Editor’s Note: Jennifer Le Zotte is an assistant professor of history and material culture at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She is the author of “From Goodwill to Grunge: A History of Secondhand Styles and Alternative Economies.” The views expressed here are the author’s. View more opinion on CNN.
Marie Kondo’s Netflix show has launched a torrent of conversation, ranging from indignant and misquoting memes (Only 30 books?!) to tweets about the hilarious Netflix glitch that paired Kondo’s show title with an AK-47-wielding gunman in the desert.
What fewer people have been wondering about (I’m guessing) is how watching the show is like cashing in World War II war bonds.
As a scholar of material culture, I can answer that question: they both prompted a rise in thrift store donations. In the 1950s, bequests to Goodwill Industries thrift stores tripled, and flea markets flourished as Americans dumped the old to make way for new. Now, in the wake of “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” taking off, secondhand shops and flea markets are again reporting an upswing in incoming goods.
Reasons for trends in secondhand markets are pretty hard to pin down, but anecdotes suggest this recent flood is inspired by the wildly popular Netflix series. The show follows Kondo’s 2014 #1 best-selling book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” which promises permanent change in our relationship to things. Her KonMari Method instructs followers to identify and keep only objects that “spark joy,” and so cultivate an enduring, organic minimalism that makes tidying a pleasure rather than a chore.
Tidying just once, by following the method to the uncompromising point of perfection, assures the impossibility of regressing. In her book, Kondo guarantees over and over again (at least nineteen times) that KonMari followers will NEVER REBOUND, never succumb to clutter. So maybe the gomi (or trash) expelled through the KonMari method of tidying up represents a fundamentally different sort of emetic than did the post-WWII sloughing of stuff.
In her book, Kondo entreats readers to adopt a personal rather than industrial relationship with their home as well its contents, a relationship that might lead to an attraction for more modestly sized homes, as well as pared-down possessions. But – and this is so important – the show bears only a superficial resemblance to the book. The 35-minute episodes necessarily elide a number of important steps in Kondo’s tidying process and entirely omit much of the meaning. To appeal to a broader audience and in keeping with the brand of reality show it is, “Tidying Up” focuses on the individual stories of the people whose homes Kondo helps declutter, rather than the decluttering itself.
Kondo’s book is calming and compelling, sensational in its practicality and passion. It emphasizes the importance of the actual space in a way that may work to disrupt our escalating consumption. Kondo, who was an in-demand professional organizer in Japan before the Netflix gig, writes that “excess is caused by our ignorance of how much we actually own.” One reason Americans have a hard time gauging the extent of their belongings is the monumental size of our average living spaces. The average size of American homes in 2018 was 2,641 square feet, about double that of Japanese homes, a factor only lightly addressed in the Netflix series.
Today’s renewed and Netflix-inspired Kondo-ism craze may seem like a mass philosophical embrace of a reformed relationship between Americans and their things, but I highly doubt this phenomenon and its accompanying rise in thrift store donations will prove to be evidence of a new, less acquisitive relationship with consumer goods. If history is an indication, they won’t.
Historically, the more Americans resell or donate old possessions, the more they also buy new ones – and vice versa. During the Great Depression and the rationing requests of WWII (when the federal government urged to “Use it Up – Wear it Out – Make it Do!”), thrift stores struggled to hold the consumer ground they’d gained in the credit-happy 1920s, when more and more Americans learned to dispose of still-viable stuff.
After WWII ended, Americans dashed to make up for lost shopping time, starting with new houses and cars.
Back in 1950, when Americans purged their prewar relics and binged on new synthetic blends, the average house size was actually slightly smaller than in 1940 – but that would soon change. Also, those houses tended to contain fewer people as multi-generation habitation declined. With the advent of the ‘nuclear family’ came a trend of bigger and bigger houses containing fewer and fewer people. There was more room per person, from then on out. From 1950 to 2014, new builds continued to add square footage even as the average family size kept shrinking. And that extra space filled with (to use Kondo’s categories) clothing, books, papers, and miscellany.
By 1960, the coupon-clipping, Tupperware-selling housewives in the 11 million or so new suburban homes had even invented a whole new venue for secondhand sales – garage sales. In this case (as was also true at the turn of the 19th century when American thrift stores got their start) the purchase of new things outpaced the removal of old. Americans were shedding material reminders of years of deprivation in order to eagerly take advantage of new styles and technologies.
In the 1960s, consumers were also responding to increasingly sophisticated marketing strategies. Homes filled with easy-to-clean fabrics and time-saving electronic devices whose successors promised even more convenience and fashionability helped to lock in repeating cycles of consumer binge and purge.
In fact, despite reports celebrating the recent boost to thrift stores through “the Kondo effect,” the American secondhand market did not then and does not now need a boost. Each year for many decades now, major thrift stores like Goodwill Industries sell literally tons of rejected donations to major profit-making companies who in turn ship them overseas for sale to poorer nations in a process that compromises any clear definition of charity and exposes Americans to accusations of cultural colonization.
So, increased secondhand donations have always come with an increase in firsthand consumption, in keeping with Americans’ rather bulimic relationship to things.
In her book, Kondo also explains the origin of her practice of “greeting the home,” which involves her kneeling and bowing in a solemn, two-minute ritual that begins the “celebration” Kondo believes tidying can be. Her treatment of home spaces as sacred stems from time spent In Shinto shrines – she spent five years as an attendant maiden in one.
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On television, this practice is used to cutely demonstrate the cultural differences between Kondo and her patrons – in keeping with, as a recent New York Times opinion piece puts it, a tradition of “Japan marketing itself as a spiritual foil to a soulless West.” America’s long-standing love affair with hyper-consumption cannot be so easily undone, a truth surely known by proponents of the KonMari brand; demand for the pretty little storage boxes KonMari sells for $89 a set is so high that they are currently very hard to get.
The show does offer some brilliant practical tips on storage (my own folding habits are personally revolutionized), but the biggest takeaway point is one of immediate interpersonal gratification: throw out a bunch of stuff, and you’ll stop bickering with your partner! My suspicion is that the appeal of decluttering as inspired by Kondo’s television show will prove as superficial as the show itself.