The Consumption Cycle

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware of the recent decluttering frenzy, fueled by the popularity of Marie Kondo’s new Netflix show. As a slightly compulsive neat freak, I wholeheartedly bought into the premise that you should only hold on to things that trigger happiness. And while the “if it doesn’t spark joy, get rid of it” mantra seems like sound advice at face value, it also has the potential to trigger a vicious circle of overconsumption.

It all started with one of the semi-periodic purges of things that I own when I vaguely recalled trying to get rid of the exact same item before. I was just about to dismiss it as plain-old déjà vu when I got a little curious.

Being your stereotypical 20-something lazy millennial, I do most of my shopping online. And one of the few advantages of living in a world where giant corporations constantly track every move you make online with the sole purpose of relentlessly maximizing their profits is that they sometimes let you take a peek. So, I scoured through my unexpectedly long online order history and there it was!

It wasn’t a hallucination, I actually ordered the same item twice. And although the purchases were months apart, it made me feel enough remorse to start thinking about my consumption patterns more deeply. Was I mindlessly throwing away things which eventually led me to buy more to replace the stuff that I got rid of in the first place?

Aside from the financial prudence in reducing my overall consumption, there’s also the moral responsibility to mitigate my environmental impact, especially given the low solid waste recycling rates.

Sparking Joy

To start off, I had to figure out how I valued things when choosing to discard them. On careful analysis, I found that my instinctive value judgment of a thing is broadly based on a couple of factors.

First, there is the instrumental value based on the utility or purpose that a thing is meant for. Then, there is the novelty value that I ascribe to a thing by virtue of its newness. Finally, there’s the sentimental value that a thing possesses through a personal association with my experiences.

The relative weights of these factors would also vary for different categories of things. For ornamental things (clothes, accessories, etc.), I give more importance to novelty over sentimental value. Maybe because what I was wearing isn’t a salient fact in my recollection of experiences, unless someone compliments my look — which is rare given my fashion sense.

Given a fixed set of circumstances, the instrumental value of a thing stays constant. Novelty, however, tends to fade off over time, which makes me more likely to discard of older things.

Novelty also seemed to recover slightly, if I hadn’t encountered the item for a while, although never completely back up to its initial levels. One strategy I found to maximize the net lifespan of my clothes was to rotate through smaller sets of clothes over a longer cycle. The rest period helped them regain some of their novelty in my eyes.

To compensate for the fall in novelty, I could also increase sentimental attachment to a thing through personalization. Laptop stickers are a great way to reduce your urge to upgrade your machine. The more you make something feel unique, the lesser you want to part with it.

Maximal Minimalism

Since we’re on the topic of decluttering and consumption, I’d also like to highlight some other ironies of the modern minimalism movement. Extreme versions of minimalism can force you to possess an unrealistically low number of things can actually lead to increased consumption.

While traveling, I once met someone who claimed to have backpacked across Southeast Asia for months with nothing more than a medium-sized bag. I was really impressed by their resourcefulness until they casually mentioned that they would simply buy, use and dispose of things because they were so cheap. Dude, that’s cheating!

I was also forced to consider whether the pursuit of minimalism was in some ways, an exercise in privilege. It’s only when you’re absolutely certain that you can easily re-acquire a similar thing, that you’re willing to get rid of it without much deliberation. I felt bad for harshly judging grandmother for hoarding piles of stuff that she rarely ever used. Maybe her habits were shaped by the circumstances of scarcity that she grew up in.

There’s also a difference between “minimalism as a principle” and “minimalism as an aesthetic”. The principle prescribes that you only own as many things as you need — no more, no less. The aesthetic, however, entails a subjective assessment of beauty based on higher-level visual features. These two things can often be at odds.

In a lot of content promoting the minimalist aesthetic, there is this latent assumption that a more ideal version of an already functioning thing that you own exists. The monochrome ceramic pot may have fewer surface irregularities than the chaffed up plastic one that the plant came in. But by purchasing it, you now have one more additional thing than you need to.

Everybody’s life is different and you are the best judge of your own. The next time you’re replacing or getting rid of something, think about what is driving your behavior. Are you genuinely certain that the item no longer serves its intended purpose or are you trying to conform to somebody else’s curated vision of what an ideal lifestyle should look like?