Having “enough” storage is wonderful. Until you open the cupboard doors and piles of stuff — dust-laden papers, shoes, and half-used hair serums — tumble out.
This is what happened when my mum downsized last year and was confronted with all the belongings she had crammed into the back of wardrobes and cupboards. When it came to clothes, we counted 70 pairs of jeans — for a woman who prefers skirts to trousers. Did she really need eight, seemingly identical, black pencil skirts?
Yes, came the terse reply.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is my stepdad (no longer married to my mum). So strong is his urge to purge, that, when he visited soon after to help me clear out a loft, he suggested taking all the letters I’d kept over the years — from my late father and ex-boyfriends — to the dump, once I’d scanned the few I really might read again.
For him, the thorny issue was not that I might miss handling these missives, as I pictured it, one late night, a glass of wine in hand, taking stock of my life. But, rather, to ensure the paper went into the right recycling bin, not landfill. I am well-versed in the environmental benefits of recycling but this was one step too far.
Personal feelings aside, I was tensing up at the prospect of culling so much personal detritus, just as I’d seen mum do. Surely, someday I would use that single mitten? Wouldn’t that dress come back into fashion? I have watched enough episodes of the reality TV programme The Repair Shop to know how much pleasure can be found in mending or repurposing old objects.
Is it not more environmentally friendly to hold on to things? Even donating to charity shops might still risk some ending up in landfill.
There was also the risk that, by getting rid of old belongings, I would just be clearing the space for more. This unwanted development is acknowledged by Deron Beal, executive director of The Freecycle Network, a web community facilitating the exchange of furniture, clothes and equipment.
In the initial Covid lockdowns, the non-profit saw a huge increase in items being posted online. “People really used the pandemic to clear out the clutter as they were often working from home. However, that meant home renovations could lead to buying more furniture.”
Such attachment to having stuff, even when stored away, was brought home to me when I spoke to Laura Horton, writer of Breathless. Her stage play addresses hoarding, which she had assumed was about piles of yellowing newspapers and old milk cartons.
As a Vogue reader and shopping enthusiast, her own passion was clothes. And, by avoiding fast fashion, her habit was far more ecologically sound. She trawled charity shops and car boot sales, even buying dresses that were too small in the hope that she would lose weight and “emerge later”, resplendent in her new outfits.
But she accumulated so much that she could not find anything. “It was shameful. It felt psychologically suffocating.” She had several ball gowns, for occasions she would probably never attend. Friends did not understand. “They would say, ‘Just chuck it away’,” she recalls. When her London landlord sold the flat she was living in, she moved to Devon and had a sale, racking up 400 items sold. “It didn’t scratch the surface.”
Subsequently, she has given a lot to charity and continued to sell items. She has also found that her play has struck a chord with audiences, prompting some people to confess their own experiences to her.
In my own case, I have had to face facts, too. I have failed to learn new sewing and upholstery skills. But I have culled some belongings, disposed of via charity shops and Freecycle.
My mum has come to another arrangement — by finding a charity shop that will allow her to swap her own clothes for something new, offsetting consumerism with a bit of circular economy ethos.