Just Saying

Use decluttering's dirty secret to save the earth

The minimalism manifesto - decluttering improves our lives - comes with accusations of privilege. What if we back away from the class wars of decluttering, and dangle minimalism as an ultimate status symbol in front of super-consuming show-offs, reining in overconsumption?

If we could pry walls off Housing Board and condo blocks, peel roofs off houses in Singapore, would we see rooms stuffed with things, or uncluttered space filled only with joy being sparked and fairy dust?

Well, mine are filled with despair and plain old dust.

The minimalism manifesto - that decluttering will make your life better - has been vacuuming up fresh believers for years now.

In Singapore, professional organisers The Straits Times spoke to recently said that the number of clients and inquiries has risen over the last two years.

With loads of blogs and online videos on the wonders of decluttering and tidy, tiny homes, the trend of simplifying our lives is still going strong. Organisation consultant Marie Kondo has been cleaning up with worldwide sales of more than seven million copies of her books, including The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up, supported by the recent launch of her smartphone app. She was named one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People.

But the minimalism manifesto comes with accusations of a dirty secret: Privilege.

The finger-wagging response is that if you feel shiok after decluttering, it means you are rich enough to have tonnes of stuff you don't need. So, as the scolding goes, shut up with the social shaming: Don't tell the less well-off to toss out things when they don't have enough. Don't look down on people storming mega sales as being slaves to material goods.

Maybe they need to take advantage of low prices or they want to have their turn at the table.

While decluttering is good for the earth, it can be dangerous if we feel so good about purging that it gives us permission to shop some more. First, we get high on tossing out stuff, then we get high on buying stuff. ST FILE PHOTO

What if we back away from the class wars of decluttering and do something useful with the idea that minimalism is about privilege?

Agree that decluttering fans are privileged. Talk it up so that minimalism is widely accepted in society as a status symbol that is more desirable than the "more is more" one.

Unlike the "I've got the most expensive tech toy/car/bag" or the tired "5 Cs", this is a status symbol that might help save the earth. Dangle this aspiration in front of super-consuming show-offs, and it might motivate them to rein in crazy consumption.

This is the threat we are facing: Global wildlife could plunge to a 67 per cent level of decline within a span of the half-century ending in 2020, and this would be a result of human activities, according to WWF's Living Planet Report 2016. World Wide Fund For Nature's website says Global Footprint Network research shows that while we have only one earth, humans are using the resources of 1.6 planets to provide the goods and services we use each year.


It takes a bit of character to be rich and practise stealth-wealth.

If you are ballsy enough to turn up at a posh event in a simple shirt, maybe you are a billionaire CEO of a tech company.

If you turn up at balls in dresses you have been photographed in before, maybe you are a duchess.

Dear super-rich duchess CEOs, the more nonchalant you are about showing off, the more it shows that you are loaded and have nothing to prove. Declutter those diamonds - you don't need carats for confidence.

There are the haves and the have-nots. Cut down on the number of castles, and be the have-hads.


There are dirty secrets behind minimalism.

For the super-rich with apparently minimalist homes:

  • It could be their many mansions and maids. Get the helpers to put the shopping away in one of the many bedrooms, or store the couture in the other house, sweetie, would you please.

For the rest of us with uncluttered homes:

  • It could be a storeroom stuffed to the ceiling.
  • It could be our parents' flat stuffed with our childhood toys that we can't bear to toss out but don't want in our sleek apartments.

For some of us who are truly minimalist:

  • It could be a bank account stuffed with money to re-buy whatever we got rid of.
  • It could be a life stuffed with the security that comes from never having been bitterly poor.

These last two dirty secrets add up to the accusation of privilege pinned on decluttering fans.

They were something I was aware of as I said goodbye to having a bed years ago. Yesterday, I threw out another pillow. Today, I am thinking of saying so long to my sofa.

I have a hoarder's anxious heart, so it has taken me years to get to the point of chucking things. So here's my dirty secret: I tell myself as I declutter that I can always buy a bed if I so wished it. (A four-poster canopy fantasy, please.)


Decluttering can be dangerous for the earth if it comes with this dirty secret: We feel so good about it that it gives us permission to shop some more.

First, we get high on tossing stuff. Purging feels good in the moment, wellness coach Kelly St Claire, 50, said to The Village Voice about using the Kondo decluttering method. "You lose track of time and get in the zone. I could get addicted to that feeling."

Then, we get high on bingeing: Buying stuff.

Hey, shopping sparks joy.

We seesaw between purging and bingeing, and are fooled by the dramatic bulimic-like motion into believing we are moving forward.

Could the CEO in a T-shirt be quietly adding to his fleet of cars in another country? The duchess discreetly ordering another tiara? Like how I may have tossed out my bed, but have bought enough pretty bags to stuff a queen-size mattress.

Purging without stopping the shopping can leave us high and the earth squeezed dry.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 09, 2017, with the headline 'Use decluttering's dirty secret to save the earth'. Print Edition | Subscribe