Home Truths

Home Truths: Cluttered homes, cluttered minds

Curation is one of the buzz words of modern culture. It still has a hint of cool about it, but it’s so well-established as a term it must surely be on its way out. It is typically associated with a leading-edge, informed, creative approach to styling - particularly the home - and in selecting items worthy of the wardrobe. It relies on taste, discernment and rigour.

But the term is often misused, often leant on to express a connoisseur’s approach to collecting. The fact we misuse the term belies a hidden truth. A truth hidden behind closed doors, within wardrobes that are desperate to bust their guts. A truth often on display once we get through the front door. We don’t know how to curate. We like the idea, but we’re bogged down in a swamp of stuff. We have our eyes constantly on the perceived need to acquire more stuff and we don’t know how to arrest the accumulation.

In ‘The Great Indoors’, Ben Highmore draws on the Mass-Observation archives to explore the objects people have listed as being situated on their mantel-pieces over the decades. He notes that in the 1930s the lists were short and unfussy, whereas by 1980 they had become more elaborate. He interprets this as ‘ordinary people have got more comfortable narrating their possessions and their lives’. There is another explanation - we simply have more stuff.

As the BBC Magazine recently reported, the average British woman buys 59 items of clothing each year and has twice as many things in her wardrobe today as she did in 1980. 

Does this abundance of material wealth make us any happier? Of course not. Not only that, but it actually causes us stress. As the BBC again reports, a UCLA study found that those women who had the most significant practical issues with clutter demonstrated cortisol levels seen in those with chronic fatigue, post-traumatic stress disorder. As a 2011 Princeton Neuroscience Institute study found, when our environment is cluttered, the ‘noise’ and mess dampens our ability to think clearly, focus and process new information.

There are movements, such as Life Edited and The Minimalists (with the recent publication ‘Everything that Remains’) proselytising the merits of living with less. But this mind-set remains niche and somewhat avant-garde in our acquisitive times, with the ongoing growth in online retail and occasional phenomena such as Black Friday spinning us out of control. Whatever we want, we can get it - quickly. 

Now is the time of year it comes home to us. Following the indulgences of Christmas in many cultures, with the promise of warmer weather and the cathartic trigger of the new calendar year, there is a tradition of spring cleaning. This is the period household cleaning brands know to capitalise upon - expect to see the adverts ramping up soon. However, as a 2014 study from Ao.com found, 85% of us believe the spring clean tradition will soon become obsolete – it seems we are more inclined now to tidy and de-clutter as we go (or so we think).

It’s a reasonable hypothesis that this more incremental approach inhibits our inclination to be bold in ridding ourselves of belongings we no longer need or love. The decluttering remains on a more modest scale, those clothes that no longer fit or gifts we dislike remain clogging up the arteries of our homes, just in case. Just in case we suddenly lose 10 kilos or our auntie comes to visit from Bangladesh and wonders why her crocheted cushion is not on display.

It might seem odd, then, that on the other hand we are so wasteful. Where we are reserved about getting rid of our many of our belongings, we are still gung-ho about discarding a lot week in, week out. We see food as eminently disposable and studies have shown that Britons throw away on average six meals per week. A staggering statistic. 

Every year, according to Upstream, Americans send around 160 million tons worth of materials to landfills and incinerators, and that figure is dwarfed by all the natural resources and fuel used to make those products from virgin materials. U.S. citizens dispose of nearly twice the weight of trash now that they did in 1960.

The reason behind this seeming tension in our propensity towards clutter and our comfort with waste lies in the fact that packaging accounts for much of our trash. We are buying more, cluttering our homes more, and throwing more away.

There is no easy answer in our consumerist culture. Capsule wardrobes are antithetical to the drive behind fast fashion. Saving up to buy something you really want (and being sure you do want it) goes against our thirst for instant gratification. 

But taking the time to truly reflect on whether we need something, or at least really want it, will lead to more considered decisions and the purchase of objects we are more likely to keep. Prizing quality over superficial looks will reduce the risk of wear-it-once disposability. If only more brands had the bravery to support the consumer through offering edited selections of well-made products grounded in enduring style merit.

The result could be a lightening of our mental loads, a fattening of our wallets, and a lessening of the impact on the environment.