America’s Clutter Problem

18 minute read

When the Amazon packages arrive at her door, Dana Harvey experiences one of two feelings: Ecstasy or Nausea. Harvey, 54, is a family therapist in Los Angeles who also practices another kind of therapy–retail.

She readily admits to indulging in those fleeting moments of joy that come from purchasing. But Harvey also realized the moments were piling up all around her. Her 8-ft.-long pine dining table soon disappeared under mountains of clothes, purses and books. She began making excuses about why her house was a wreck. Eventually she stopped having friends over. She was too embarrassed.

Last year, Harvey hired a professional organizer to help her get her things in order and curb her spending. Together, they threw out or donated bags and bags of shoes, scarves, jewelry, hats, appliances, stuffed animals and unused makeup. Some items still had their tags attached. Today, more often than not, Harvey can find a place for the possessions she decided to keep. She often includes “Clear 10 Things” on her daily to-do list. Her home is less cluttered. Her friends stop by more. Her dining table is a table again. But as spring arrives, she still feels the pull of her iPad, the seasonal clothes and deals just waiting for her online.

For middle-class Americans, it’s never been easier to feel consumed by consumption. Despite the recession, despite a brief interlude when savings rates shot up and credit-card debt went down, Americans arguably have more stuff now than any society in history. Children in the U.S. make up 3.1% of the world’s kid population, but U.S. families buy more than 40% of the toys purchased globally. The rise of wholesalers and warehouse supermarkets has packed our pantries and refrigerators with bulk items that often overflow into a second fridge. One-click shopping and same-day delivery have driven purchasing to another level altogether, making conspicuous consumption almost too easy.

Our stuff has taken over. Most household moves outside the U.S. weigh from 2,500 lb. to 7,500 lb. (1,110 kg to 3,400 kg). The average weight of a move in the U.S. is 8,000 lb. (3,600 kg), the weight of a fully grown hippo. An entire industry has emerged to house our extra belongings–self-storage, a $24 billion business so large that every American could fit inside its units simultaneously.

It would be one thing if all our possessions were making us happier, but the opposite seems to be occurring. At least one study shows that a home with too much stuff can actually lead to higher levels of anxiety. “These objects that we bring in the house are not inert,” says UCLA anthropologist Elinor Ochs, who led a decade-long study on hyperacquisition. “They have consequences.”

After the Great Recession, many Americans held up a mirror to their lives, looking for what truly mattered. Some downsized, selling what their smaller homes could no longer hold. Others took advantage of a sharing economy that changed the very idea of ownership. Our world since then has only gotten more complicated, more robust, more overwhelming. We’re bombarded almost minute-by-minute with too much of everything: too much information, too much television, too much email, too much social media, too many apps for too many problems from being too connected. Home is the place to silence the white noise, where the world outside can seem a bit less complicated if inside there’s a sense of simplicity and order.

The notion that our lives should have some semblance of serenity seems to be taking hold. A new economy is growing around the people who take out all the stuff we’re still bringing into our homes. Junk-hauling companies are booming. Professional organizers–who see their biggest spikes in business this time of year as the holidays fade and spring cleaning awaits–are thriving. And a quirky, almost mystical book by 30-year-old Japanese “cleaning consultant” Marie Kondo called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has been an unlikely New York Times best seller since February. Kondo’s simple philosophy–more self-help than home improvement–urges readers to keep only the things that spark joy while throwing out the rest. If retail-therapy joy lasts a moment, Kondo’s is meant to last a lifetime. Her name has even become a verb: to Kondo your sock drawer.

As we reach for help in organizing our lives, consumer spending has remained steady. Consumer confidence has slowly increased despite the volatility of the markets. Online shopping is growing. Low-cost retailers are expanding. Consumption and acquisition are a natural part of the human psyche and incontrovertibly a part of the American condition. But with the rise of companies like 1-800-GOT-JUNK, which last year celebrated a milestone $1 billion in junk removal; the shift of possessions from tangible to digital; and the growing fascination with creating space through Kondoization and other similar philosophies, the virtues of deacquisition might just be taking root in the American psyche too.

