Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Burden of Marie Kondo's Joyful Crusade

Close the Door to Your Untidy Home, Our Messy World Needs Your Magic


Legions of households have taken Marie Kondo's advice as detailed in her best-selling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. She prescribes evaluating all one's worldly goods by asking about each possession: “does it spark joy?” Kondo promises transformative magic will result from eliminating any possessions that elicit a “no”. 

This approach has perilous consequences to the environment. If you get rid of whatever fails to give you a zing then happen upon other objects you love, acquire them and when their magic fades eighty-six them from your life you’ll still be participating in a never-ending cycle of acquisition and disposal. Over 10 million tons of textiles and 25 million tons of plastics end up in landfills according to the EPA. Our landfills are clogged with joyless refuse.

The range of prices for consumer goods has widened in recent decades. Goods are plentiful and acquisition has become easier. The pendulum’s lengthened arc swings from mass-manufacturing at rock bottom costs to luxury goods priced to add cachet to a brand by making it ”exclusive” (i.e. obtainable to very few). Today a tee shirt can be had for $3.90 at Forever 21 or $990 at Barney’s New York. Even if you can afford to spend $50 on a tee you might be tempted to buy three for $15 instead. Americans have come to regard shopping as entertainment and almost a form of patriotism.

The planet depends upon conservation. We must extend and preserve the usefulness of objects we own. If you’ve ever rewired a lamp or replaced a button you know fixing something to make it usable again is immensely satisfying. We can create beauty by transforming what is broken into something useful, in the process both personalizing it and restoring its value.

Follow Kondo’s advice and your home may achieve a minimalist chic, leaving others to sort through the bags of your charitable-minded donations to find the useful or to haul away your curbside garbage dumping much of it into a landfill. For stewards of the earth there is a hazard to seeking possessions that “spark joy” and jettisoning ones that don’t meet that ephemeral standard.

Buying everything we need deprives us of the happiness found in being resourceful and in the experience of making. Since late 2008 I’ve not bought clothing. I’ve been designing and constructing everything I wear. This might appear an austere practice. On the contrary, it has been fortifying and exuberant. Making adds value as it simultaneously slows acquisition. It presents challenges, requires developing techniques and offers the opportunity to connect with a community. It hones observation skills. If you see me staring at you, it’s not you I’m looking at per se--it’s the construction of your clothing, the seams, the fabric, curious about the elements of its design. As you learn to craft or repair something whether as a baker, woodworker or mechanic, you’ll gain greater awareness of and appreciation for quality materials and workmanship. You will attune to your surroundings in new ways.

Kondo insists in a tidy home will “allow us to clarify our ideals, and help us gain confidence in our ability to lead productive lives and develop a sense of responsibility to those around us…” (The New York Times, Dec. 2016)  The tidiest man I know has burned through countless relationships. A musician I admire whose career has extended into her 70’s, has piles of books on the floor throughout her home. Joyful possessions perhaps, but certainly untidy. A sense of responsibility for our world cannot wait for our closets to be neat.

Acquire less. Find ways to transform what you do not love into something you value. Mend and repair objects to extend their usefulness. We are makers and builders by nature. Close the door on your imperfect home. Go out into the chaotic world. The responsibility to those around us has never been more urgent. Make a difference.


  1. I have read Kondo's book, and there was a lot that spoke to me, but I, too, shared your concerns as I read about people filling all kinds of garbage bags with their unwanted things. I actually did use her technique for my closet, but I also found that most of the items I owned "sparked joy." I also realize I'm not a minimalist, and as an artist, I like to collect things that might be useful later (not a hoarder, I swear). I'd like there to be a mid-ground; something that acknowledges we acquire way too much but encourages us to find other ways to use or gift the things we no longer need. But you're right, acquiring less is a good place to begin.

  2. I agree with you-- community engagement, making, ACTION is the heart of life, not the material things that consumer culture revolves around-- AND I agree with Marie-- sometimes you do need to clear away the excess to see that you don't need "stuff" to be happy. Of course that's not the only way-- never accumulating too much in the first place would be ideal. I had good fortune in this respect by moving often and living in small spaces. Still the "stuff" creeps in-- it's hard to resist the overwhelming message of BUY MORE that our culture is continually sending forth. Mindfully repurposing and rehoming things rather than discarding them is also a way to personally heal from over-consumption. I never liked her emphasis on stuffing things in garbage bags and throwing them away, but expedience is the name of her game-- I took some of her advice but I used the Freecycle Network, Craigslist, etc. to find homes for things I didn't want to keep. Books went to the local library book sale room. It took longer but I stuck to my values. Now I buy only what I need or things I absolutely love and plan to keep long-term. I fix things. I make things. I have less and do more and it doesn't ever occur to me to entertain myself by shopping. Thanks for your heartfelt and powerful call to action!

  3. Thank you for sharing these insightful comments! You each speak to the benefit of having what we need including [art, etc.] materials we use to express ourselves, while being purposeful about what we acquire and the ways we discard possessions we have outgrown. The more we care for what we have the more we find value in our surroundings.

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