It’s no secret that Japanese tidying guru Marie Kondo talks to her stuff. When she comes home from work she greets her house. Setting down her handbag she says, “it’s thanks to you that I got so much work done today.” She even expresses thanks to mistaken purchases, the things she dislikes and never uses, before throwing them out.
What’s brilliant about her philosophy, as articulated in the best selling books The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy: an Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organising and Tidying Up, is that it allows her to imagine the emotional lives of the things we own, encouraging us to treat them with dignity, while simultaneously putting them out on the street to fend for themselves, excommunicating them from our lives when they no longer serve a purpose. Kondo makes spring cleaning into something of a Miyazaki film; it’s Spirited Away with most of the characters consigned to garbage bags.
My favourite Kondo anecdote comes from her high school years, when it came time for her to replace her monochrome cellphone.
When I got my new cell phone, I hit upon the idea of texting my old phone. It was my first replacement and I was probably feeling quite excited. After thinking for a moment, I typed the simple message ‘Thank you for everything’ and added a heart symbol. Then I pressed SEND. My old phone pinged immediately and I checked my texts. Of course it was the message I had just sent. “Great. My message reached you. I really wanted to say thanks for all you have done,” I said to my old phone. Then I closed it with a click. A few minutes later, I opened my old phone and was surprised to find that the screen was blank. No matter which button I pressed, the screen did not respond. My cell phone, which had never broken since the day I first got it, had gone dead after receiving my message. It never worked again, as if the phone, realising that its job was done, had resigned from its post of its own accord.
The reason that Kondo’s way of talking to her things is so powerful and appealing is that it lets us get rid of useless items while dealing with all the emotional baggage we accumulate on our ‘purchasing journeys’. If we bought things that weren’t right for us, spending money we shouldn’t have, it’s because those things needed to teach us what we didn’t want. And even when a once useful item discovers it’s no longer of use to us, our possessions are glad to retire from service, honourably discharged.
One of the reasons we’re so sensitive about throwing out possessions and enjoy this imaginative conceit, is that Kondo is not the only commodity animist out there. The personification of things in ads and on packaging is ubiquitous.
The term ‘cute’ was first used to describe things, not people—the phrase “What cute little socks!” appeared in Virginia Illustrated back in 1857—that appeal to us to be taken home and cared for, the same way an orphaned kitten does. The idea that a pair of socks requires not just maintenance but care suggests a belief, or at least a purchase-motivating make-belief, that something inanimate has its own spirit and feelings. Cuteness has thrived alongside the spread of consumer culture and advertising, as all kind of items compete to engage us not with their functional benefits but by appealing to our emotions. To the extent that we believe a product represents us, it is a living part of us. Before Kondo, throwing things out meant killing the spirits that reside on our shelves and in our wardrobes, or even inflicting wounds on ourselves. After Kondo, our unused things are dejected, imprisoned, and to throw them out is to free them.
Pushing back against Kondo’s philosophy, Sir David Anthony Prise Wing-Cheung Tang, KBE, OBE, Chevalier l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, DSc, BA, whose very name is cluttered, has come to the defence of living among great piles of stuff, praising the “serendipities and sense of frisson arising from the sudden discovery of things we had long forgotten.” For him, tidying things up is a job that “should only be properly handled by the henchmen of the Yakuza.”
But there’s a clear generational determinant in China of whether someone is willing to accept Kondo’s one key criterion for keeping a possession: does it spark joy? People I spoke to in their 20s and 30s could see the benefit of throwing away excess items but couldn’t imagine their parents—who lived through periods of great deprivation—just throwing things out. It’s thus become common for the younger generation of Chinese to give their parents the things they don’t want, behaviour Kondo explicitly warns against in the chapter “What you don’t need, your family doesn’t either”.
Despite pockets of resistance, Kondo’s success suggests she’s on to something. And she’s not the only one to notice that we have more things than we need. So much more, in fact, that it can detract from our happiness. Championed by fashion blogs like this one, capsule wardrobes are back. And at a debate held in London this month, IKEA’s sustainability chief Steve Howard said that “In the West we have probably hit ‘peak stuff’.” Itemising just a few of the things that have peaked, he listed red meat, sugar and home furnishings, including curtains.
Post peak stuff, what can companies do in the face of decreased demand? For one thing, they can create products that will last longer and that people will continue to cherish. Dr Marten’s, for example, sells a For Life line of shoes and boots that come with a lifetime guarantee—ensuring the shoes will be fixed or replaced until the purchaser’s death. Revenues can be won with a higher up-front purchase or service and maintenance fees. H&M, conscious of the incredible wastefulness of fast fashion, initiated it’s ‘conscious’ initiative to help people lighten their wardrobes, and their consciences. And Kirsty Fuller has written at length about the role brands can play in a ‘post-capitalist’, or at least more conscientious corporate era.
The trick, it would seem, is for brands to create lasting, substantial relationships between people and their products, not a series of flings with cute but dispensable commodities.
Sam Gaskin is cultural content editor at Flamingo Shanghai