What Marie Kondo Could Do for the Environment

Marie Kondo and interpreter arrive at a suburban house, walking up the driveway

Netflix released a new home improvement show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo on New Year’s Day, in what proved to be a savvy scheduling ploy. Playing into the practice of making New Year’s resolutions, the show also capitalizes on the popularity of Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo and her hugely successful book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Released in English in the U.S. in 2014, the book remained almost entirely unchallenged at the top of the New York Times “Crafts, Home, & Garden” Best Seller list for over a year. The book even resulted in its own neologism; as more and more people began to adopt the organizing methods advanced by Kondo, her followers began calling themselves “Konverts.”

The book cover of Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, an abstract blue and white depiction of cloudsThe appeal of Kondo’s tidying method, which is partly inspired by Kondo’s experience as a Shinto shrine maiden, is its simplicity and subjectivity. The first step in the two-step process is to gather all the objects in one’s home according to five categories (clothing, books, papers, komono or miscellany, and sentimental objects) and hold each object to determine whether or not it “sparks joy.” This “spark joy” standard is more than emotional; Kondo maintains that it is an embodied experience. She writes in Life-Changing Magic that “Joy manifests itself in the body” and, because of this, the “spark joy” standard is always particular to the individual holding their possession. The objects that spark joy for the individual should be kept and everything else discarded.

After tidiers have purged their homes of objects that do not spark joy, the second step is to organize what is left. Unlike the subjective “spark joy” step, Kondo has her own very particular method of organizing that she teaches to her clients and through her books. Her folding method, in particular, has become quite the craze, and her recommendation that people organize their drawers and cabinets using boxes of assorted sizes has even led to her own branded box line, which sold out almost as soon as they became available.

The Problem with Throwing It All Away

Early last year, I read Kondo’s self-help and home organization guide The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I found the book’s delight in garbage both fascinating and horrifying. As someone interested in discard studies, I attentively highlighted every instance in which Kondo detailed the amount of trash her clients generated. Among other trash brags, Kondo cheerfully describes helping “individual clients who have thrown out two hundred 45-liter garbage bags in one go” and Konverts like one client who had been “messy all her life” but now “had no regrets about getting rid of her tea ceremony equipment, which had cost $250, and looked forward eagerly to trash and recycle pickup days.”

A truck laden with plastic recyclables in Shanghai, China. In July 2017, China announced a ban on the import of plastic and other solid wastes. Photo by Paul Louis, 2006.

On my first read, I fretted over her “spark joy” methodology, which seemed to essentially encourage readers to discard everything in their possession that does not make them happy. Her trademarked KonMari method seemed like it was focused too much on the present and overlooked product life cycles, ignoring how an object was produced, came to be in someone’s home, and where it might end up after it had been discarded. In my view, “sparking joy” was just another way of “trashing” pain, grief, melancholy, and other troublesome emotions that can glom on to possessions.

Worst of all, the KonMari method preserved the myth of an “away,” the fiction that once objects are discarded they effectively disappear. But objects persist, whether in a domestic landfill, thrift store, or recycling center. Often these places are not even the final destination for trashed, donated, and recycled materials. Many of the things that Americans throw “away,” from e-waste to clothing and recyclables, are exported to other countries around the globe, often in Africa and Southeast Asia (following China’s ban on plastic waste imports). As Dr. Max Liboiron, a discard studies and environmental science scholar, argues, such waste export practices are a type of colonialism because they take part in “a system of domination that grants a colonizer access to land for the colonizer’s goals.”

Rethinking Trash Brags and Home Improvement

Given my strong feelings about Marie Kondo and her cleaning method, I was compelled to watch the Netflix series. I assumed watching it would further confirm my suspicions that Kondo’s popularity was bad for the environment and antithetical to an ecological consciousness. Though I still have these concerns, I was also surprised to find that the show sparked an entirely different response in me than the cynical one I expected.

Like many other shows in the home-improvement genre, each episode begins with a family dissatisfied with their domestic space. Establishing shots of rooms, some more cluttered than others, are interspersed with an introductory interview with the show’s participants. They often discuss how their domestic spaces have affected their relationships and their mental and emotional well-being and sometimes elaborate on their roles in maintaining the home. (Many have noted that Tidying Up illustrates enduring gender disparities when it comes to domestic responsibilities).

Marie Kondo and three other people stand around a drawer in a kitchen, organizing it.

Kondo demonstrates her method of organizing kitchen drawers. Courtesy of Netflix.

