not just a how-to guide to decluttering one’s home.

Embedded in the method is a philosophy that veers more towards self-help genres focusing on mindfulness; she states in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up that the method “is not a mere set of rules on how to sort, organize, and put things away. It is a guide to acquiring the right mind-set for creating order and becoming a tidy person.” She encourages her audiences and practitioners to carefully consider what objects to keep, focusing on those that “spark joy” and gently thanking and saying goodbye to those that do not.

In Kondo’s world, objects ostensibly once again hold and give meaning. To apprehend this reversal necessitates recognizing how we today live in an era of cheapened objects. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up arrived to U.S. markets in 2014, at a moment in which “many people seemed to have reached a tipping point of clutter in their lives.” The book also coincided with—or, some say, further bolstered—an increase in donations to thrift stores. The vast majority of these donations cannot be resold, and much of it is actually trash or junk; some estimate that 85% of what is donated ends up landfills.

At the same time, Americans are shopping more than ever, having spent twice as much in 2017 ($240 billion!) as in 2002 on consumer goods and personal care products. They also spent 20% more in 2017 as they did in 2000 on clothes. Houses keep getting larger, while at the same time the number of self-storage units continues to grow. We are generating more environmental waste, as well—in 2015 Americans tossed 16 million tons of textiles and 34.5 million tons of plastics.

This kind of rampant shopping, landfills overflowing with the detritus of civilizational over-consumption, and such contemporary phenomena as the great pacific garbage patch symptomize the contemporary socio-ecological impacts of capitalism’s two-fold cheapening of nature. As Moore articulates, objects are cheapened not only through their equivalencies to money, but via the disappearance of their ethico-political significance by which they are remitted to the conceit that we can do anything we’d like with them. The relational significance of the object is eroded through its forced equivalence to capital, but further, through its emplacement within the circuits of consumer circulation where the fate of all objects is to become garbage.

In an era of cheapened objects and disposable culture, Marie Kondo’s self-help philosophy aims to ceremoniously rehabilitate the object’s significance. Such rehabilitation is performed through the re-enchantment of the object’s relationship to the consumer. Drawn from its cheapened and disposable status, Kondo’s method recasts the object as worthy of our respect and care. Kondo’s reality television series, for instance, repeats across its episodes the ritual of giving thanks to objects destined for disposal. Ostensibly repairing the degraded relationship between consumers and objects symptomatic of late capitalism, the object is rehabilitated into dignified relation to the consumer, creating the surface impression of an ethics of care and responsibility. Thanking the object is meant to dramatize reverence and dignity, returning to the often dispassionate scene of consumption and disposal a sense of respect, honor, and decorum. No longer of any use, the object is given dignified passage unto the trash heap.

The re-enchantment of the object in Kondo’s method is enacted through the projection of anthropomorphic sentiment wherein the object is made to assume significance for us. As Kondo explains in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, “There is a reason why each one of your belongings came to you…Everything you own wants to be of use to you.” Such anthropomorphism is aptly demonstrated through the importance Kondo’s method ascribes to ‘joy’, where ‘joy’ refers to those ‘happy affects’ that the object evokes in the consumer. Kondo’s method aims here to re-enchant the object and hence liberate it from unthinking, mindless modes of consumerism. Such re-enchantment however symptomizes a more contemporary attitude toward the object, which is simply submitted to the attention of our affection.

Objects that fail to ‘spark joy’ or otherwise bring a sense of interest to the consumer are fated to become detritus. Kondo’s anthropomorphic conceptualization of human-object relations reifies the object in relation to its meaning and significance for us. Failing this, the object is ever more consigned to become refuse, but under the guise of having ‘once cared’ for the thing. The object is herein inserted into a sentimental performance, where our having once cared for objects becomes a sufficient ground for their disposal.

No longer relevant for us, the object is disposed but with the added aura of symbolic gratitude. Such symbolic gratitude evinced in both the ‘joyous’ arrangement of human-object relations and the quasi-religious thankfulness intimates a reversal of the object’s cheapened status in late capitalism. Following the anthropomorphic impulse of the KonMari method however, the sentimentality and aura of ‘specialness’ attributed to the object do little to alter the fate of objects that fail to be special ‘for us’. The ritual thanksgiving of the KonMari method is squarely for us. It is a vehicle that mediates the transformation of the object from its joyous relation to the consumer into something abject. What this process obfuscates however, is a two-fold perpetuation of consumerism in late capitalism.

On the one hand, the KonMari method functions as a contemporary fulcrum for the ‘happy’ disposal of objects. In an era where waste, pollution, and pollutants are ecologically ubiquitous, there is both a growing awareness and concern around the production of waste. In North America the production of waste tethers to new anxieties around climatological impact and change, and in this context the KonMari method’s ‘caring’ relinquishment of objects operates as an antidote via its simulation of relationship and symbolic enchainment.

