What Gets Overlooked When We Talk About 'Decluttering'

‘Decluttering’ Is Trendy, But Here’s What’s Missing From That Convo

April 8, 2019 Updated June 2, 2020

Americans Have To Much Stuff
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For a year or so now, my social feed has been saturated with images from friends who are decluttering: stacks of trash bags filled to bursting and ready to be donated or put on the curb for trash pickup.

Look at all this stuff I’m throwing away! And this was only two closets, haha! Off to the dump! Getting rid of stuff feels SO GOOD! Yayyy!

The appeal of decluttering is clear—who doesn’t love an organized junk drawer or a tidy closet where you can see every item you own and also trust that every item you own, you can actually wear? I myself am still holding out hope for about 10 pairs of circa 2007 size-four pants that haven’t made it past my thighs since before my second pregnancy 10 years ago. I really should get rid of those; they’re hurting my feelings.

But what I’ve noticed is that, amidst all this purging and decluttering, not much is said about how we accumulated so much stuff in the first place—or how to avoid accumulating more in the future.

We need to talk about it though, because, y’all, Americans have too much fucking stuff. We are literally killing ourselves with it.

The average American home has 300,000 items in it. No, that number does not have an accidental extra zero. Even more shocking, this is not even all we own. The storage industry is the fastest-growing real estate industry in the U.S., with one in ten Americans renting a unit and 50,000 storage facilities that contain enough space to afford every American person 7.3 square feet of personal space. So roomy! And we have all this storage despite the fact that American homes have tripled in size in the last 50 years. Our garages are so full of stuff, we can’t park our cars in them. It’s no surprise that the home organization industry is growing at the astounding rate of 10% per year…

And try and convince me this isn’t fucked up: 3% of the world’s children live in the U.S. and yet we own 40% of the toys. Ridiculous, since most kids only play with a few favorite toys. Why are we filling our kids’ rooms with toys they don’t play with made of plastic that is terrible for the environment?

We’re just as bad about clothes. Americans today own 3 times as many clothes as Americans in 1930, and that’s taking into account that the average American throws away 65 pounds of clothes every year.

Feeling nauseous yet?

Overconsumption is a distinctly Western problem. 12% of the population living in North America and Western Europe are responsible for 60% of worldwide private consumption spending, while a third of the population in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are responsible for a mere 3.2%. Annually, Americans spend 1.2 trillion dollars on nonessential goods—and yes, by “nonessential,” we mean shit we don’t need.

And then we throw it all away, either as a matter of necessity (like with packaging, water bottles, junk mail, etc) or in the name of “decluttering.”

Where does all this trash go?

Since 1950, humans have manufactured around 8.3 billion tons of plastic. Over half of that has ended up in landfills and about 9% has been recycled. The rest, scientists believe, is in the ocean. Our oceans are swallowing our plastic at a rate of 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons per year. This is shameful.

Why is this happening? How did we get here? And, most importantly, how do we fix this?

Consider that, here in the United States, we analyze our country’s health using a metric based on consumption. This is not metaphorical, and it’s not hyperbole—our entire culture literally depends upon our ability to continue consuming, and not just consuming, but consuming more and more every year. Literally, if we’re not growing, we’re failing. Unhealthy. Headed for disaster.

The S&P and Dow Jones are a measure of economic health. As long as they’re on a consistent upward trend, we’re doing okay. And why do these markets continue to increase in value? Partly due to speculation and partly due to ordinary inflation, but also in larger part because of production—because people are consuming.

GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is considered another important metric. GDP is literally a measure of how much shit we’re making. Consumer spending is another huge one. Are we still buying stuff? Are we buying at least 3% more than last year? Yes? Whew! We’re doing just fine then.

But what if we don’t spend enough? That would be bad. Very bad. We’d spiral into a recession or even depression. But, never fear, producers of material goods have a system in place to prevent that from happening—planned obsolescence. Today’s products are designed with the intent of wearing out quickly so they must be replaced. This fuels the continued cycle of insatiable consumption.

Our economy—and thereby, our wellbeing—is built upon a disposable culture. It is bad business to make things that last. Brilliant marketing inundates us with perfectly targeted messages intended to convince us that elevated social status requires having the latest and best of everything. And we believe it. I am sickened by this and yet, despite being more minimalist than most, I have two perfectly usable designer bags hanging in my closet as well as a third that I use daily.

How did we get to this point? Why does Western culture in particular measure success in terms of consumption? And how do we fix this before we destroy our environment irreparably?

Consumerism is not like food and water, shelter, and attachment—it’s not a requirement of the human condition. And consumerism is not something all cultures aspire to. It’s a social phenomenon whose complex roots can be traced back centuries with the creation of financial markets and the beginnings of using those markets to measure a society’s health.

Some cultures—especially Western ones—have developed over the millennia a set of ideals that equate a larger number or “higher quality” of material goods with heightened social status. We built our cultures on this belief system, and, thanks to the industrial and technological revolutions, we now have the ability to feed into the social construct of “possessions = status” like never before.

If we want to change this, we need a major cultural shift. We need to commit to being more thoughtful about what truly adds value to our lives. We need to change the metrics that define success, at the personal, national, and even international levels. The scary thing is—and I haven’t the foggiest idea how to approach this problem—is that if we were actually able to attain a cultural shift of the magnitude required to make a difference to our planet, it would put millions of people out of work. Our insatiable consumption is how a massive percentage of the world’s population remains employed (though, to be fair, many are working in horrible conditions for poverty-level wages). I don’t know how we would mitigate problems like these. But it is clear that the trajectory we are currently following is not a sustainable one.

Even if we can’t make large-scale changes, one thing each of us can do is be more aware of our personal consumption as well as the lessons about materialism we teach our children.

Avoid bottled water.

Buy experiences instead of things.

Buy used whenever possible—clothes, furniture, cars.

Don’t wait until your house is overrun with clutter to ask yourself whether the things you possess “spark joy.” The time to ask is when you’re in the aisle of your favorite store eyeballing another pair of seasonal throw pillows you know damn well you don’t need and are only usable two months out of the year anyway.

One way or another, we have to change. We can do it now, or our grandchildren and great grandchildren will be forced to do it by a planet that is choking on all the stuff we foolishly believed would make us happy.