Ecological Debt Awareness Month
Marie Kondo tells us to ditch joyless items but where are we sending them?
The rise of the de-cluttering icon, Ikea’s “peak stuff” comments – we have an overconsumption problem but simply chucking things out won’t solve it
|Photograph: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images|
Earlier this year, Ikea’s head of sustainability said at a Guardian Sustainable Business event that consumers in the developed world had reached “peak stuff”. The success of Japanese de-cluttering icon and best-selling author Marie Kondo suggests he’s not the only one who thinks so.
The praise and enthusiasm for the KonMari method, which is Kondo’s approach of only keeping items that “spark joy”, signal that attitudes in an increasingly disposable world are shifting. On Instagram and Twitter her devotees post pictures of the clothes and items they’re getting rid of, often with glowing endorsements of her method’s effects on wellbeing.
However, its popularity also raises important sustainability questions. Where are we sending all these joyless garments once we’re done with them? And alongside our fervour to rid our lives of excess, are we addressing our patterns of accumulation at the source?
Making your stuff someone else’s problem
If Kondo’s trend for decluttering results in an increase in donations to charity, that’s undoubtedly a good thing for shops like Oxfam and Traid which rely on donations to make money. However, when it comes to clothes, the quality of fast fashion garments means that they’re often not fit to be sold on in the shops.
A survey of women by children’s charity Barnardo’s found that the majority of fashion purchases are only worn seven times. “If people are buying more at lower quality – so after a wash the hems are gone or the garment is out of shape – that’s really difficult for charities like us,” explains Leigh McAlea, head of communications for Traid.
Most charity shop chains will sort what they can retail in their own shops and then sell the rest to wholesalers. Those wholesalers then determine what can be sold overseas, what can be downcycled into items like mattress stuffing or rags, what can be incinerated, and what can’t be used at all. The UK exports more used clothing to developing world markets —$481m or roughly 351m kilograms worth in 2014 according to UN comtrade data — than any other country besides the US. Meanwhile, according to Wrap, almost one-third of UK clothing goes to landfill.
Changing our relationship with stuff
James Wallman, author of Stuffocation: Living More With Less, chronicles what he calls “the material equivalent of the obesity epidemic.” He says that the large interest in Kondo’s work proves there is a problem with overconsumption, but it does not address the very root of it.
“We’re still using mental tools honed through millennia of scarcity. Through your grandmother telling you ‘see food eat food’, [we now think] see stuff get stuff,” says Wallman. “It’s very hard to switch our mental tools, which is why lots of people, once they’ve done that clearing up and feel good about it, think: ‘I’ve got all this space on my shelves. What do I do?’ And they go buy more.”
Wallman says that purging your possessions using the KonMari method is really only the first step to un-learning this mindset. He recommends shifting mental focus first by purging, followed by making an marked effort not to “re-stuffocate” and then most importantly by shifting the money you would normally spend on more stuff to memorable and enriching experiences.
Outdoor apparel brand Patagonia has been at the vanguard of trying to shift patterns of consumption. Back in 2011 it was telling consumers not to buy its products and today it celebrates the adventures of its customers on itsWorn Wear blog.
UK designer Tom Cridland is also appealing to a new consumer, recently launching a collection of t-shirts and sweatshirts designed to last 30 years. “The whole purpose is to encourage people to buy a little bit less and to buy better, especially when it’s a basic item they’re going to wear all the time,” he explains.
After successful campaigns on crowdfunding websites Kickstarter and Indiegogo, Cridland’s collection launched in June and he says he has sold more than 5,000 sweatshirts and shirts. The brand, which started less than two years ago with a government start-up loan, plans to release a 30 year jacket at the end of the month.
Valuing our clothes more
Kondo writes in her book that “when a button falls of, it’s a sign that the particular shirt or blouse has … reached the end of its life,” but a Wrap report says that extending the life of an item of clothing is one of the most effective ways to reduce carbon, water and waste footprints. To this end, clothing companies such as Patagonia and Nudie Jeans offer free repair services.
McAlea believes part of the challenge is simply getting people to value their items more. “Understanding the value of your clothes means that in the process of clearing your things, you carry on being mindful and you put some thought into where your things are going and who is going to use them,” she says.