This week’s blog post is slightly on the ranty side. Everyone needs a grumpy frustration dump every now and again.
About 3 months ago Husband and I went house hunting and had an offer accepted on a property near Cambridge. Due to unpredictable pandemic times and slow legal processes, we’ve been living in my in-laws' very swanky barn conversion and partially out of non-swanky cardboard boxes for just over a year. We’ve been stuck in a state of knowing we’ll be moving at some point vaguely soon but not knowing exactly when that would be.
This has left me with ample time to consider how much I value all the stuff currently hiding in those cardboard boxes and whether I can be bothered to cart them down south when we eventually get the keys to our new kingdom.
Like many millions of people, I read about and enthusiastically enlisted in Marie Kondo’s life changing cult of tidying up. I read the book while spending a lot of time away for work and the combination of the book and my life circumstances made me think harder about whether I really needed all the possessions I was currently calling my own. If I was content to live at least half my life out of a single suitcase (granted quite a large and heavy suitcase), then did I really need all the stuff that was taking up space at home?
The conclusion I came to was probably not.
When I went through everything I owned things tended to fall into one of two categories: items I missed while I was away that made my life more comfortable, convenient, or fun upon my return. Or items that no longer felt like something worth coming home to.
In the grand scheme of things, the transformation wasn’t huge but definitely noticeable. I didn’t have that much stuff to begin with but I’d guess that I donated/sold/threw out about a third of my clothes, half my books, a lot of pointless paperwork, and a decent smattering of random stuff that was no longer sparking joy.
Although I have not been physically distant from all my stuff over the last year and a bit, the fact that much of it has been contained in cardboard boxes has meant I’m once again considering whether I really need it all.
Like many slightly nerdy perpetually confused millennials, I once again turned to the self-help section of the magical ebook library in the sky for guidance. This time I downloaded Goodbye, Things by Fumio Sasaki and promptly powered through all 250 pages.
Unlike Marie Kondo’s book, which I genuinely enjoyed reading, this one left me feeling rather cold and excluded from the concept of minimalism. It brought into focus some parts of the movement that I find difficult to deal with.
From an aesthetic point of view, I find minimalist living spaces, like those pictured at the beginning of Sasaki's book, frightfully boring. I realise not everyone who subscribes to a minimalist lifestyle takes it to the extreme that is reflected in the most stereotypical minimalist apartments. But I find the sight of a small white room with wooden floors and little to no art on the walls exceptionally depressing. There must be some goth/steampunk/alternative minimalists out there. Surely not everyone who wants to downsize their stash of stuff is obsessed with beige and earth tones?
This style also extends to minimalist clothing. Are you even allowed to call yourself a minimalist if there’s a pop of colour or mainly black items in your wardrobe? I accept that this is my interpretation of the principles and I’m probably being petty and self-conscious. To me, it just feels like there’s an established uniform for becoming a minimalist and if you own a messy dog or avoid light clothing because you’re a clumsy eater you can’t be part of the club.
Aside from squabbling over aesthetics, my main concerns about minimalism regard how all the stuff is discarded and the lack of appreciation for what it takes to make well-thought-out items that deserve to be loved.
The eye-catching parts of minimalism are the bags and bags of discarded items being sent to the charity shop or the unsteadily stacked piles of junk that eventually get dumped at the local tip. Getting rid of the items is what matters, not getting rid of them responsibly.
This can lead to some extremely wasteful behaviour.
There was one part of Goodbye, Things that struck me as completely illogical and seemed to take the whole thing unnecessarily far.
“Do you have a bunch of unused ballpoint pens? . . . You can still write with fewer pens.”
Why on earth would you throw away unused pens if you know your future involves writing? Yes, I have approximately 10 unused ballpoint pens because I bought them in a pack and I will always need pens. Put these pens in a beige/clear/sage-green jam jar/mason jar/mug on your white/beige/off-white desk if you must but don’t waste perfectly good pens because having more than one of them doesn’t fit the code of minimalism.
Knowing you can always buy more in the future is not a great excuse for being wasteful in the present.
Similarly, it’s great to donate your clothes to the local charity shop but have you washed them, checked they’re actually still wearable, and is it the appropriate season for the charity shop to sell them? If not, your old clothes are potentially still going to waste and causing annoyance and more work for somebody else in the process.
It’s much easier to send all your junk to landfill but have all avenues been explored so that your items could still be of use to other people. Could your excess stationary be of use to a local school? Could the sporting equipment you swore you’d use but gave up on after a few disastrous tennis lessons be beneficial to a local club? Does someone in your neighbourhood have a new puppy that would perfectly fit the harness you bought for your dog, not realising it was totally the wrong size?
