Clean your way to minimalist happiness: unpacking the decluttering craze

Sydney’s first Muji store opened in 2015 and with it came attractive minimalism, simplicity, and functionality – a kind of consumption that was somehow about consuming less.

The Japanese retailer offering home-wares, furniture, clothing, and stationery describes its formation as the “antithesis to the habits of consumer society” and sells items that have undergone a “careful elimination and subtraction of gratuitous features”.

It is hard not to be seduced by long-lasting items that challenge the planned obsolescence of products – the in-built limitation of a product’s use, functionality, or desirability at the stage of design (just think about how often earphones need to be replaced).

Clear your mind by tidying your closet

The Japanese “organising consultant” Marie Kondo’s best-selling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (2010), encourages readers to adopt a certain relationship to objects: if it doesn’t “spark joy”, discard it. Her latest book, Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up (2016) adopts a similar ethos with practical tips about tidying.

Websites can show us the aesthetic pleasures of decluttering with before and after photos of newly tidied household interiors. One-on-one organizational coaching is available for those who want professional guidance on decluttering.

A number of do-it-yourself websites, articles, and books encouraging simplicity and minimalism have also popped up, with mantras such as “bust clutter”, “let it go”, and “clear your mind”. What these slogans have at their heart is the idea that our things mean more than just the functions they serve.

Our things tell us about ourselves. As accumulations of memories, souvenirs from another place or mementos from another time, they somehow reflect back on us. Who we are, have been, or would like to be, how others know us, and where we belong are all things that are tied up to our relationship with objects. In the shadows of this trend is the idea that you may be perceived as being too involved with your possessions.

Scientific housekeeping

The US documentary television show Hoarders (2009-), now in its eighth season, involves staging interventions for those categorised as having a psychologically disordered personality linked to their tendency to accumulate.

The United States idea of a hoarder as participating in “material deviancy” came about in the mid-20th Century. Scott Herring’s 2014 book The Hoarders: Material Deviance in Modern American Culture explores the idea of “scientific housekeeping”, which involved the promotion of social, personal, and material hygiene that advocated efficiency, cleanliness, and material orderliness in the home.

Decluttering, the natural heir of scientific housekeeping, can therefore be seen as a form of distancing yourself, physically as well as socially, from things that often have negative connotations: disorder, dirt, deviance, hoarding, as well as the kinds of people and bodies that are usually seen as in need of transformation in order to “better fit” with certain social ideals.

In decluttering we are not only throwing away things but associations. In decluttering we re-draw the boundaries between ourselves and others, and between our things and what they mean to us.

There is also something to be said about how the movement is tied up with our ideas of Japan, of Zen living, and the way that spirituality and a philosophy of living are evoked. How we imagine a Japanese way of life to be simple, organised, and orderly also forms part of the appeal.

Anti-conspicuous consumption

The trend is open to interpretation. Is it about stripping back to the “bare essentials”, to a supposedly more “authentic” way of being? Is it driven by an interest in the growing movement towards sustainable living? Is it fuelled by an anti-consumerism akin to James Wallman’s idea that we are living in an age of “stuffocation”? Perhaps it has to do with the idea that by discarding and re-organising, we will become renewed, more efficient, and more productive? A New Year’s resolution all-in-one.

Or perhaps its popularity has to do with the feeling of being refreshed and renewed after decluttering – an idea that leads one commentator to describe decluttering (unflatteringly) as “the new juice cleanse”.

The recent trends towards decluttering encourage us to change our relationship to the things we surround ourselves with and to be more discerning about what we include and exclude from our homes and from our perception of ourselves. However, where do these things “go” when decluttered?

Do they become “out of sight, out of mind” as they head towards landfill? Do they become clutter in other people’s homes? If our objects are holders of memory, stories, and biographies will our memories of them be erased? Will we regret giving them away in moments of scarcity?

What is a necessity now may become clutter in the future, and what is clutter now may be of use later. Will there be a lingering nostalgia for that possession that was once discarded but is now painfully longed for?