She is hailed as a modern-day Mary Poppins by Time magazine, which lists her as one of 2015’s 100 most influential people. But can lifestyle guru Marie Kondo’s bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, declutter the Earth, too? Not so much, thinks Guy Dimond…
Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up was a bestseller soon after its launch in the US last year. Having already made her a household name in her native Japan, the book won her recognition from Time magazine.
It’s little surprise, for the appeal of ‘KonMari’ – her method of decluttering homes – reaches far beyond the tightly packed apartment blocks of cities such as Tokyo. After all, space-poor urban lives around the world cry out for order and organisation.
The 30-year-old’s book has sold more than two million copies worldwide. I was living in Tokyo at start of the year, when I first heard about Kondo and her system for creating a tidy mind through a tidy home.
I picked up a copy of her slim paperback out of curiosity: how it might help a foreigner living out of a suitcase. (Answer: not much.) It was only when I returned to the UK, to my own home, that I found her approach might work for me – get rid of things you simply never use but keep things that ‘spark joy’.
Zen and the art of tidying
If you’re concerned about the environmental impact of the huge amount of personal clutter that we hoard, then Kondo’s book will strike many chords. We all, simply put, have too much stuff. It is better to recycle it, give it away, sell it, and only keep what you really need; far better to let others have what you can’t use. But it is the psychological impact of doing this, and how you achieve it, that Kondo focuses on. Once you have all those bags of surplus clothes, unused electrical accessories, books you bought and never read and heirlooms you only keep because you feel guilty getting rid of them, what do you do with them all, exactly?
In her book Kondo’s words sometimes seem to be lost in translation, with “contact your local recycler” being reserved for those items that may still have some value. Everything else is “discarded”. Here, some cultural differences between Japan and the West need to be clarified.
In Tokyo, and in every city, town or village in Japan, there are colour-coded recycling bins in almost every street for segregating two types of plastic, aluminium, paper and glass. Japan has the highest rates of recycling in Asia, with more than one-fifth of these materials recycled. But more strikingly, Japan also has a vibrant economy of second-hand clothes stores. Not the ill-fitting, unfashionable items that you will find in thrift stores in the UK, but ultra-fashionable designer labels which you can scarcely tell have been worn, and still command premium prices.
In a branch of Ragtag – a chain, selling as-new designer clothes to Japanese hipsters – I picked up a stylish cardigan that cost nearly £100 ($150). It was an immaculate item someone bought last year, then didn’t wear often enough. I asked Japanese friends why there are shops like this in every smart neighbourhood. People have small apartments and small closets, they told me. If they don’t wear something, they get rid of it at the next koromogae or seasonal wardrobe change.
This ruthless approach to space-saving doesn’t just extend to closets. Electrical goods, such as rice cookers, DVD players and months-old mobile phones are also tested then resold in specialist high street shops, usually to students or itinerant workers.
Out with the old
It may sound as if Japan is ahead of the game in some ways, but the whole picture isn’t quite that simple. Japan is still one of the most consumerist cultures on the planet. Japanese people don’t tend to fix white goods or electronic products when they go wrong; labour costs are high. Instead, they replace faulty items with new ones. They also have a culture that seems obsessed with technology and gadgets, from musical toilet seats to every kind of kitchen gizmo.
Affluent Japanese like to have the latest-model car, if they can afford it. Second-hand cars only a couple of years old are often exported to countries where they are resold; New Zealand, for example, is a huge overseas market for used Japanese cars. Advocates claim this reduces demand for new cars in New Zealand, thereby reducing waste; a deeply flawed argument, but a thought-provoking one.
I take issue with just a few of Marie Kondo’s assertions. For example, “mysterious electrical cords” should be “discarded”, she says. In the European Union moves are afoot to stop people doing precisely that, by standardising cables. My solution is simpler: label what cables are for as soon as you get them. That way they’re no longer mysterious. And “tidy a little a day and you’ll be tidying forever”, she warns us. OK, I’m still tidying – but give me just a few more years and I might have got rid of, oh, maybe half of my clutter.
Since reading Kondo’s book, I’ve been applying her principles to my own life in the UK. I could probably get rid of half my belongings and not even notice the difference, and have been slowly doing so. Which poses the question: what is the best way to dispose of personal ‘junk’, without creating more landfill?
My main ally so far, apart from the obvious – clothes banks, recycling bins, and the like – has been eBay. Among scores of other things, I’ve managed to get rid of:
- two rollerblade wheels, from a set of four. (I used the other two to fix a rolling suitcase.)
- three matching pan lids, without the pans
- a bokashi (Japanese composting bin) that was surplus to requirements
- a tin of specialist paint I bought but never used
I didn’t make much money, but I have the satisfaction of knowing they are now being put to good use.
Via eBay, I’ve also bought:
- a base for an obsolete kettle
- numerous bicycle parts, to repair a bike
Freecycle has also been useful: I got rid of a wonderful laser printer, unfortunately made obsolete by my new computer. The recipient was delighted.