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Consuming as a Way of Life

Today, purchasing takes just one click. But consumption used to be rare and difficult. A few hundred years ago, Americans had limited options when they needed or wanted something, and the local general store was often the only recourse. But as the Industrial Revolution took hold, catalogs promised sewing machines, buggies, furniture, eyeglasses, pianos–virtually anything in production that could be sent via post.

In 1872, Montgomery Ward printed what’s often considered the first general-merchandise catalog. Two decades later, Sears published its own 500-page version. Both reached millions of Americans. By the turn of the century, department stores like Marshall Field’s and Macy’s began offering all those products in one physical location. A new consumerism was emerging, one that offered a uniquely American idea that you could aspire to a different social class through acquiring.

The next wave came after World War II, when a new generation of appliances, furniture and household goods became available. With the advent of plastics, toys became cheap and ubiquitous. Mr. Potato Head sprouted. Lego built its first bricks. Mattel debuted Barbie. Television blinked into American homes, and advertisers and marketers discovered subtle and subconscious ways of sweet-talking consumers. The idea of planned obsolescence became popular after General Motors discovered that if it developed a new automobile model each year, it could trigger people into upgrading when they otherwise wouldn’t. Economists, meanwhile, realized that consumption was vital for the expanding nation.

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption,” wrote economist Victor Lebow in 1955. “We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever increasing pace. We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption.”

Lebow’s comments, whether encouraging consumption or merely acknowledging it, illustrate that by the 1950s, consuming was paramount. The American Dream didn’t just mean a white picket fence and two kids. It meant a big house and a bunch of stuff to fill it.

Our current phase of overconsumption began about 30 years ago, when Americans began committing close to half of their annual expenditures to nonnecessities. It was the beginning of a gradual decline in the cost of consumer goods, the growth of everyday credit-card use and the rise of big-box stores and discount retailers that pushed their way into communities nationwide, forcing down prices and profits for those competing around them.

In the past decade, the cost of cell phones, toys, computers and televisions has plunged, thanks in part to overseas manufacturing. The rise of “fast fashion”–popularized by the growth of clothing outlets like Gap, Forever 21 and American Eagle selling $10 T-shirts and $30 jeans–is now driven by low-cost imports H&M and Uniqlo. Today the average U.S. household has about 248 garments and 29 pairs of shoes. It purchases, on average, 64 pieces of clothing and seven pairs of shoes annually, at a total cost of $1,141 a year, or $16 per item.

“When the question is why do we have so much stuff, one reason is because we can,” says Annie Leonard, executive director of the environmental group Greenpeace USA and the creator of The Story of Stuff, an animated video about excessive consumerism. “For a huge percentage of this country, there is no longer an economic obstacle to having the illusion of luxury. It’s just that this stuff is so cheap.”

If there’s a fourth wave of overconsumption, it’s led by Amazon. Thanks to the growth of online shopping and quick-purchase tools like “1-Click Ordering,” unnecessary spending is almost effortless. When stores were the only places to buy something, there were several points at which shoppers could stop and ask themselves, Do I need this? What will I do with it? Where will it live when I bring it home? As online shopping outpaces brick-and-mortar growth, many of those barriers to buying no longer exist.

“The ability to purchase and then possess something has accelerated rapidly,” says professional organizer Andrew Mellen. “It’s instantaneous. And if you’re not reflective, how do you interrupt yourself?”

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Our Inner Squirrel

The extent to which acquisition outstrips reason isn’t quite understandable until you contemplate the behemoth that is self-storage in America. In 2013 the self-storage industry raked in $24 billion in revenue, more than twice as much as the NFL. The 48,500 storage facilities nationwide–compared with only 10,000 outside the U.S.–could fill three Manhattans, and they outnumber all the McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger Kings and Starbucks in the U.S. put together.

The industry began in the late 1960s as the Greatest Generation began retiring. Many of them migrated from the East Coast to warmer climates down South and on the West Coast, and as they relocated to smaller places, they needed somewhere to put all the things they’d accumulated.

In the early 1970s, Public Storage began in Southern California; today it is the largest self-storage company in the U.S. and has more than 2,200 facilities. On average, people rent a space for about eight months–but they often turn up thinking they’ll rent one for half the time. “People come in and say, ‘I’m only going to be here three, four months,’ and they’re here for a year or two,” says CEO Ron Havner.

