It starts with tidying your sock drawer. It ends with emptying your mind

I should feel sympathetic to the new cult of cleanliness. Instead it repulses me

16 April 2016

9:00 AM

16 April 2016

9:00 AM

How clean are you? I ask not as a mother confessor. I’m not interested in the state of your soul. What I want to know is: how clean is your sock drawer? Your fridge? Your gut?

These are the pressing questions of the new cult of clean. Its apostles urge us to divest ourselves of worldly possessions, to renounce ‘dirty’ food and alcohol and to dress in monkish grey or bleached white. Our sins are these: we have bought too much tat, eaten to filthy excess and stuffed our wardrobes with cheap, disposable rubbish.

The clean cultist says no more. Everything must go. The most high and holy of the clean cultists is Marie Kondo, Japanese author of The Life-changing Magic of Tidying. She asks us to take everything we own — from family heirloom to gas bill — hold it in our hands and demand of it: does it ‘spark joy’? If not, throw it out. Her tidying regimes and devoted following have seen her listed in Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. Her name has become a verb: ‘to Kondo’ — to have an almighty clearout.

Spreading the gospel from the West is the Californian clutter refusenik Bea Johnson. Her book Zero Waste Home preaches the five Rs: ‘Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot.’ We are told to chuck or give away our books, our children’s toys — even our engagement rings. She cleans everything in the house with a dilute solution of white vinegar.

Completing the clean-and-clear trinity is the trend forecaster James Wallman. Clean cultists have read his manifesto Stuffocation: Living More with Less via iPad, learned its lessons, and consigned it to the desktop trashcan. Clean cultists don’t do physical books, CDs or DVDs.

They nodded when the handbag designer Orla Kiely announced: ‘The world is full of stuff, and it is too much.’ They cheered when Steve Howard, chief sustainability officer of Ikea — the shop that sells more than six million Billy bookcases a year to house all the books we’re not supposed to be buying — said that in the West we have ‘hit peak stuff. We talk about peak oil. I’d say we’ve hit peak red meat, peak sugar, peak stuff, peak home furnishings.’

The clean cultists have given up red meat, sugar, dairy and gluten. Nothing processed passes their lips. They eat clean, snack lean and drink green juices for breakfast. They strain their own almond milk and ‘activate’ their sunflower seeds.

They cook from books with titles like Good + Simple, I Quit Sugar, and Cook, Nourish, Glow, Oh She Glows, Get The Glow, and Ready, Steady, Glow. Glowing is important to the clean cultist: inside and out. They are converts to the gut-scouring properties of fermented foods. Jars of fizzing white cabbage sauerkraut and pickled kimchi sit next to the Vitamix juicer on the kitchen work surface. They have read and digested the lessons in German microbiologist Julia Enders’ Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ. They do not drink grubby alcohol.

Fashion, too, has discovered a clean streak. The editors on the front row wear head-to-toe grey. Grazia magazine has christened it ‘the groutfit’. I recently passed designer Stella McCartney on the platform at Paddington station, and she was wearing a grey cashmere coat, a grey cashmere pullover and grey cashmere jogging bottoms, cropped at the ankle. She looked divine, if grey.

At the beginning of this year, Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, posted a photograph of his back-to-work wardrobe after two months’ paternity leave with the caption ‘What shall I wear?’ The rail held nine identical grey T-shirts and seven darker grey hooded sweatshirts, all fresh from the washing machine.

The photograph was liked more than a million times and more than 74,000 comments were posted under it. Zuckerberg has told Facebook users: ‘I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything, except how to best serve this community.’ Marie Kondo wears white blouses; Bea Johnson wears black T-shirts.

Through my teens and early twenties every woman aspired to long, boho, artfully unwashed and dishevelled hair — think Sienna Miller in her Jude Law heyday — now it’s a short, neat, wash-and-go bob.

The fashion girls would no more carry a slouchy designer handbag, logoed, named after a celebrity and hung about with a clutter of Prada robot charms, than they would eat a Mars bar. Instead they carry compact rucksacks from the Scandinavian brands Sanqist and Fjallraven Kanken.

