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Homes across Britain looking fine on the outside but secretly they’re drowning on their inside…Homes, people, lives, they’re crushed by loads of stuff.
This is the opening sequence of Nick Knowles’ Big House Clearout, a TV show on Channel 5 in the UK. In each episode a family have the entire contents of their home laid out on the floor of a warehouse for them to declutter. In episode one Nick says:
Many many piles are going off to charity shops and stuff’s being gifted away and then of course there is the pile that is being thrown away…So now you have the fun of getting this into the skip.
The family then whoop and cheer as they fill the skip with their unrecyclable and unwanted stuff.
The house decluttering and makeover TV show is a popular format that has been re-worked over the years. Other recent examples include Hoarder SOS on Channel 4, Sort Your Life Out on BBC One and Tidying Up with Marie Kondo and Get Organized with The Home Edit on Netflix. I enjoy watching these shows but, as an academic who researches sustainable consumption and minimalist living, I’ve been worried about what happens to all the stuff that gets decluttered.
A standard format involves a tour of the home of a family that is struggling to live with large amounts of clutter. The family’s belongings are then all taken away to be sorted or are sorted in their house. A home makeover or reorganisation is carried out, with the help of the TV show host, and a transformation to a tidy, organised home and happy family is revealed at the end.
However, there is often little to no consideration of the environmental impact associated with these major clear-outs.
Some decluttering shows give little consideration of where the large bags of unwanted things are going to end up. Although the objects in these shows seem to magically disappear, they are still in existence somewhere in the world. Perhaps they do find a new home and are re-used – or perhaps they end up incinerated or in landfill.
While some shows just don’t mention where the decluttered items are going to go, others turn the act of throwing them away into an enjoyable event. As mentioned above, throwing unwanted possessions in a skip destined for landfill is described as “fun”, or in the second episode: “This is the exciting bit when you get to chuck it all in the skip”. With the UK producing around 27 million tonnes of household waste in 2017, I’m not sure throwing objects into a skip is something that should be celebrated.
Also, despite these sorts of TV shows being focused on families that clearly have tendencies to accumulate a lot of possessions, there is often little to no advice given to them from the show hosts as to how they might try and prevent accumulating so much again in the future. Only focusing on decluttering and not focusing on how things are acquired in the first place, seems to treat the symptoms rather than the cause.
Sometimes shows do consider the wider impact of disposing of objects. For instance in Hoarder SOS there is a focus on selling some items, while in Sort Your Life Out there are clear signs put up for piles of things to donate, recycle and sell. But perhaps these good intentions are contradicted by the unsustainable central message of the format which essentially rests on people accruing lots of things, being encouraged to get rid of a lot of them, and then being offered little to no advice on how to stop this happening again.
Overall, decluttering shows reflect excessive capitalist consumption in which people are becoming increasingly unhappy with increasing amounts of stuff and are finding greater happiness through owning less. The shows’ focus on the positive outcome of having a tidy and decluttered home is helpful for the individual’s personal happiness. But if shows do not highlight disposing of things sustainably, or not continuing to acquire objects in the future, this raises environmental waste issues.
To be more sustainably conscious, any show promoting the personal benefits of decluttering should focus on ways of preventing unwanted objects from going into landfill. This could be through upcycling – where waste material is turned into something more valuable – or through giving unwanted items away as gifts or selling them.
Or, perhaps a new, even more environmentally conscious TV show, could help people find ways to reduce their shopping and consumption habits, and to re-use and upcycle what they already own, to prevent the need for mass decluttering in the first place?
Amber Martin-Woodhead has received a small research grant from the Royal Geographical Society to research the (non)consumption practices of minimalists in the UK.