Yes, the decluttering craze popularized by titles such as “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” may be an upper-class conceit by people who can afford to give much of their stuff. If the clutter goes to a local Goodwill or Salvation Army, though, it’s not just some vapid exercise in conspicuous austerity.
In a recent op-ed piece, Stephanie Land characterized the de-cluttering craze, popularized by Marie Kondo’s best-selling “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” as a form of class-based scorn.
“In a new documentary about the movement, ‘bad’ consumption is portrayed by masses of people swarming into big-box stores on Black Friday, rushing over one another for the best deals,” wrote Land, a fellow at the Center for Community Change, in The New York Times. “They are, we’re led to understand, slaves to material goods, whereas the people who stay away from mass consumption are independent thinkers, free to enjoy the higher planes of life. But those people flocking to Wal-Mart ... are people teetering on or even below the poverty level, desperate for comfort in their homes. To point to them as a reason to start an anti-consumerism movement is just another form of social shaming.”
I agree — there’s a lot of hype tinged with snobbery. The minimalism movement has become what Kyle Chayka calls “Silicon Valley’s version of Zen monkhood.”
Writing in The New York Times Magazine, Chayka nailed Land’s discomfort: “Minimalism is now conflated with self-optimization. ... The movement, such as it is, is led in large part by a group of men who gleefully ditch their possessions as if to disavow the advantages by which they obtained them. But it takes a lot to be minimalist: social capital, a safety net and access to the internet.”
Still, as someone who lives in an area where the Wal-Mart is only a mile from the local Goodwill thrift store, I have a very different take on it: Kondo’s approach may be a conceit of the upper class, but it has undoubtedly enriched the lives of all the working-class people who are lucky enough to live near high-quality second-hand-goods stores.
From the perspective of someone who has been going to Goodwill every Saturday morning since my local store opened in 2011, Kondo’s “Life-Changing Magic” has brought a lot of high-priced glee to a neighborhood whose poverty rate reached almost 21 percent in the years after the Great Recession.
What this means for a low-income family with school-aged children is that when back-to-school time comes around, a mom can usually find new, often-times very high-quality name-brand clothes and shoes — plus extremely cheap, practically new school supplies like scissors, loose-leaf notebook paper, folders, rulers and required paperbacks like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “The Great Gatsby” — for pennies on the dollar.
These families then take the savings from having purchased donated goods down the street to Wal-Mart for the licensed-cartoon-character brand lunchboxes, backpacks and other supplies the kids simply can’t do without for the start of school.
Plus, some of the nation’s top thrift store chains do more than just offer super-nice goods on the cheap. The Salvation Army, for instance, funds adult rehabilitation centers and programs that help people re-enter society and attain gainful employment in part through profits from the donated goods that are resold in their thrift stores.
According to Charlene Sarmiento, the public relations program manager at Goodwill Industries International, people’s donations help fund programs that educate and train veterans and military families, older workers and others entering the job market. The stores and associated programs provide real work experience and career counseling, computer classes, resume reviews, job interview training, and specialized industry education to get people into jobs in their communities.
Last year, Sarmiento said, “Goodwill placed 312,000 people in employment in the U.S. and Canada and nearly 2 million people worked to build their career and financial assets by engaging with Goodwill team members. In addition, more than 35 million people used computers and mobile devices to access Goodwill education, training, mentoring and online learning services to strengthen their skills.”
Sarmiento could not make a direct connection between the Kondo craze, which started after the book was published in the United States in 2014, and Goodwill’s 4 to 7 percent increase in donations over the past two years but said, “We know that Kondo’s book has been very popular and we encourage people who are de-cluttering to donate the items they no longer need to Goodwill. ... Many of our friends, family members and neighbors have been able to find jobs and care for their families through your donations to Goodwill.”
De-cluttering doesn’t have to be a vapid exercise in conspicuous austerity. Clean house and help others at the same time by donating to your local nonprofit thrift store.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.