Marie Kondo: Tidying Up and Spirituality

By Kim Anderson

Okay, I admit it. This is an unpopular opinion. But I have a love-hate relationship with the KonMari Method. Marie Kondo has become the guru of home organization in the last couple of years, even gaining her own Netflix series, Tidying Up: with Marie Kondo. Now that’s notoriety.

For those of you not familiar with her method, she will come into your home and consult with you using her process to help you get your things under control. (She even has a team of trained experts throughout the country whom you can hire to use this method to help you). She is helping people to solve a problem that has become endemic in the US. It is probably not much of a secret that we have a “Stuff” problem:  many of us accumulate too many things. And then we wind up having trouble organizing or “controlling” the Stuff within our homes. There have been many solutions for this throughout the years, everything from bigger homes with bigger garages to better storage systems, better closet systems like California Closets, and even garages you can rent down the road to store your extra Stuff. Around every corner are opportunists ready to sell you something to take advantage of your problem of having bought too much Stuff. (Isn’t that ironic?)

Not Marie Kondo. She is counter-cultural. She suggests we downsize, although she might not use this term. At the beginning of her Netflix program, she says, “My mission is to spark joy in the world through cleaning.” She helps us go through our belongings and keep only the things we love – only the things that “bring us joy.”  She has a step-by-step process to help a family go through their things and determine what to keep and what to get rid of. In the Netflix series, we see her start her process by thanking the home with the individual/family. Next, she then teaches them to go through their clothes, books, paper, miscellaneous and sentimental items.

She recommends each family go through their clothing first. She has them sort their items into things they want to keep and things they would like to get rid of. She helps them determine this by determining whether each item brings them joy. If it does not, then they get rid of it. If it brings them joy, then it stays in their closet/home. In teaching each family, she is also teaching us.

I love Marie Kondo for helping us to remember that each piece of clothing is important.

In the first episode of the Netflix series, she guides a woman through this process and the woman tosses something aside that she has decided she no longer needs. Marie reminds her to be gentle: to thank the item for its service before getting rid of it. As Americans, this idea is foreign to us. We tend to think of our clothing as just objects, even as practically disposable.

I do not believe this has always been the case. When I reflect on how my mother talks about her clothing in her youth, it is different from what I experienced as a child. First, my mom had a lot less clothing than I do, and her mother had even less. If you’ve ever lived in an older home, this is evident in the amount of closet space you have (next to none – which is in stark contrast to the walk-in monstrosities you see on HGTV today). Also, in centuries past, if someone had a hole in a sock, they would have “darned” it, which is the old-fashioned term for repairing socks or garments. I have been guilty of throwing socks away without a second thought when they get holes in them. People may have even sewn or knit their own clothes, which would have given them a closer connection to them. Clothes, like many things, have become cheaper and easier to afford. Therefore, we own more and more of them.

As with many other things, we have become disconnected from our clothing. Because we’re far from the manufacturing process, we do not know what goes into this process anymore. When my mom was a child, she lived in a small Ohio town that was known for manufacturing shoes. So each of her parents worked for a shoe factory at one point in time. But like many things, the manufacturing of many shoes has been sent overseas.

Because of the fact that many things are no longer made in our country, it is easy to forget what goes into making clothing. For example, to produce one shirt, it takes 10 ounces of cotton and 2,700 liters of water – the same amount one person needs to drink over 2.5 years. Then, if it is made overseas, it might take a significant amount of fossil fuel to get it from the manufacturer to our shores, and then to you. This involves large amounts of pollution. A 2009 study found that the top 15 cargo ships emit nearly as much pollution as all the world’s cars. In addition, pesticides are used in producing the cotton – even though growers have gotten better at reducing the amountsof pesticides used, they have not been able to eliminate them altogether.

Meanwhile our fashion cycles are changing faster than ever. The film Minimalism discusses the phenomenon of fast fashion. Shannon Whitehead, the co-founder of a sustainable fashion company, talks in the film about how when my mother’s generation was shopping for clothes, there were four seasons a year. Now, she says, there are 52. “They want you to feel like you’re out of trend after one week so that you will buy something new the following week…They want consumers to buy as much clothing as quickly as possible.”  So it is no wonder that we accumulate more and more clothing.

But Marie Kondo fails to remind us of the hidden costs of the clothes/items we own.

In the short film The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard talks about the hidden costs of the items we purchase. Today, a lot of the items we buy can be incredibly cheap. As Americans, we seek out these deals. For example, just the other day, I went shopping for my tween daughter who is growing like a weed. I bought her a shirt a few short weeks ago and she has already grown out of it. (She does NOT have a “too many clothes” problem right now.)  While shopping, I found a shirt for 98 cents for her. Leonard points out that when we find these deals, we should ask ourselves how they could be so cheap. When you stop to think about it, just the cotton to make the shirt should have cost 98 cents. Or the labor to make it. Or the fuel to ship it from where it was produced. Or the wages and benefits of the people who produced it OR who sold it to me. But lo and behold, here it was, marked down to 98 cents. Even at the original price of $10, many people/resources had been exploited in the process of selling it to me for a good price. This is something we don’t take into consideration when we find a shirt for $1 or $10, and then discard it a year or two or even five years later when it no longer brings us joy, serves a purpose in our lives, or is in fashion.

But Juliet Schor, Professor of Sociology at Boston College, points out in Minimalism the flaws with this system: “The era of fast fashion in which we’re…not paying the true labor costs and we’re not paying the ecological costs…drove the price of apparel down so far that used apparel became worthless. I like to think rice and beans cost more than used apparel. In historical terms, that is the world upside down, and that represents the economics of such an extreme and profound unsustainability.”