Scandinavia is mecca. The clean cultist buys its bags, watches its TV shows, and imports its Pilen bikes. A bike is preferred to a dirty, petrol-belching car.

The dream holiday is no longer to Ayia Napa (noisy), India (dirty) or Thailand (too colourful) but Stockholm, Oslo, Bergen and the fjords. The clean cultist aspires to the austerely empty (grey) studio apartment in which Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander live in The Danish Girl, each room like a Hammershoi painting. They fantasise about giving away all their remaining possessions and moving to Copenhagen or Aarhus.

Some of the ideals of the clean cultist are understandable. In large part, the movement is born out of a nervous reaction to too much cheap junk food and too much stuff. Marie Kondo describes her own teenage breakdown: coming home from school one day and wanting to throw away everything in the family home.


After decades of Primark dresses, worn to one party and then chucked, of iPods which were replaced by iPod Minis then iPod Nanos then iPod Shuffles then iPhone after iPhone, and of free plastic sunglasses with your monthly fashion mag — all piling up in landfill — it is reasonable to turn around and adopt Bea Johnson’s maxim: ‘I refuse.’

What’s more, for the generation who cannot get on the housing ladder, there simply isn’t space for clutter. Even if you have successfully moved out of the family home (and many haven’t: the last census found that 26 per cent of adults aged between 20 and 34 were still living with their parents, up from 21 per cent in 1996), you are probably living in a cramped rented flat with barely a shelf of storage space. Faced with living in a broom cupboard, it may seem better to dress up a lack of possessions as a lifestyle choice, rather than accept that it is a dreary consequence of being a part of Generation Rent.

There may also be a religious element to this asceticism, or rather, a compensation for a lack of religion. If you don’t go to church on a Sunday or synagogue on a Saturday, if you never say a prayer or a confess your sins, if you aren’t saving yourself for marriage, you may find yourself missing the pleasing discipline of restraint. Instead of religious self-denial, you can do retail self-denial.

I ought to be in sympathy with the clean cultists. I am teetotal and I file my paperclips in little Perspex boxes. Marie Kondo would thrill to my sock drawer. But something about this back-scouring cleanliness, taken to its extreme, troubles me.

However much the clean cultist’s skin may ‘glow’, the purity is only skin-deep. The cult of clean isn’t about shrugging off material things to create more time, space and energy to volunteer for a charity or help at a food bank, or even just to spend more time with friends and family. The modern cult of ‘wellness’ — wellness, like cleanliness, being next to godliness — has nothing to do with the old-fashioned virtues of goodness or kindness. You can be as venal, self-centred, smug, hypocritical and preaching as you like, so long as your outward image is cleaner than clean.

It feeds, too, into the Stepford Student syndrome, identified in this magazine by Brendan O’Neill. This is the tendency to approve only one point of view and to ‘no-platform’ any speaker who dissents. Anyone not on message about trans issues, the migrant crisis or abortion will find themselves summarily ‘Kondoed’ from the campus. What is a ‘safe space’ if not somewhere white, tidy, clean and antiseptic, with nothing on the walls to offend a delicate sensibility?

Today’s students are much more fastidious than they were even when I went up to university ten years ago. Then, we arrived with cheese toastie-makers. Last year, the Which? consumer guide reported a 272 per cent rise in sales of the Nutribullet — an £80 juicer — in August before the start of university term. Freshers are downing not Jaegerbombs but chia seed smoothies.

My old student newspaper, Varsity, runs recipes for ‘incredibly healthy vegan sweet-potato ice cream’ blended in a Nutribullet. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for cheesy chips from a van.

An obsession with aesthetic and nutritional purity gives the clean cultist a misplaced sense of intellectual purity. Having become masters of their own sock drawers, they believe everything else — a dissenting voice, a statue of a college benefactor, a protest group — can be tidied away. Only their view is acceptable. Any person who challenges the tasteful grey orthodoxy is just too messy.

