The Ethical Dimensions of “Tidying Up”

Like many North Americans, I recently binge-watched the Netflix show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. For readers who have been living under a rock and are consequently unfamiliar with this show, it features the Japanese tidying guru Kondo and her (eventually) grateful clients. I found myself watching the show somewhat reluctantly; I was not sure that I wanted to watch it, but I felt that I should in order to understand what all the fuss was about. However, I was quickly drawn in. Marie Kondo is a surprisingly mesmerizing performer. While her demeanor is quiet, her kindness to her clients as they struggle to take control of their homes and even weep as they try to sort through their mountains of (often junky) stuff, and the way in which she seems to take genuine pleasure in their successes makes the show very satisfying to watch.

Clothing folded the KonMari way. (Photo via Our New Life in the Country

Clothing folded the KonMari way. (Photo via Our New Life in the Country

For Kondo, and most of her clients, getting a grip on the disorder in their homes goes far beyond merely organizing their clutter. Instead, it is the key to moving into a better future, one in which new possibilities suddenly become apparent when one is no longer weighed down (both literally and metaphorically) by too many material possessions. I confess that watching the show inspired me to get a better grip on my own cluttered wardrobe, which was overfilled with items that did not fit very well, let alone “spark joy.” (The ability to “spark joy,” of course, is the KonMari test for determining whether an item is meaningful enough to journey into the future with us, or whether it should be thanked for its service and then thrown out or passed on to someone else). Many of my items of clothing were, indeed, ones that I had picked up at places like Frenchies and Value Village, so I realized that they had no intrinsic value, and could easily be given away to begin a new life with someone else – and I felt a surprising degree of satisfaction as I dropped three garbage bags full of clothes at the Diabetes Society donation bin.

Ms. Kondo recommends that we should tidy and sort by category (clothes, books, etc.), rather than by space (kitchen, bedroom, and so-on). She also recommends that you pile all the items you have in each category, so that you can see your entire collection in its entirety. This means that things get worse before they get better – but I have to say that when I piled all my clothes on my bed, it really was much easier to get rid of many of them. I could clearly see how many items I really had, recognize that I had too many, and then easily compare items to one another, rather than simply looking at each item on its own and then trying to determine whether it was worth keeping or not.


Over the last few columns, I have been exploring the concept of acedia – the feeling that nothing really matters because much of what we do is ephemeral and meaningless – and the ways in which acedia manifests itself not only in our emotions but also in the ways in which we live our lives. One of the places in which we can see acedia is in our relentless accumulation of material goods; this accumulation of stuff is a kind of displacement activity that distracts us (temporarily, at least) from our darker thoughts: in order not to sink into despair at the finitude and insignificance of our own lives, we busy ourselves with the appropriately-named “retail therapy” and, once we have surrounded ourselves with possessions, can then spend a lot of time trying to organize them. If we go to Canadian Tire or Walmart, we will find ourselves surrounded by devices and products designed to help us get organized: storage boxes, shelves and drawer dividers, all of which encourage us to buy even more, and which, ironically, suggest that a lot of money can be made by selling things that are intended to help us organize the things we’ve bought.

T-shirts folded and stored the KonMari way. (Photo via Thrifty Decor Chick

T-shirts folded and stored the KonMari way. (Photo via Thrifty Decor Chick

What is interesting about the KonMari method of tidying is that, while Kondo does, indeed, help people to organize their drawers, she also allows people to acknowledge the emotional pull that at least some of their possessions have on them. While she certainly encourages her clients to get rid of items that no longer “spark joy,” she asks them to thank those things that are being discarded for their service before letting them go – and, if an item genuinely “sparks joy” (no matter how worthless it may look to anyone excepts its owner), she has no problem with her client keeping it.