Marie Kondo also doesn’t remind us why we accumulated these things in the first place.

This becomes increasingly obvious in the second episode of the Netflix series Empty Nesters. In this episode, a couple has decided to downsize after their kids have left home. They have a larger home and have spent decades accumulating clothes, Christmas decorations, baseball cards, etc. The couple, Wendy and Ron, had moved into the home after Ron’s parents died, and are even somewhat unaware of what is even in the home. “We have no idea on how many boxes are in the garage or what’s in them.” The home is overrun with things, and they are overwhelmed. To some degree, this is a position that many of us have found ourselves in throughout our lives, including my husband and I. This is why the KonMari Method resonates so much with our culture.

Marie uses her methods to help this couple go through everything and declutter their home. What is striking to me about this episode is the amount of Stuff that they get rid of. Marie has us sort through clothes first. To do this, she has each person put ALL their clothes in one place so we can see how much clothing we actually have. Wendy says “It just makes me feel good that I have them…Retail therapy is definitely something I am guilty of using. Whenever Ron and I would fight, shopping was a diversion.”  For most people, putting all your clothes in one place is an overwhelming process. This is especially true for Wendy, who Marie says has the biggest pile she has seen. There are a couple of later shots where we view the mountain of Stuff that this couple has had to get rid of in order to live happily in their home once again.

They mention that they’ve thrown away some things and donated others. But they estimated that ”150 bags of trash have left this house.”  I am not arguing that this process is not a good one. If you have too much Stuff, then it is good to downsize. Research actually shows that it is less stressful to live in less cluttered environments. But 150 bags of trash is a lot of trash from one house (they specify trash and not things they have donated)!  Of course, Wendy and Ron are an extreme case. They had a lot of Stuff in the first place. And they do mention donating a lot of Stuff as well. Even though there is a lot of good in this process, I do have some concerns as well.

How are we disposing of these items?  

On Marie’s website, she actually does have extensive suggestions about selling, donating, and recycling our clothes, used housing items, etc. Some second-hand stores have reported an uptick in the amounts of donations that they have received since the Netflix series launched in January 2019. Many people are cleaning out closets and posting on social media about donating items to Goodwill and similar stores. Some of these locations have noted an increase in donations as high as 42%, even considering the normal rise they receive at the beginning of the year. The fact that we are donating, rather than merely throwing things away, is a good thing. But it doesn’t take into consideration the hidden manufacturing cost of producing these items in the first place.

Is this a real lifestyle change?  Or will we just repeat this behavior?

My second uneasiness is that perhaps this does not become a lifestyle change for all of us going through these methods. What if we clean out, and THEN accumulate all over again? This is great if it then becomes a lifestyle in which we value our items and are wise about every item that we buy. But I venture to guess that, more often than not, just like someone previously committed to a fad diet, many of us end up accumulating a lot of Stuff again within a year or two. Just like with dieting, if it doesn’t become a true lifestyle change, then going through the method only creates more of a problem. It results in more waste. If embracing the method doesn’t result in real change, then will the used clothing and goods stores end up overrun with items? And will Americans who tend to want new and perfect goods turn around and buy any of these used goods?  Will we just go through this method, year after year after year, and ultimately continue to consume at the same rate? Or worse, an even faster rate?

What does Marie Kondo mean by “brings us joy”?  Where should this joy come from?

My final problem with the KonMari Method is that it doesn’t acknowledge where the items come from in the first place. As Christians, we need to remember that everything we have comes from God. I love Marie for reminding us to be thankful. But I want us to remember to be thankful to The One who gives us all that we have. This is where true joy comes from, not from the items themselves or from the process of accumulating them. And as a Christian Environmentalist, I want us to remember that God created the world and everything in it. If we did truly do that, maybe we would be more likely to value every item that we bought. Marie Kondo reminds us to be thankful for the objects we have (even if we’re getting rid of them) but doesn’t acknowledge where those items have come from. She is Shinto, a different faith perspective. She doesn’t acknowledge that God is Our Provider. As Christians, we need to remember that. In that role, God created the Earth and all the resources on it.

These resources are both finite and precious. As humans, we are using these faster now than some of them can be replenished.  For example, you can always grow more cotton for clothing, but this takes water, petroleum and other resources to produce. Global warming is a growing concern. In the last year, two major news stories in this arena are 1) we have 12 years to limit the climate change catastrophe or it will have devastating impact around the world and human beings; and 2) June 2019 was the warmest June in recorded history.  In short, continuing to produce things at the same rate will have a devastating impact on our planet and the people who live on it.

So I love Marie Kondo for helping us to remember that the items we have accumulated have served us well, that they have meaning and purpose. She doesn’t go so far as to remind us that important, rare precious resources have gone into making them, but it is worth noting. And it is a good practice to go through our items from time to time to keep our living space comfortable and uncluttered. But I think we should step back and make sure we’re reflecting during the process of accumulation. It might help to ask ourselves these questions when we’re accumulating things.

  • Does this bring me joy?
  • Do I value the cost of production?
  • Am I paying a fair price?
  • Will I keep it for a long time?
  • How will I dispose of it when I am done with it?
  • Do I recognize that it has come from God?

If we do this, it will change our behavior for the long term, and will keep us from accumulating too much in the future. And then we will only have to go through the KonMari process once.

And hopefully we will have a bit less of an impact on God’s precious Earth in the long run as well.

Kim Anderson has a background in business but has always had a passion for the environment and our impact on it.  She is especially interested in the care we should take of the earth as Christians.  She is a advocate for the earth with her family, in her church and community.  She lives in the mountains of Pennsylvania with her husband and two busy and creative daughters.

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