About 87% of all storage units nationwide are currently rented, and while self-storage is certainly used by urban dwellers crunched for space, two-thirds of users own a garage, almost half have an attic, and a third have a basement.

For the possessions still in our homes, there are professional organizers. The National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO), launched in 1983 by a small group of women in Los Angeles, now boasts 4,000 members who go into homes, help owners figure out what’s worth keeping and push them to purge the rest. An entire sector of “senior move managers” has grown to help retiring Baby Boomers downsize as they move into smaller places but don’t know how to deal with a lifetime’s worth of stuff. Today, that industry’s national association includes close to 850 member companies.

There are many economic and cultural factors that lead us to buy, but there are fundamental evolutionary drivers for why we acquire but then can’t let go. Call it our Inner Squirrel.

“You can imagine at one point in time all you needed was some seeds to get by and a safe nesting site,” says University of Michigan psychology professor Stephanie Preston, who studies our acquisition habits. “But the evolution of tools introduced ‘stuff’ that you wanted to save, like that perfect rock hammer that you made or this flint that took you hours to cleave just right. So then you have to carry these items with you. Over time, this problem starts to explode, and before you know it, you have a garage full of stuff.”

In studies, Preston has primed people to feel socially rejected and then gauged how likely they were to acquire. The result: They took more stuff after feeling snubbed and were even inclined to select more utilitarian items like backpacks, flashlights and toilet paper. “Exactly what you think a Boy Scout is supposed to bring when he goes out into the woods by himself,” she says.

Preston theorizes that humans expect to have support from fellow humans, and when that’s ripped away, we become more selfish, and our survival instincts kick in. Similarly, she believes the more anxious we are, the more we’re inclined to take, take, take.

“If you have this ‘When resources are scarce, then you should stockpile’ train of thought, then being anxious in an ecological context would be like a bodily signal that the environment isn’t safe or secure or predictable,” she says. “Feeling anxious is associated with uncertainty, and historically that was a sign that you might not have access to resources and you better shore them up.”

Today, about 1 in 6 Americans suffers from an anxiety disorder for a variety of reasons, something that appears to be not only a cause of our stuffocation but also an effect. To alleviate feelings of anxiety, many of us shop, an act that has been shown to release dopamine in the brain, giving us a temporary feeling of euphoria. It’s a sensation that we want to keep reliving, a sensation that can lead to overconsumption. But those anxious feelings can all come creeping back again once we get home and have to deal with all the stuff we’ve already bought.

In the UCLA study led by Ochs, which analyzed 32 Los Angeles families, when the mothers discussed their messiest rooms–the ones filled with all the things meant to make life for them and their families better, easier and happier–the opposite seemed to occur. Their levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, spiked. “Bringing all these objects into the house has health effects,” says Ochs. “You work really hard. You buy things that you like and you want to have in your house. You buy toys for your kids. You go to Costco. And these things are piling up in the house. It gets out of hand. It’s very difficult to manage having so many objects in the house.”

Our desire to hang on to the things we buy may also be a holdover from an era when times were tougher. Gideon Fountain, a real estate agent in Greenwich, Conn., who recently hired a professional organizer, says his Depression-era parents often told him: Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without. That mind-set has stayed with him even through boom times, contributing to his desire to hold on to things when he otherwise wouldn’t.

It doesn’t help that our Inner Squirrel is also sentimental. Think about something you hold dear–a baseball signed by Babe Ruth, for example. At one point, it was just a baseball like every other baseball. But once the Yankee slugger signed it, it took on something that went beyond its physical properties.

“It’s a form of superstitious thinking,” says Randy Frost, a Smith College psychology professor who studies hoarding and our relationship with our possessions. “This arrangement where these objects have meaning about your past, or about a past that you get connected to, are important components of why people save things.”

Frost argues that one of the reasons we can’t let go is that possessions often elicit visceral memories of a certain time and place. Movie stubs from a first date. A postcard from a trip. And studies show that it gets harder for us to purge as we get older–not just because it’s more difficult to deal with objects in old age.