By recognizing the emotional pull of our objects – indeed, in the KonMari approach, they almost become animate friends rather than inanimate objects – she validates the feelings her clients have about their stuff. This creates a different – and, to me, much more satisfactory – feel to Tidying Up than I get from watching similar shows like Hoarders, in which everyone being decluttered seems to have a mental illness that has manifested itself in the accumulation of junk, and in which those who are trying to help them get control of their material possessions try to generate in the hoarder feelings of shame and guilt. (I should note that no one in the episodes of Tidying Up that I have seen would be classified as a hoarder – but watching the success of Kondo’s gentle approach makes me wonder if she would not be able to help those who do, indeed, have a hoarding disorder).


In “Socrates Wants You To Tidy Up, Too,” an interesting New York Times article by Yung In Chae and Johanna Hanink, the authors compare the message embedded in the KonMari method to the message found in a dialogue featuring Socrates written by Xenophon many centuries ago. The “PhonMari Method” (as they amusingly call it) has much in common with the KonMari approach: both the characters in the dialogue and Marie Kondo herself recognize that material items can take on a life of their own, both approaches assert that we should gather all our items together and then organize them by category (in the case of KonMari, the order is “clothes, books, papers “komono” or miscellaneous, and sentimental items; in the case of the PhonMari method, “vessels, clothing and armor, crockery”).

What is most interesting for me about this article is that the authors make it clear that tidying according to either method (although most of us today will not need to organize our suits of armor) has an ethical dimension: Xenophon and Kondo both assert that “People who live in messy homes lead messy lives, while people who live in well-ordered homes will lead well-ordered ones.” Even more profoundly, the external disorder of our surroundings is mirrored in a disordered inner life: Ischomachus, one of the central characters in Xenophon’s dialogue, “credits his strict daily schedule [to his ability to organize his stuff] – his ability to regiment time mirrors his ability to impose order on space. While displaying his mastery of household management, he exposes the foundations of his orderly self.” Likewise, Marie Kondo assures her clients, with what appears to be genuine conviction, that getting their homes in order will allow them to get their lives in order.

Clothing folded and stored the KonMari way. (Jean-Charles Sorin via Medium

Clothing folded and stored the KonMari way. (Jean-Charles Sorin via Medium

There is a further ethical dimension to Tidying Up that I shall explore more fully in subsequent columns, and that is that many of us simply have too much stuff – and we have too much stuff not simply because we are weak and greedy and disorganized, but because we live in a late capitalist economy which both encourages us to buy more and more things, and – as I noted in last month’s column – to invest those things with meaning. We are inundated with ads which tell us to that if we only buy more we will become really happy. Moreover, we are surrounded by a multitude of cheap goods which use up irreplaceable resources, and which depend, for their production, on the exploitation of workers. Finally, because we are encouraged to connect what we buy with who we are, we find it difficult to let things go when we no longer need them (if, indeed, we ever did).

Marie Kondo’s genius, I think, lies not in her instructions on how to fold our clothes into neat little rectangles so that they will stand up in our drawers and can be viewed at a glance (although there is something strangely appealing about seeing a drawer of underwear neatly folded into little rectangles), but, as noted above, in her ability to help people let go of their things. This, in turn, I think, lies in her willingness to acknowledge that it’s emotionally hard to get rid of our things because we can develop (irrational but genuine) attachments to them. This allows her clients to keep the things that matter most to them (the items that “spark joy”), while freeing them up to thank other things for their service and then let them go. But I sometimes found myself wondering about what she is really thinking when she sees people crying over junk, as she smiles her brilliant smile and wishes them happiness as they move forward into a better future: our disordered homes do, indeed, seem to reflect both disordered lives and a disordered attachment to material possessions.

Featured image: Author and organizing consultant, Marie Kondo, on the Society Stage during Day 2 of the 2015 Web Summit in the RDS, Dublin, Ireland, 4 November 2015. Photo by Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE / Web Summit, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.


Rachel Haliburton

Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. Her latest book, The Ethical Detective: Moral Philosophy and Detective Fiction, was published in February by Lexington Books.