Stop Blaming Marie Kondo for Fast Fashion

The KonMari tidying method is a reaction to the cycle of consumerism, not the cause — and it can help us break it.

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

In the months since the release of Marie Kondo’s popular Netflix show Tidying Up — a reality show adapted from her best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up — there have been a lot of misguided (and often racist) opinions about the show, Kondo’s tidying method, and Kondo herself.

First there was a flurry of tweets warning Kondo to “stay away from my books!” from people who had completely misinterpreted her stance on books. Other people assumed that Kondo was advocating for a strictly minimalist lifestyle and would make them reduce their belongings to reach a certain acceptable amount, regardless of attachment. And now there is a thinkpiece at Slate suggesting that Kondo is somehow singlehandedly responsible for the issue of waste disposal and its environmental impact. But let’s back up for a moment.

“The book was better.”

Many of these misconceptions could have been forestalled if people had actually, you know, read her book. As enjoyable as the Netflix show is, most of the episodes leave out or gloss over the most important aspect of Kondo’s KonMari method for tidying: the so-called tidying marathon that reduces your belongings to only those that “spark joy” is an important first step, but even more transformative is the way that practicing the KonMari method forever changes the way you shop and live. I wrote last year about my personal experience of adopting the KonMari method and the positive effects it has had on my mindset and wellbeing:

One of the homeowners on the show, Angela, summed up the impact the KonMari method had on her life: “It’s a lifestyle change, it’s therapeutic.” Another participant talked about “feeling the open spaces” after reducing their belongings, as if a burden had been lifted. Tidying simplifies your life and makes room for more of what you really want — and that often turns out to be not more stuff, but a thirst for experiences and a greater appreciation of the rituals that make up daily life. It’s all about a change in outlook. This is why Kondo’s book has led to more lasting transformations than similar books about home organization — there’s more to it than just decluttering. Her method really encourages you to dig deep mentally and consider a vision for your future life, then think about how your existing possessions fit (or don’t fit) into that vision, and judge potential purchases the same way. As Kondo says:

My method of tidying really helps you not just clean the surface of your home, but to really consider how you want to live and what kind of relationship you want to have with your family, your friends, and all the things that surround you.

Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, the show is a little slow to highlight this important takeaway. The first few episodes are more focused on existing family dynamics and emotional baggage and are less future-thinking. It takes until the “Mountain of Stuff” episode to really touch on what comes next after the tidying marathon. In this episode, the homeowners make the connection that now that they have reduced their belongings, they should also commit to not immediately buying new things to replace those thrown or given away. They internalized the philosophy behind the KonMari method and put it into practice.

The show is great for seeing the practical applications of the KonMari method in action (especially the folding demonstrations!), but I would still urge interested tidiers to read Kondo’s book first in order to catalyze the introspection that leads to lasting change. Now back to that Slate piece.

To tidy or not to tidy — is that really a question?

The Slate article by Elizabeth L. Cline really rankled me because it blatantly misconstrues Kondo’s teachings and suggests that her tidying movement is a bigger problem than the root issue of fast fashion and consumerism. It implies that Kondo has a business interest in “high volumes of consumption and purging… enabling wastefulness,” as if she is somehow teaming up with fast fashion brands to create more demand for her services. But besides the obvious “dragon lady” racist stereotype at play in this assumption of duplicity, I don’t believe this describes her philosophy and motivation accurately at all.

There’s a popular GIF that shows a scene from Tidying Up where Kondo says “I love mess.” I’ve always had the sense that, for Kondo, the most important part of her work lies in helping people achieve the same peacefulness and freedom she has enjoyed from living a tidy life. The mess comes first, yes, but what really matters is the life experienced after the mess. Kondo is rooting for us to break the cycle of mindless consumption and feel the peace of mind that follows.