“All of this buying is a way to really forestall, transcend, pretend that we’re not going to end,” says psychologist April Lane Benson, who has studied consumerism and überacquiring for decades. “It will endure and, by extension, so will I.”

MORE Quiz: Do You Own Too Much Stuff?

Getting to Less

Back in 2001, when the UCLA team began its study, they visited a house–the first one they analyzed–with 2,260 visible possessions in just three rooms. One family’s office included 2,337 visible nonpaper objects. Some families stored as many as 650 boxes, bins and other items in their garage, a space so crowded that 75% of the families couldn’t park their cars inside.

“What are we going to look like when all our houses are smashed and flattened and somebody else is digging us up?” says UCLA’s Ochs. “What will we look like?” But Ochs adds that she believes there’s been a decline in hyperconsumption following the Great Recession, “a sense that less is more,” she says.

NAPO President Mary Dykstra-Novess says that professional organizing is seeing growth both in the U.S. and around the world. Organizers took a hit like almost everyone else during the recession, as consumers cut back on discretionary spending, deciding that if they were going to downsize, they would try it on their own. But she believes that young people especially see their parents’ excesses and are reconsidering that sort of lifestyle.

“I think Marie is hitting a flash point,” Dykstra-Novess says, referring to Kondo’s best-selling book.

In the past decade, 1-800-GOT-JUNK has been one of the country’s fastest-growing companies. It got its start in 1989, when founder and CEO Brian Scudamore saw a guy hauling away people’s unwanted stuff in his truck. Hoping it could help pay his way through college, Scudamore spent $700 on an old pickup and started his own junk business. It has grown from $7.5 million in revenue in 2002 to $106 million in 2012. Over the years, Scudamore says, he’s seen a gradual shift among his clients away from sheer accumulation.

“The ’80s were all about buying stuff,” Scudamore says. “People had to live large and spend all this money. By the ’90s, everybody went, O.K., now it’s not just about accumulating stuff–it’s about changing stuff.” He added that many of his clients ripped out perfectly good appliances just to replace them for aesthetic reasons, in part because they saw their neighbors doing the same thing.

Today, the mind-set of his customers has changed again. Now they’re throwing out all their stuff associated with old analog technologies–CD cases, books, shelving units–in an attempt to transform digitally and simplify their surroundings. Books, music and games can be bought or rented online and stored in the cloud. The sharing economy means that a lawn mower can be borrowed for an afternoon on Craigslist. We stream movies and TV shows rather than buying DVDs. Younger Americans relocating to urban areas appear more inclined to shed consumerist tendencies, while many older Americans are ditching their things for a life of travel in retirement.

On the extreme end are pockets of minimalists, many of whom are in their 20s and early 30s and have gotten rid of everything but the essentials. The best-known are Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, who shed most everything they owned for a life of simplicity in a Montana cabin after making six-figure salaries while still in their 20s. Millburn and Nicodemus, who have written two books about their experiences, both realized that they just weren’t happy.

“There seems to be some sort of experiential awakening,” says Thomas Gilovich, a Cornell University psychology professor who has conducted multiple studies showing that experiences, not belongings, are what elicit true feelings of happiness. He argues that our memories of those experiences stick with us, whereas we ultimately adapt and get used to all the things we possess. In Kondo-speak, they stop sparking joy.

Dana Harvey still fights the desire to spend. She’s not the only one: low-cost and online spending are strong as the economy slowly recovers. Profit at H&M, for example, jumped 17% in 2014 as the low-cost retailer plans to open 400 new stores. Walmart’s online sales grew 30% year-on-year. Holiday spending at Amazon equaled $30 billion, triggered by the popularity of Amazon Prime, which offers free two-day shipping and special deals and saw membership grow by 53% last year. Its latest perk: one-hour shipping in Manhattan.

For Harvey, spring clothing lines trigger that pull to buy. But this time, she’s aware of it and remembers what it was like before she got organized.

“I have a friend coming over next week, and I can’t wait,” she says. “Ordinarily, I would be having severe, severe anxiety about having anybody in my home, and I would make up something and say it’s like this because I’m going through spring cleaning, but it wasn’t really the truth. The truth of the matter was that I just had stuff everywhere.”

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