Home consumption: The new art of decluttering


Written By: Sidi Lemine

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Last week we introduced a new series of articles exploring the changing shape of home consumption, and today we will examine the core of the movement – decluttering.

On a recent ethnographic visit, new mother Lucy took us through her three bedroom apartment, ending with “The Shame Room”. It was, she explained, an upgrade on her previous apartment where all the clutter and stuff that didn’t fit anywhere else was jammed together in “The Shame Cupboard”.

The wording struck us: being untidy leads to some embarrassment, but having too much stuff (like eating too much) has recently gone from being a practical problem to a moral one.

A 'post-stuff' living room
A ‘post-stuff’ living room

There are a myriad possible explanations why consumers feel like they should have fewer things, but the phenomenon is very real. Until recently, premium was likened to luxury, futile, and superfluous; but today (and especially so for the millennial and younger part of society), core associations are of durability, efficiency, naturalness… High street brands offering high-churn, low-cost, disposable accessories are not considered miraculous anymore, as many realise the hidden costs in such products.

As an example, obsolescence, and particularly planned obsolescence, is becoming a top of mind concern for many consumers. It sits at the crossroads of three areas of increased scrutiny for new purchases:

  • Purchase frequency: As subscription mentality becomes more and more mainstream outside of services, consumers instinctively project (varying degrees of accuracy) the price of anything on its expected lifespan.
  • Environmental impact: these can reflect consciousness around the ecosystem, working conditions in megafactories, or (often closer to home) amounts going to landfill.
  • The newest aspect however is personal ethics. The financial crisis has had a defining impact on the new generations of consumers, and has greatly heightened their socio-economic awareness to the point where many find it hard to reconcile conspicuous consumption with being a good person.

The poster child for modern consumerism – and planned obsolescence – is obviously the mobile phone, and the effects are clearer here than anywhere else. In the last three years, the upgrade cycle in the US has gone from 22 months to 29 months, and appears to be slowing down even further. This slow-down is also felt by high street fashion brands, and DIY furniture makers.

So what is being bought instead?

Second hand has lost most of its stigma. Vintage shops, more than Starbucks, are now the surest sign to recognise that a neighbourhood is being gentrified. Purchasing ‘pre-loved’ presents many intangible benefits: savviness, culture, a feeling of belonging. And above all is the knowledge that the shop will serve as an outlet for any excess ownership.

“Craft” is a close cousin of “Vintage” in the millennial lexicon. Various outlets such as Made.com capitalise on the desire for craft, offering products that are slightly more expensive, but slightly more robust than their flat-pack counterparts. Invariably, their marketing visuals present the objects in a sparse environment, almost as individual centerpieces. Likewise, Buymeonce.com “finds and promotes products that don’t break the bank, don’t break the planet… that don’t break at all!”, specialising in products of all kinds made in a conscious manner and offering lifetime guaranties (or as close as possible). The outlet has been growing steadily since its launch, mostly through word of mouth.

Pushing even further, making your own is increasingly on vogue, from knitting revivals to upcycling furniture, to sour-dough bread. Part of the appeal of craft is that it feels like something that is within our grasp to accomplish for ourselves. Breathing new life into old things is another way of extending life-cycles beyond what might have been considered by previous generations to be breaking point. Instead products become investments that can be nurtured, cared for and then passed on, rather than simply being discarded or hidden away in “The Shame Cupboard”.

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