In the article, Kondo is also being blamed for those tidiers who haven’t had the common decency not to donate soiled and/or damaged clothing. Again, the miscommunication might come down to the fact that many people have only watched the show versus reading her book. In the book, Kondo explicitly advises tidiers to make three piles when tidying their clothes: one for keeping, one for donating, and one for trash. She doesn’t tell people to dump clothes that are past their prime on charities, and also makes a point to encourage people to re-use their possessions for other purposes.

Perhaps people have trouble reconciling that their items deserve to be trashed because they are aware (at least subconsciously) of the issue that Cline’s article rightfully highlights: that clothing waste is an increasing environmental concern with few easy solutions. They don’t want to contribute to it, so they reason that surely someone can use their beloved old t-shirt that has a hole in the collar, or their pants with a broken buttonhole. But this is not Kondo’s fault. She’s done her part to encourage responsible disposal, if only tidiers would listen.

I would also argue that far from being the originator of this overabundance of clothing waste and overwhelming donations, Kondo is merely tapping into the zeitgeist of a society fed up with owning too many things. Many people have written about the economic trend, especially for the Millennial and Gen-Z generations, towards less consumption of physical objects and more consumption of experiences. I know I’m far from the only person my age who would rather go out for a meal with friends than buy another t-shirt I don’t need. It’s all about a change in perspective about what is really valuable, one that Kondo advocates for and had the good sense to monetize with her book (and good for her!).

Kondo’s book has been so effective in changing people’s outlooks on accumulating objects because it meets them where they’re at in this specific moment in time and culture — the advice to keep and buy only objects that “spark joy” resonates with a society that has spent too long on the hamster wheel of consumerism. Who needs the exhaustion from the constant cycle of buying and accumulating more stuff, when you could have the joy of making new memories?

Cline’s article suggests we “clean out our houses the way we’ve done it for ages: slowly, reluctantly, and a little bit at a time” so as not to “overwhelm the systems and people tasked with dealing with our refuse.” But by that logic, the transformative power of tidying will be put off, too. If we put off reducing and removing our clothing, we also put off the accompanying epiphany that we never want to build up that much stuff again. The writer acknowledges that this realization is the key to interrupting the cycle of over-consumption, yet still asks that we don’t heed Kondo’s advice to purge all at once.

Does procrastinating spark joy?

The amount of fashion waste isn’t going to change based on how slowly or gradually we deal with it. But what can change is our attitude towards fast fashion and ethical consumption, and Kondo has been an integral part of that attitude adjustment for countless people. It can only be a positive thing in the long run for people to adopt healthier consumer habits, and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has been a great motivator for many people in adopting that path.

I call myself an evangelist for the KonMari method particularly because I recognize the benefits it can have on our society as a whole, not just the positive impact it’s had on my own life. If everyone learned to think more consciously about why they buy (and keep) their possessions, we could start to live in a more sustainable way.

I believe that as we start to make more considered decisions about the clothing we buy, we will naturally gravitate towards pieces that will stand the test of time and not need to be cycled out after a year or two. Of course, a big factor in the rise of fast fashion is the demand for cheap clothing — not all consumers have the privilege of favoring pricier high-quality clothes. To use a cliché, it truly does become a vicious cycle — you have no choice but to replace items as they wear out. And even thrifting has become a less attractive option as thrift stores start to sell the lower quality pieces of today’s fashion. The days of finding that diamond-in-the-rough, impeccably preserved garment are coming to a close. A big challenge for today’s fashion industry is working towards ethical and cost-effective production, but as consumers we have a responsibility to buy less and buy clothes that are made to last whenever possible. And most importantly, we should ask ourselves how often a new clothing purchase is really a need and not merely a want. As Kondo would say, “is this something you want to take into your future?”

So rather than attempt to learn the lesson of tidying without doing the necessary work (it’s all about the process!), I suggest that we commit to dealing with our clothing waste now and vow not to let it build up again. We can’t go back in time to make ourselves wiser and more ethical consumers, but we can decide to be better going forward. I’m personally thankful to Marie Kondo for helping me learn this lesson.