It would probably be a far less interesting read/dramatic TV show and it certainly requires the privilege of time to do it effectively. But I feel like it would be more responsible to make finding new uses or owners for unwanted possessions the principal of minimalism rather than concentrating on getting rid of things as dramatically and quickly as possible.
My final gripe is that I think minimalism misses the opportunity to educate people on the true value of the things they own. Some minimalists portray things as the enemy to be got rid of rather than understood and appreciated for the resources and skills that have gone into producing them.
To be fair, the whole movement doesn’t simply gloss over the pleasure that can be derived from owning things we truly love. After all, Marie Kondo is all about keeping objects that spark joy. The great and powerful Kondo acknowledges that we do form attachments to things without making us feel too guilty about it.
Her insistence that we thank everything from holey socks to scratched CDs for their service before throwing them away may seem a little excessive, but at least it respects the fact that objects can bring value to our lives. I also think this step helps us work towards a better relationship with our possessions from purchase to disposal.
In general though, I believe the focus on throwing away all these no longer needed items could be more evenly balanced out by considerate advice on how to lovingly bring things into our lives and understand what has gone into their creation.
Let’s take a pair of climbing shoes as an example.
First, the shoe must be designed to suit its purpose, be it bouldering, multi-pitch, indoor climbing or outdoor climbing. This isn’t even necessarily done by one company or team. Vibram and La Sportiva may well work together on the rubber and the rest of the shoe respectively, ensuring their expertise is combined to create the best possible shoe.
Different rubber compounds, which require multiple ingredients, will be mixed and tested by Vibram to find the perfect compound for the shoe. This in turn requires machines that have been carefully designed and developed to make the process efficient and cost effective. These rubber samples are tested by yet more pieces of machinery to ensure they are tough enough to hold up to the stresses and strains that the rock and climbing feet will put on them.
The completed sample shoes are then tested in situ on rock and on indoor holds by employees and brand athletes before eventually being made on a much larger scale for sale to the general public. The machines get bigger. The quantity of the materials become astronomical. And skilled technicians are once again required to keep it all running smoothly and shoes efficiently rolling off the production line.
Thousands of rubber pieces are cut, pressed into a mould, and trimmed by hand to create the finished soles. These are packed into boxes and sent to shoe manufacturers like La Sportiva to be added to the upper part of the shoe on a similarly vast scale before a complex network distributes them to retailers all over the world.
The whole process requires the sourcing of multiple different materials and resources, years of training and expertise, hours of research and development, logistics and organisational skills, mechanical maintenance and problem solving, design know-how, and the craftsmanship and talents of hundreds of people.
When you can order something from Amazon in less than a minute and have it in your hands the very next day, it’s easy to forget how much time and energy went into making the item in the first place. Rather than questioning whether our existing items spark joy, perhaps we should be focusing on a different set of questions at the moment of purchase:
What resources and skills have gone into making this item?
Has it been made with expertise that will allow it to last a long time?
Have the people who created this item been treated fairly and compensated appropriately?
Will I care for and value this item sufficiently to respect the work and resources that have gone into producing it?
Will this item continue to spark joy for me or someone else I can easily pass it along to in the future?
If we’re more conscious when we bring things into our lives, there will be less guilt to deal with when we realise the mountains of crap we’ve surrounded ourselves with don’t spark joy anymore and we’ve wasted valuable resources and talented people’s time and work.
We’re certainly not going to be in the position or have the headspace and time to do this with every purchase and I’m as guilty as anyone else of impulse buying nonsense I won’t need in the long-term.
Sometimes you’re away from home and ill prepared and you need to buy a coat to avoid catching hypothermia. Sometimes (if not all the time) you’re working too hard to consider the ethical standards of Tefal when your oven breaks and you’ve still got to make dinner. Sometimes a pandemic hits and the world goes to shit but you still need to wash clothes and feed people while also setting up a home office and boosting your internet connection so you don’t look like a luddite on Zoom calls.
But when we do have the time to consider our purchases I think it’s worth doing. I’d love to see minimalism focusing more on the front end of the cycle of stuff rather than making a spectacle of the end of our possessions’ lives.
I hope this hasn’t been too self-indulgent a rant and that I’ve managed to be at least partially coherent. I’m aware that as someone who makes things fairly regularly my perspective is not unbiased but I’ve done my best to be reasonable and not let my angry seamstress side get the better of me. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter, even if they completely contradict my own. Am I totally wrong? Have I completely missed the point of minimalism? Are you happy with a cluttered life full of luminous colours, not an earth tone to be seen? Let me know in the comments below.