The dispensation of objects is hence no longer that of dispassionate abjection but neo-spiritual relinquishment. The KonMari method herein constitutes a feel-good post-consumption practice replete with ‘happy affect’—Kondo writes, “My clients always sound so happy, and the results show that tidying has changed their way of thinking and their approach to life. In fact, it has changed their future. Why? . . . Basically, when you put your house in order, you put your affairs and your past in order too. As a result, you can see quite clearly what you need in life and what you don’t, and what you should and shouldn’t do.” This happy affect displaces the kinds of worry and anxiety that are entirely warranted in this moment of profound ecological disruption.

Herein, the aspiration to ‘declutter’ obscures a second fidelity to consumerism. That is, despite the re-enchantment of human-object relations dramatized in Kondo’s show and writing, the object is nonetheless fated to become garbage. While Kondo’s method revels in the ideal of harmonious decluttering, it obfuscates the fate of the object to planetary landfills, garbage dumps, and an eternity of decay. While the very philosophy of Kondo’s method is meant to bring about harmony in one’s domestic space, its stealth cost pertains to the unseen burden such dispositions places on both local and global ecologies. This horrific aspect of the ‘minimalist’ resurgence is today intimate to the sentimentality of bourgeois consumerism, which centers on the happy abjection of burdensome objects without confronting the significant ecological costs that accompany such lifestyle attitudes and practices nor having to resolve to buy less in the future.

Kondo’s method intersects with an obfuscated impulse of contemporary consumerism. While each focus on ‘happiness’ and the ‘spark’ one feels for objects, both the KonMari method and consumerism in general cover over the object’s predestination as garbage. As we learn via Kondo’s show, one ought to make room for only a paucity of objects. Yet, the obscuring of the object’s fate as trash runs afoul of the true symbolic enchainment Baudrillard attributed to the object. To paraphrase Baudrillard, we cannot do whatever we like with ‘things’. Such a state of affairs should be glaringly apparent today, when the true symbolic enchainment of people to objects is writ large in climate change research, which articulates how the object’s destiny is not simply to become trash, but to return via such horrific contemporary challenges as waterway contamination, chemical and mineral leachate, and the proliferation of garbage.

This is to say that despite the ideals of minimalism and ‘decluttering’, there is no escaping the object. Where the KonMari method aims to re-enchant the object, such orientations fail to apprehend how the object today returns as an ecological problem. The ethics of the object in the KonMari system seem again to extend only to the meaning objects have for us, reifying the consumer disposition of denying the object’s relation to other, broader ecologies.

The KonMari method of course focuses only on the organization of the domestic space, perpetuating a diminishing sense of care toward ecologies that are not for us. Perhaps there is good reason for this, given that our living space is one of few that remain under our immediate aesthetic control. As a salve seeking to naively protect consumers against the complex imbrication of human life with objects that Donna Haraway dubs the Chthulucene, a renewed focus on the arrangement of objects within the domestic space is symptomatic of consumer narcissism and disavowal co-extensive with the vast ecological issues that humans today face. The refashioning of the domestic space is less a renewal of human-object ethics, but tantamount to a cynical disavowal of objects that fall outside our realm of concern or sense of satisfaction.

Herein, the KonMari method becomes synonymous with a general disavowal of abjected objects emblematic of consumerism, where the fate of ‘cheapened’ objects already destined for disposability is of only passing concern. The vast trash heaps of civilization are for the contemporary consumer sublimated by the more immediate reference to status, social mobility, and spiritual rectitude conferred by the domestic space, its ordering and curation. To combat the lull of ecological denial and myopic circuit of consumption and disposal, Stacey Alaimo in her book Exposed, highlights a number of activists and artists who are revealing the ecological apocalypse we are currently living in, including Chris Jordan, who creates photographic evidence of the awful ecological effects of human consumption. Alaimo urges all of us toward these practices of exposure, that is, to reckon with rather than disavow both the ecological crises that are happening all around us and our own complicity in helping to (re)create them.

The authors would like to thank artist/academic/activist Nicolas Lampert for graciously providing the stunning cover art, entitled United We Consume.

Please check out his work, much of which focuses on capitalism and consumer culture, at https://www.nicolaslampert.org and https://justseeds.org/artist/nicolaslampert/, and read his brilliant book, A People’s Art History of the United States.

About the Authors

Jennifer Sandlin—Professor in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ. She is an avid declutterer and is still eagerly awaiting the promised peace and happiness.

Jason Wallin—Professor of Education at the University of Alberta, where he continually fails to be either a tidy or decluttered subject.

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