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  • MC73

    Clean and tidy are not synonyms.

    • Father Todd Unctious

      Tidiness is for the lazy. It is so much easier to find stuff in a tidy place. Much less wasted time.

      • Petronilla

        One of the minimalist mantras is “You don’t need to organize what you don’t own.”

      • Andrew Cole

        But if everything else is tidy and sorted much more time to listen to a good tune through a vintage Shure m75

      • Mary Ann

        What about those who are too lazy to tidy. A photographic memory helps, until you get older and it doesn’t work so well.

  • #toryscum

    My tidying rule: I pick up an object and consider moving house, if I’m annoyed at the prospect of packing and transporting said object, it goes in the bin.

    Fjallraven, favorite of the trendy left. A brand that had its original success producing clothes designed to wear whilst shooting animals. Great irony.

  • Rumin8

    My underpants may not spark joy but I am not going to chuck them out.

  • WFB56

    “…devoted following have seen her listed in Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.” Ah yes, Time magazine, the ones that named Merkel as the person of the year for 2015; surprised they are still around but even more surprised that anyone would pay attention to them.

  • plainsdrifter

    What happens when there’s an earthquake?

  • rosebery

    Decades of buying from Primark? Decades? How old are you?

    • Andrew Cole

      When did Primark get onto the high streets in any numbers? Surely a recent thing. 10 years?

      • Jane Martinsford

        There was a branch in Bolton in the early 70s. I remember buying my Rory Gallagher checked shirts from there – two for a pound, as I recall!

        • Andrew Cole

          We have 2 in Lincoln. First appeared when it replaced Woolworths and the second appeared when it replaced Littlewoods. That’s the timeline I am working from. About a decade?

  • Tickertapeguy

    This is not a “one size fits all” philosophy. It may work if you live in an apartment in a big city. It may not work if you live in a large house in the countryside.
    Living “clean” does not mean living “sparsely”. I agree with her that some things from the past bring either joy or pain, but that is an individual choice and varies from one household to another.

  • Petronilla

    Interesting article, but a little misleading. I felt like it sort of created some stereotypes. ie: Bea Johnson has a varied minimalist wardrobe that she updates twice a year. (She doesn’t always wear black tshirts.) Bea J also cooks a variety of very appetizing looking French-fusion food.
    Is there any evidence of less alcohol and designer brands being purchased?
    (I will admit I am personally tempted by the idea of wearing a uniform.)

  • Norbert

    The article is one dimensional.

    I love my green smoothie breakfasts, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying roast beef with a 2009 Bordeaux at dinner. I love clean, minimalist architecture, hate clutter, don’t own a car, and agree that “less is more”; but prefer the colors & sounds of Mumbai or Tel-Aviv to Stockholm’s grays. I’m a practicing atheist and praise Albert Camus, but find the cathedral at Chartres or the Buddhist temples in Kathmandu inspirational.

    Life is complex and it’s full of contradictions.

    • Fioler

      That’s sort of the point in this article, isn’t it: Why reduce the richness and complexity of life to the complete opposite? You’ve found a middle way. Good for you.

    • TomokoHasegawa

      Bordeaux with roast beef? What are you, a savage?

  • Ooh!MePurse!

    How incredibly dull.

  • D J

    ‘Scandanavia is mecca’.
    Have you been talking to the actor Kim Bodnia, who played Martin in The Bridge, about Malmo?

  • Chris Bartelt
  • Jackthesmilingblack


  • Jane Martinsford

    I used to be obsessive about hygiene and home cleanliness, white walls and minimalist … until I got a big, bushy tailed, super fluffy Samoyed dog, that romps round Hampstead Heath, swimming in the stinky ponds, and splattering the place with mud. Now, I’d rather have my dog any day over a pristine pad!

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      So bit like a husband, then?

  • Morris Jasper

    Einstein was years ahead of Zuckerberg as, famously/supposedly, his entire wardrobe consisted of just five identical suits. But look what happened to him, his brain was stolen.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Shirts, socks, underwear, belt, braces, shoes …?

