Like many people, I watched Tidying Up with Marie Kondo on Netflix this winter. It was released with precision timing as New Year brings on that urge to tidy our houses and organise the sh*t out of everything. In this post I explore the question of whether minimalism is helpful or detrimental to sustainable living. Are minimalism, tidying, and decluttering the same thing? Are they sustainable/ good for the environment?
The urge to declutter
While I too get the urge to go through my closet and donate a few bits that don’t fit or that I never wear, I actually don’t have that much clutter to “clear out”. Maybe this comes from living the nomadic student lifestyle for so long, or it could be that I try to do a continuous audit of my belongings. In any case, for me it’s more about organising what I have, rather than realising that half of my possessions don’t “spark joy” and throwing them “away”.
If anything, my stuff audit reminds me to wear some items of clothing more, or use up that tube of makeup that I don’t really like. Lucy agrees — she took Marie’s message of tidying to mean organise what you have, rather than get rid of loads of stuff.
How can minimalism help the environment?
Focusing on the environment rather than myself makes reducing my consumption worthwhile and easier; it allows me to live my life and enjoy my possessions sustainably. I’ve heard the term for this is “eco-minimalist”, meaning you minimise possessions and consumption in your life, but only insofar as it supports the environment. Decluttering loads of your things so that they end up in landfill (or go to a charity shop and are unwanted and then go to landfill) is counterproductive to living sustainably and certainly isn’t zero waste.
But first, are minimalism and decluttering the same thing?
I have a few issues with minimalism equaling decluttering:
- When people dispose of perfectly good items for the sole purpose of making room for new possessions.
- When people throw out things that are still good because those items don’t fit with a minimalist, zero-waste, or plastic-free aesthetic (I’m looking at you trendy Instagram accounts!).
For example, on You Tube a trending theme was the January minimalism challenge. I saw many people trying to declutter 30, 50, 500 things just for the sake of it being a challenge. Why not just like and use what you have instead of feeling the need to get rid of it simply because it’s the start of a new year?
Decluttering with unsustainable intent
3. When people declutter by sending things to landfill. I’ve seen a few environmental bloggers talk about this issue as it relates to Marie Kondo. There are a few episodes of the show when you see shots of people dumping things into their garbage bins. Some episodes mention donating to charity, but overwhelmingly it left me wondering where all their stuff actually went. Check out My Green Closet for a similar discussion.
I’ve seen this theme of decluttering on other shows, such as the Canadian series about hoarders on Netflix, Consumed. Granted that show was about extreme clutter, but they dropped off huge skips for the families to dispose of their many possessions, presumably ending up in the landfill.
4. Feeling FOMO if you do want to try new things and “keep up with the Joneses”, and then decluttering after every season (e.g. fast fashion, tech., makeup, cars, home decor).
5. The pressure to live the “best” minimalist lifestyle and guilt that you shouldn’t have anything in order to be minimalist (almost a reverse keeping up with the Joneses to be the best minimalist).
A mini rant about books
6. Decluttering books — Academic Twitter had a full-blown meltdown when Marie Kondo suggested that most people only need around 30 books. For many of us, books are our careers, our passions, and our friends. They are also part of our household aesthetic. If you read your books and enjoyed them and they hold value in your life, they aren’t meant to be decluttered!
A You Tuber posted a video recently where she did one of her well-known “anti-hauls”. Among the items to not bother buying were books, and she even said “who even reads anymore?”. This annoyed me. As someone who works with university students increasingly becoming dependent on technology and not knowing how to handwrite, I worry that reading is not being treated as an important life skill, let alone an experience to enjoy. Reading physical books is a tactile experience and cognitively it is not the same thing as being read to. It turns out that video was sponsored by Audible. 😑
My point is that when you’re decluttering, don’t feel that you need to get rid of your books. However, if books are overwhelming your physical space and they no longer ‘spark joy’, perhaps it’s time to make more use of the library and buy fewer books, or start a book sharing scheme with friends and family! When you want to be read to (an enjoyable but distinct activity), get an audiobook.
What are the benefits to minimalism?
- Saves money
- You don’t feel the need to keep up with trends. Or do you…?
- Feeling that you don’t need to buy things to be happy. The idea of retail therapy is so toxic and it takes a lot of determination to reject that mindset.
- Minimalism changes the way you view bargains
- Less clutter has been linked to a less cluttered mind
- More time to do other things if you’ve got less to clean and organise
Is it healthy to have emotional attachment to things?
Human history has always placed importance and attached meaning to objects. Material history is such a wonderful way of documenting our evolution and cultures. I therefore struggle to understand when some people take minimalism to such an extreme that they’re afraid of having any things in their lives with significance. Rather, objects can have meaning but you shouldn’t have to attach meaning to things.
Having an emotional attachment to something purely because it reminds you of someone or an event isn’t healthy; at an extreme, it leads to hoarding. This is one of the points Marie touched on that both Lucy and I liked. Why hold on to an object if it only instills feelings of sadness?
“Sparking joy” and living frugally (a.k.a. penny-pinching)
As someone who is careful with money, I don’t want to part with something if I spend my money on it, or if I know someone spent their money on a gift for me. I feel guilty every time I decide to donate something or throw it out. This is one of my biggest struggles with minimalism. I had a mini crisis I like to call ‘sockgate’ a few weeks ago because I have too many socks. I wear most of them, they aren’t worn out, but I don’t want to donate them because chances are they’ll end up in landfill. So I’m guilty of having a cluttered sock drawer. I’d love to know if other people have this conundrum with money vs. decluttering.
Minimalism and new experiences
I used to be terrible for getting sucked into marketing, wanting to try new food or makeup. Now I ask myself if I really need the new thing and most of the time the answer is NO. But, my worry is that minimalism (if taken to an extreme) could discourage us from trying new physical things. It’s about balancing the experience of trying new things with avoiding waste.
Should you declutter?
If you choose to do a minimalism challenge or declutter, remember to do so responsibly. Decluttering in an eco-friendly way should result in all things finding a new home ideally, and at the very least being recycled. For now, I will take the approach of tidying to mean organising, and focus on loving and using my possessions. Minimalism can be both helpful and detrimental to sustainable living, depending on how it is approached.
For more on sustainability see: A Simple Action: Creating Dialogue on Sustainability and 5 Big Changes to Make for Plastic Free July