Ethical living

Beyond decluttering

Why do we declutter?

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Decluttering has caught much attention recently. It is often related to one way of dealing with minimalist living. It is the way to sort, organize, and let go of things. Undoubtedly, the outputs are significant. We come to a more organized life, a cleaner space, and a more qualified life. Nevertheless, what happens after we decluttered, donated, or threw out the things?

Before we answer all that question, we need to reflect on why do we declutter? The root of the issue comes from consumerism, in which people are constantly being exposed and persuaded to prompt impulsive and reactive buying behaviors (Ruskin & Schor, 2005). Consumerism itself is affected by many factors. It is often assumed that material goods are required to increase happiness, personal identity, or evolve social networks (Zhang et al., 2016). Moreover, the relationships to materials are also influenced by culture, taste, trends, and consumer value (Khamis, 2019). It is a highly complex relationship. In other words, people create meaning and identity through material goods (Belk, 1988; McCracken, 1986).

The term ‘clutter’ is defined as an excessive amount of irrelevant possessions. Following, it has attracted attention since decades ago. It was the Spark Joy in 2016 and the Netflix series of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo in 2019, inspiring many households to declutter from their homes. Also, other video series such as A cluttered life: Middle-class abundance shows a ten-year ethnoarchaeological investigation of how households clutter in their homes. There are also coming abundance studies about the negative impacts of clutter which increase the popularity of decluttering.

Decluttering indeed provides many benefits. It improves clarity and confidence to focus on more meaningful things (Livingston, 2016). The missing question after all this decluttering is what happens to the unwanted things that we decluttered? Often we donate, sell them to thrift shops, or throw them out. A donation can be one solution. However, how many decluttered things can be donated? The argument may not be straightforward for decluttering things, but the donation can be problematic. Often we donate our unwanted things to charity shops, but not all the donated things can reach new users. It is estimated that 25 % of donated textiles still go directly to landfills. It is because unsuitable textiles are not able to be sold. The other 40 % until 50 % are exported to emerging countries, such as Southeast Asia or Africa. The issue is that not all the exported textiles can be properly resold. An immense amount still ends in landfill and even create other problematic environmental problems in those countries. 

Selling them to thrift shops is also not free from those problems. Thrift shops cannot receive everything. They have their capacity. Also, the way how they sort, organize, and maintain things become an issue. Often, the unmanageable or unsold things end in landfills anyway. In addition, consumers may come to impulsive buying since they can afford a lot of second-used items with less money. Finally, throw away does not mean ‘throw and disappear’ because we live in one space called earth. The only way things can go away is if they are biodegraded. Another way we can do this is by recycling them. Some retailers, such as H & M, have provided an alternative to dropping off our textiles. Nevertheless, how do they recycle the textiles and are all recycled remains a big question.

Beyond sorting, organizing, and throwing things out

According to Ballantine & Creery (2010), decluttering goes beyond the practical activities to sort, organize, and let go of things. It is a behavior that tends to reduce consumption in favor of living in a meaningful way. It is not a contradiction to consumerism or other extreme consumption movements such as anti-consumption. The term a meaningful way should get attention. It means we can still be a consumer and practice sustainable living at the same time. It means we are mindful of what we bring into our homes in the first place. It is not only about the joy in sorting, organizing, and discarding, but it is about a practice towards sustainable consumption.

Most of us are complex in terms of consuming decisions. Our consumption choices are influenced by many elements, often shown as part of everyday routines rather than conscious ethical decision-making (Eckhardt, Belk, & Devinney, 2010). Consumers cannot be forced to do sustainable actions. Kollmuss & Agyeman (2002) even argued that even though consumers acknowledge environmental issues, they are still unlikely to prioritize sustainable actions in their day-to-day life. One way towards sustainable consumption is embracing identity, culture, materiality, performance, infrastructure, and routine (Jackson, 2005; Shove, Pantzar, & Watson, 2012). Sustainable consumption can be a result of consumers’ involvement in many different practices.

Chamberlin & Callmer (2021) performed empirical research on a large group of consumers in the UK, Ireland, and Sweden. The findings reveal that decluttering, especially the KonMari method, positively impacts well-being, such as a calm, tidy home, easy routines, and beneficial to mental health. The practice also provides more control and freedom. It is because having fewer things meant that fewer choices to make and increased one’s control. The increased control also relates to control of how people spend their money. Another significant result is that this practice tends to reduce impulsive buying behaviors. The reasons simply because now people have addressed the situation. They know how many items they own in their homes and how many of these items are useful, unwearable, unfit, or unwanted. By analyzing the situation and feel the process of organizing the things, consumers now become more mindful about their prospective purchases.  It can serve as a kind of unintentional entry into mindful consumption practices.

According to Chamberlin & Callmer (2021), decluttering may potentially act as an alternative practice towards sustainable consumption. Consumers start thinking about things that spark joy to them and those that do not. It is a kind of psychological burden. Bringing another new thing to home that does not fit the current ambiance and home environment will distract one’s psychology. It is about creating meaning to things and being more aware of the lifestyle we want to embrace. However, another remaining issue is for how long this practice could stand? Is the practice only a temporary trend, following people will return to impulsive buying, or will it create a new trend in responsible and mindful consumption behavior that will last long remains a question.

Practical tips

Still, being mindful of what we bring into our homes is key. To sum up, I take these tips from the blog of The Lifestyle Files that these questions should we ask ourselves before doing decluttering things:

1) When did we get it? If it comes recently, but we still feel that we need to let them go, we probably have a problem with impulsive buying behavior

2) Why did we buy it? We need to be honest to answer this question, whether it is a deliberate purchase or simply due to FOMO or a bad day. 

3) How many times did we use it? It is funny, but we are fascinated by 12 colors of eyeshadow, or six colors blush palette. Nevertheless, we only use 2 or 3 colors of them constantly. The rest remains there, or we wait until their expiration dates before we throw them out. 

4) Why have we kept them so far? Is it because they are that useful, or probably ‘just in case’?

5) Why do we want to declutter them now? Is it because it is broken, faded, does not suit us anymore, or is it just not that useful or fits in the first place. If the latter is the answer, we need to go back to the first question, “why did we buy them?”

For sure, the tips might not be perfect. Alternatively, I can say there might not be perfect tips, but for the sake of sustainable consumption, every single factor matters. We cannot say we stick to no consumption. However, by asking the above questions, we begin to analyze the situation. We realize that we have made bad decisions about our purchases many times in advance. We recognize those as bad habits. Hopefully, it can bring us to a sort of unintentional entry into conscious consumption practices in the subsequent purchases.


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