  • Sean L

    What a load of utter tripe: there’s no necessary affinity between tidying the house, one’s diet, choice of holiday destination, alcohol consumption, and students conforming to the latest left wing dogma which has been a constant since the original expansion of higher education in the 1950s. All you’re doing here is stringing together a few newspaper stories thematised spuriously as “asceticism”. Of course there isn’t a single example of a real person exhibiting these characteristics: just pure tail wagging dog Daily Mail journalism where the media generates its own stories.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    As a Brit with considerable experience of interacting with Japanese women (like only 45 years), I have to tell you Laura, that you’re full of s***. OK, so they do overload the washing machine. But have far higher levels of personal hygiene, cleanliness and tidiness than Western s***+. And I say this with all due respect. So don’t settle for second best, Britisher pals. OK, so they do have half a dozen vacuum cleaners, but that’s not the end of the world is it?
    Now Japanese women do give up playing the bedroom scene some 10 years earlier than British women, but see this as a plus. Check out those Brit women. Do you really want to go through the motions by humping their brains out? If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. If it is broke, replace it.
    Years of field work.
    Jack, the Japan Alps Brit
    Growing old disgracefully.
    That better Mods?

    • EUSSR 4 All!

      Did you actually finish your GCSE English in Japan?!

    • TomokoHasegawa

      Sure, but their racism often gets in the way of being “the perfect spouse”. Try asking your wife about Japanese history or what she thinks of Chinese people.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        When you hear stories of Japanese wartime brutality towards Koreans, Chinese … you think, “That’s terrible”. Then you visit these countries/interact with these people and you find yourself thinking, “What a bunch of scumbags. They had it coming.”
        After a while you settle to something resembling a balanced opinion.
        But one thing that is beyond doubt, I really struck lucky fetching up in Japan way back in 1973.
        But hey Tomo Baby, what’s wrong with a bit of racist between friends. After all, racist is simply the fashionable word for heretic. Namely, a person that doesn’t take refuge in the majority.
        Jack, the Japan Alps Brit

  • wibbling

    This Kondo woman needs a pet. I suggest a Newfoundland. Hairy, smelly, a giant walking molting, drooling ball of fluff. Then she can see if she would prefer him or her clean room lifestyle.

    • David

      We all know what she needs.

  • Charlie Anderson

    This sounds like another example of approximations of Zen/Buddhist concepts packaged up, commercialised, and flogged off to an unwitting (and stupid) western audience. Much like that “mindfulness” claptrap.

  • Mary Ann

    Image of a bored woman, a tidy house, why don’t you go out and do something more interesting instead.

  • rtj1211

    Cleanliness is not the same as healthiness. Appropriate exposure of the developing immune system to all many of things found in muck makes children far more healthy through their lives than obsessive-compulsive parents keeping them in a sterile bubble the first 11 years of their lives……..

  • octagon<3

    The most brilliant people I know are the most irredeemably cluttered that I know. I had a professor who had piles of crumpled papers, food wrappers, chewed pencils, and broken lamps in his office, but he could find your graded paper in less than 15 seconds.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Message to George Osborne: The Stg.4,300 you claim exiting EU will cost “you” (per person?) might turn out to be a bargain compared to staying in and ending up like Greece. I’ve got your number George, you incompetent, self-serving parasite.

  • Perseus Slade

    I like plain and clear but
    Marie Kondo is full of whatsit.
    Recycle her !

  • Holy God we praise Thy Name

    Skidmarks in her knickers? Or no knickers? You decide.

  • Fioler

    Things move in cycles. Wait a few years, and these people will shake it up again with slogans like “Celebrate your glorious mess”.

    Meanwhile, the lovable Bridget Jones is out and Saga Noren (The Bridge) is in. She’s autistic, which says a lot.

  • TomokoHasegawa

    But have you seen the inside of the average Japanese family’s dwellings? Messy doesn’t even start to describe it. I think at least in her home country, Kondo’s ideas are much needed.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Office, too.