After the viewer is introduced to the families, Kondo makes her appearance, accompanied by her interpreter Marie Iida. She tours the participants’ home while she opens cabinets, closets, and drawers, revealing an abundance of objects in every storage space. She explains the first step of her tidying method, instructing homeowners to gather all items belonging to a particular category in a pile and to assess each item one-by-one to determine whether or not it “sparks joy.” She then leaves the families for days, or even weeks, to complete the process. During this portion, participants often struggle to figure out what sparks joy for them. The show’s editing pits family members against one another and revels in contrasts between those who are more and less successful at getting rid of things. In every episode, even the individuals who struggle mightily in the beginning learn to let go. When the discarding process is over, Kondo returns and shows the families how to organize what remains.

There’s no way to quantify the garbage her popular method has produced.

Despite these recurrent narrative arcs, Tidying Up isn’t like other home-makeover reality television shows. Because Kondo’s method is so deeply invested in material and psychological cleansing, I anticipated a Hoarders-type television show that pathologizes the hoarding habits of its participants before “curing” them by helping put their homes in order (in other words, by throwing out a ton of stuff). But Tidying Up isn’t that at all. Many of the communal spaces in the homes Kondo visits seem tidy. Even messy kitchens and bedrooms don’t inspire the shock of the Hoarders homes; they are likely familiar to most Americans who sometimes struggle to find the time to clean. Though the families are looking to improve their lives, none of the participants appear to be experiencing the extreme social and psychological hardships that are the hallmark of Hoarders.

Marie Kondo and three other people sit around a kitchen table with photographs partially organized on it.

The Akiyamas, participants on the “Empty Nesters” episode, discuss their tidying experience with Kondo and Iida. Courtesy of Netflix.

Nor does Tidying Up resemble shows on the other end of the home-makeover spectrum, like Extreme Makeover, Fixer Upper, and Flip or Flop. These shows, too, have their own basic formula. After the host and their team gut and completely renovate a house previously depicted as a dump with “potential,” the viewer is meant to be transfixed by the total transformation that makes up the “before and after” sequence ending each episode. While episodes of Tidying Up do end with “before and after” sequences, the transformations are much subtler. Shots of messy kitchen sinks and countertops aren’t replaced by gleaming granite or new, stainless steel appliances. Instead, food items are arranged neatly in pantries, utensils find homes in variously-sized compartments, and there is simply much less stuff around.

Despite my ongoing reservations about the sheer amount of waste the KonMari method might generate—there’s no way to quantify the garbage her popular method has produced, but journalists have investigated the show’s impact at U.S. donation centers—I found Tidying Up to be an entirely new and refreshing take on the reality home/life improvement genre. Kondo never judges the participants for what they own or how much of it they have. She doesn’t sneer at their style or décor. She doesn’t even suggest what the participants should keep or dispose. She simply asks them to take each and every object they own, hold it in their hands, and ask, “Does this spark joy?”

Mario Kondo as Environmental Thinker?

While the method presented in the show seems much less strict than the book’s, nevertheless, Netflix’s Tidying Up had me rethinking my original assessment of Kondo. I wondered, “Is the KonMari method actually a type of environmental thinking and living? And even if it isn’t, could it be?” The question “Does this object spark joy?” could be applied at the point-of-purchase rather than the moment before disposal, or it could become a question about environmental responsibility in a consumer culture: “Does the lifecycle of this object spark joy? How do I feel about where it came from and where it will likely end up?”

Neatly folded shirts, blankets, and other objects in boxes.

Kondo never asks her clients to buy anything new, but to appreciate what they have. Courtesy of Netflix.

I’m hesitant about this, because describing a self-help method as a type of environmental living could easily segue into an approach that shifts too much of the burden upon individual consumers. As I’ve written elsewhere, environmental activists and campaigns that focus solely on the individual consumer too often end up privileging those with the wealth and opportunity to live in environmentally-friendly ways, oftentimes excluding and shaming those without such means.

Is there a reasonable middle ground? I have to think so because, despite all my reservations, I also know that the products that Americans purchase are not only cluttering homes but also the rest of the globe. I admire how the show never asks the participants to buy anything new to improve their lives; it’s more a matter of acknowledging what they have, appreciating it, and letting go of the things they know they don’t need. By asking people to appraise everything they own and reassess the necessity of those objects, maybe the KonMari method can intervene at the uppermost level of the waste hierarchy: avoiding and reducing waste. Kondo herself has raised the idea of applying the “notion of sparking joy on a larger scale.” It might not be a flawless environmental ethos, per se, but it’s a drastic step forward for the home-improvement genre at the very least.

Featured Image: Marie Kondo arrives at a house to begin organizing on Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. Courtesy of Netflix.

Nicole Bennett is a Ph.D. student in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a member of the Edge Effects editorial board. Her research interests are focused on waste as both a concept and material object, especially in Anglophone fiction written during the Great Acceleration. Her other contributions to Edge Effects include “The Year of the Plastic Straw Ban” (August 2018). Twitter. Contact.