Forget 'Spark Joy.' How About 'Use It Up'?

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Using your old stuff till it wears out is not exciting, but it makes sense from an environmental perspective.

The backlash against rampant consumerism has taken things in the opposite direction. Minimalism and Marie Kondo-inspired purging ("if it doesn't spark joy, toss it") have become a religion in many circles. People hope that, by getting rid of belongings, it will be easier to focus on the things that really matter. In some ways, they’re on the right track, but as finance blogger Mrs. Our Next Life points out, extreme purging has an environmental cost.

It’s one thing to get stuff out of your house, but all too often that stuff just goes straight to landfill. Recycling rates are pathetic, with estimates of only 33 percent of recyclable materials put out in bins actually getting recycled. Clothing donation rates are also low because the market is saturated with cheap, crappy fabric. So the next time you start filling a garbage bag with clothes you no longer want because they fail to spark joy, realize that only 20 percent of these items will ever be sold by a thrift store. Most will end up in the ground somewhere.

Mrs. Our Next Life encourages the adoption of a “use it up” mentality. After all, it’s more ethically sound to wear a shirt for many years that you already own but don’t really like than to toss it and buy a new one that you do. It’s about making do with what you have. She describes the “use it up” challenge that she and her partner have adopted for 2017:

“This challenge is about becoming more intentional about the full life cycle of the products we engage with — not just being deliberate about what we bring into our homes or being mindful about what we purge, but considering both halves of the equation. Asking ourselves what will happen to that new gizmo when we’re done with it, what our responsibility will be for it without the easy-out of the donation or recycling bin.”

There’s inherent luxury in being able to purge less-than-perfect items from your life, always knowing that you could replace them if necessary. This is a bit disturbing and, arguably, unprecedented in history. In the past, people kept things because they were not so easily replaceable. They were valued possessions.

“Could you imagine your grandparents who lived through the Great Depression ever going on some massive decluttering spree and getting rid of all their belongings that don’t ‘spark joy’? Of course not. People who’ve known true hardship have a different appreciation for the value of things than those of us who are willing to toss bags of stuff without another thought.”

It’s a different and intriguing take on the minimalism/purging fever that’s taken hold of my generation. Maybe an equally valuable alternate approach, then, is not to declutter so extremely, but rather to place a voluntary ban on the purchase of all new belongings. See how many years you can go with the same clothes, the same shoes, the same home furnishings. Use them up, then choose something new that sparks joy.