“Do you think we’ve just got to that age where we’ve accumulated so much crap that decluttering is having a moment?”
I took a moment, took in a breath and thought well yes, but what a Pandora’s box of a question. Our peers, are decluttering, heading to the local op shop in droves, with piles of stuff accumulated in closets, under beds and in “crap” drawers. We’re talking about how less stuff makes us feel calmer at dinner parties, or that ubiquitous meal, brunch. Each individual sheds their bags and bags of stuff, trying to varying degrees to lovingly (or not) find somewhere for this unwanted stuff to live, if it isn’t with us. Its closing time, and I’m sorry mis-purchased products, you can’t stay here.
Our peers have been working at this point anywhere between 5-10 years and our stuff is a statement of where we find ourselves in our economy. We work hard, often longer hours with slower progression than our predecessors. We are bogged down by student debts (though less crippling here in Australia, but definitely growing with each generation) and slower, more insecure entry into the workforce coupled with rising living costs and stagnating wage growth; we buy short term because bigger #adulthood purchases are harder and harder to come by. Like kids who can really only afford lollies with our pocket money, we can afford cheap and cheerful unicorn slippers from Kmart (#noregrets). There is no barrier to entry and so well hidden are the environmental and human impacts of these purchases from our place in the market, we take a drag on the cigarette of capitalism and breath a contented sigh of relief (apologies for the overwrought language, but like cigarette companies, fast fashion and lifestyle stores count on our addictions to get us to continue to consume).
The Decluttering movement, and its big brother Minimalism to varying extents seek to reframe our relationship with stuff. Decluttering requires us to rid ourselves of belongings that no longer serve the needs of the owner. The remaining belongings are to be carefully organised, perhaps requiring a couple of trips for special organising boxes and “tidying” paraphernalia. Minimalism, gets a bit deeper into it. Yes it does encourage people to jettison and consider what items they need to live their best life, requiring some sort of decluttering process. It then gives a big walloping dose of pop psychology, asking people to believe that by doing that, they’ll make more room for the things that are important, more passion, more life. It recognises that people have been using the stuff as a way to variously entertain and hide from feelings; creating debts that need servicing, shelves that need tidying and a sense of stress and unease.
Minimalism and decluttering both treat the symptom (crap), and to some extent consider the cause (a fast paced production, marketing and consumption machine), but it doesn’t necessarily ask us to think about how different individuals might be able to reframe their relationship with stuff. It doesn’t require newcomers to these ideologies of stuff to really get into why they have all this stuff and what hidden impacts the production and consumption are having on our world.
My holey jumper and chap-style jeans
As I’ve slowly being lovingly rehoming, or wearing out anything that was fine, in the effort to reduce the pure amount of stuff, I realised that big bags of donated clothes were a thing of the past. Sure, there has been a few big “culls” of misfitting, unloved or unsuitable clothes in the past, the stuff that is now being worn out and worn through (vale my only pair of jeans and favourite green jumper, both too holey to fix any further) I am keeping to wear out.
Why not pursue a capsule wardrobe? Why not just say, these last 20 or so items that are not my favourite or preferred choice can go? Well, because doing so, even though I would certainly achieve the end goal of less stuff would come at a huge cost into the future of searching and purchasing replacement items. Women over a certain size, like myself have to make do with a combination of clothing from a few retailers willing to dress us and basics from fast fashion stores. Very few ethically or environmentally made clothing companies produce clothing beyond a size 14. The next best option is op-shopping and clothes swapping which I do do, but that is both time consuming and often frustrating as you only find the cheap and pilly remnants of someone elses cheap fast fashion basics.
So I got to thinking, if I want to reduce the stuff, because it feels so much easier and better than drowning in choice and just ephemera of bad past fast fashion, but I don’t want to further implicate myself in problematic environmental and ethical practices, I can really only do one thing, and that is to wear out what I have for as long as I can, stitching, airing and caring for what I have. For me, it makes most sense to just accept the sunk environmental, ethical and financial costs in my current wardrobe, and hope that by the time I actually need to replace products that there are options that fit the trifecta of fit, quality and ethics.
Feminism and Minimalism
There seems to be a degree to which the onslaught of minimalism and decluttering has been gendered that I find problematic. The home has been squarely placed in women’s domain. Consumption and shopping are posed as womanly pursuits. There is a sense that by reordering and challenging these domains, by asserting authority over stuff (and their purchasers), there is a better, more masculine way of ordering our homes that is calmer, more serene, not manic or hysterical. The targets of minimalism (and I don’t think that any of its central proponents would have intended this) are the excesses from the pursuits women have been encouraged to participate in – decorating, home-making, and generally making ourselves (and our extensions of ourselves, home, husband and children) look lovely. We are told both that we need to ensure that we (and our domains of control) should be decorative and beautiful, but also that we are wasting our lives by accumulating all this stuff, and isn’t life lighter and freer without it.
Its similar in many respects to the observable gender disparity in the low or no waste community. Many of the proponents are women, which is amazing, and I thank them for their service and insights, but where are the men? It seems that in that case, women need to sort out the waste thing insofar as it occurs within the home. Many blog posts have comments like “how do I get my husband/male partner on board?”. It places the onus only on women where we are really talking about systems of production of our food, clothing and lifestyle goods, that we all play a part in in various ways that needs everyone’s input.
Representation in Minimalism
I think, that Minimalism has been presented as a glossy set of neutrals and whites, clean and exclusive, rather than this more pragmatic side of “how do I best serve my values”. It has created a version of the world that was clean cut, and sold exclusivity of a different kind. It does not represent the interests or life experiences of all kinds of people. I Googled “minimalist” and “minimalism” images with the following results:
So who can participate in minimalism, if it is clean and neutral with high quality and often high tech products? The accoutrements are often sleek and lovely art and homewares, speciality design and a love for light pine. Googling minimalists more generally, brings up pages and pages of results for white, middle-class men who have shed their stuff and found new meaning. I live with only a backpack! I relied on the generosity of strangers! I have a small apartment!
Absent from these results are people of colour, women, people with a disability or other minority. Furthermore, poor people are either minimalists because it is all they can afford, or they can’t afford to be minimalists. Their lives, and the necessity of frugality means that keeping something “just in case” makes more sense than losing sleep in the future when some middling to average disaster does strike. The above examples, for underrepresented groups or the poor would be homelessness, accepting charity or overcrowded housing, which is not nearly as sexy.
It is the privileged who have comfort in discarding their unwanted goods. They can afford to get rid of the stuff, because they can afford to pay to replace it at a later date. The removal for now brings them rest and ease. Without any deep thinking on why they are removing things from their lives, is likely to be a repeated performance. It might mean buying better quality things, scratching the same itch, with the same pipeline of product production and consumption. It doesn’t require adherents to question where products come from, what resources were used or who was doing the work (and in what conditions, for what pay).
Minimalism, if it leads people towards asking themselves these questions has the potential to transform our world, with greater demand on businesses to bring better made, repairable products, that serve the needs of people over the life cycle. The trickle down of these demands made by higher earning, more privileged purchasers, may see an improvement in the quality of products enjoyed by all, whether that be in the first or second hand market.
At the very least, I would love to see more realism and more representative viewpoints on minimalism. How does a person with a disability manage minimalism? How do the poor use it for a tool for empowerment? Can the women be a variety of sizes and shapes? Can we hear from couples of all kinds, about why and how they have adopted a simpler mindset?
Have you decluttered or minimised lately? Why did you do it? How do you feel it will change your behaviour into the future?