I was performing a desk cull. It was the first day back in the office after New Year, and I had returned to my usual chaos. Cuttings. Magazines. Books. Revolting wax earplugs stuck beneath my keyboard.
One of the books that I cut in this grand clear-out was called Stuffocation. Two days later, I picked it up from a colleague’s desk and started thumbing through. In my bid to live better with less, I had thrown away a book after living better with less.
It dawned on me recently that I had too much stuff. Sure, I wasn’t confronted with an avalanche of clothes, clutter and crap whenever I opened a cupboard, like compulsive accumulators on the show Hoarders. But each room in my flat had its share of unwanted objects.
In the kitchen, that included a device for dribbling sauces artistically on a plate that was so obscure I don’t even know its name. In my bathroom, it was a tube of hair primer. Apart from the time I rubbed it in my face mistaking it for make-up primer (causing more spots than you’d see at a One Direction concert), it remains unused. The sitting room housed a shrine to the unread: books, newspapers and, to my shame, bills. And, in my bedroom, there were clothes I haven’t worn in years – the ghosts of fashions past.
I’m not alone in this. According to the government waste body WRAP, UK consumers have an estimated £30 billion worth of clothing in their wardrobes that they have not worn for a year. Just over two thirds of households own kitchen gadgets that almost never come out. And British women – at least according to Vaseline – waste a total of £964 million annually on beauty products they never use. I see this 'clutter crisis' first-hand with friends – one even has a 'mess room' in her flat where she chucks junk.
As a teenager, I envied schoolmates' stuff. I never had the right shoes (Kickers) or the right satchel (a record bag from Shellys). When I started earning, I could suddenly keep up with everyone else – buying the outfits I wanted and the technological toys. But, as I’ve got older, something shifted. Accumulation, I discovered, doesn’t make me happy, it makes me feel bogged down. Disorganised. Environmentally immoral. I began to envy those with the self-control to live clutter-free, reading in awe about people who’ve whittled their possessions down to fewer than 100 items. Their life seems desirable. Neater. Less stressful. More virtuous.
It was in this spirit that I finally started to read Stuffocation, which has been dubbed an 'antidote to consumerism'. In its introduction, the author, James Wallman, highlights a survey by a major advertising company from a few years ago: 'People in mature markets have had enough of excess, they are tired of the push to accumulate more.'
When the ad firm repeated this survey last year, the results were even more clear. Two thirds of those surveyed thought they’d be better off if they lived more simply. 'Many of us feel weighed down by our own excess... A majority of us could live quite happily without most of the goods we own,' writes Wallman, a trend forecaster. Of course, this is a position of privilege – you’re likely to have a lot if you fear you may have too much.
But, for some, this attitude is about taking responsibility. For many, it stems from environmental concern, fearing our desire for more is killing the earth. For others, it’s a belief that the simpler life is a more joyful one. They may be talking their own book, but a survey by the Simplicity Institute suggests there’s truth in that. They found 87 per cent of those living with less were happier now than when they had more. And technology has made it easier for people to escape the clutter. Your library can be your Kindle. Your CD and DVD collections can be digital.
When a friend of mine, Claire, moved to London two years ago, she was too busy at work (she’s a high-flying lawyer) to unpack all her boxes. After a few months, she realised she was managing fine without most of it. Eventually, she gave most of it to the charity shop. 'I don’t miss it,' she says. 'I just don’t need all that stuff.'
Wallman agrees: 'Materialism is bad for our health, bad for our happiness, bad for society and bad for the planet, it is time to discard the old belief that more stuff equals more happiness.' He believes that happiness 'is more likely to come from the enjoyment of experiences rather than the accumulation of stuff'. That’s something I recognise. At Christmas, I asked for comedy tickets over clothes. Most of the presents I give now involve me taking someone out somewhere – to the theatre, for dinner, to a gig. The bonus – or penalty, depending on your point of view – is that they get your time, too.
So, starting two weeks ago, I began a clear-out. Bag after bag has gone to the charity shop or to recycling. I’m not yet finished and I’ll probably never be a minimalist, but it turns out I can live hair primer-free. I have also resolved to buy far more carefully. Consumption is cultish, sucking us in. Breaking free from it feels empowering.
And if all this isn’t enough to persuade you to stop the monthly ASOS shops, the internet is full of cautionary tales. People are crushed to death by their own clutter collapsing on them every year.
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Follow Rosamund On Twitter: @rosamundurwin
Picture: Eylul Aslan
This article originally appeared on The Debrief.