Feeling sick about stuff

This summer, two experiences got me thinking about the amount of stuff I bring into my house, how much of it my family actually needs and how much of it leaves the house unused (and often unloved).

The first experience was a total purge of a large storage room in our basement. I tackle it semi-annually but that’s only to get rid of items that have been rendered unusable or unwearable like kid toys that have been banned by a government protection agency or discount rubber boots that let in more water than they keep out.  Into the bin they go and I live to fight another day in the war against clutter without actually dealing with the emotional or logistical fallout of a true purge.

This summer, while my husband and kids were on a camping trip, I armed myself with a fresh box of garbage bags, a recycling bin and a bottle of wine and began to sift through the detritus of the last decade. It wasn’t quite an episode of Hoarding: Buried Alive but as I categorized and labelled the piles, I became aware of how emotionally tied we become to our possessions.

There was the sentimental pile which included hand-made Mother’s Day cards with hearts made of spray-painted macaroni elbows but years of storage had caused the Elmer’s glue to dry out so that only two of the macaroni pieces clung to the cardboard while the rest languished on the bottom of the box. I enjoyed reliving the days when my kids proudly brought home these creations but cried about how much they’ve grown and that they’re no longer toddlers and never will be again.

Another pile dredged up feelings of parental inadequacy as I came face to face with the needlepoint painting of Paris I thought I’d work at in my spare time; the Martha Stewart stamps, punches, glitter and heat-activated embosser I bought when I was going to make my own beautiful home-made Christmas cards; and the Phineas and Ferb cookie cutters that were going to wow my kids but which only resulted in a misshapen mess. I packed it all up for donation and made a solemn vow never to set foot in a Michael’s Craft Store ever again.

There was the guilty pile of stuff that added to my carbon footprint like old BlackBerries and laptops which I want to “wipe clean” but I’ve lost the cords and so I can’t boot them up and therefore I’m afraid to take them to one of those e-waste drop-off centres in case some rogue employee downloads all my personal data and steals my identity so they’re confined to my basement in perpetuity.

But all of those pale in comparison to the pile I left for last – the clothes and accessories I no longer wear and in some cases, never did. There’s the bin of size 6 clothing that I purchased at my thinnest point – that magical three months when I suffered through both a bad breakup and an e-coli infection for a combined weight loss of 20 pounds – and have been storing for when I am that size again even though it will most likely never happen. There’s also the “once-in-a-lifetime” clothing – a gown purchased for some gala and never worn again; a fringed tank top that was totally on-point in Mexico but ridiculous in Toronto; the blue suede Roots bomber jacket the salesperson gushed was “just made for you” that was worn once and then consigned to the back of the closet. And saddest of all, the clothes that still had price tags on them. I remember buying each of these pieces even though I knew in my gut they weren’t right in the store and still weren’t right when I loaded them into the car, hung them in the closet and eventually stored them in a Rubbermaid bin. But until this summer, I couldn’t bring myself to let them go because to do so, would be to admit that, as intelligent and media-savvy as I am, I am still susceptible to the seduction and manipulation of advertising that promises a better, sexier, healthier life if I just buy one more thing.

I persevered through the anguish and by the end of the day, I had filled our municipal garbage and recycling bins and crammed my car’s trunk with bags destined for Goodwill.

That’s where my second experience comes in. I topped off my day of purging by watching The True Cost, a documentary about the environmental, economic and cultural impact of fast fashion and the toll that it takes on the women who make the clothes. It’s not a perfect film and frustratingly, it offers few solutions to the problems it exposes. But it has some eye-opening interviews and encourages us to consider the entire life cycle of a $5 blouse at Zara or H&M rather than the few months it will hang in our closets. A particularly moving scene juxtaposes stampeding Black Friday crowds at WalMart with images of garment workers trying to flee Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza when it collapsed and killed more than 1,000 women as they toiled to feed their family.

I don’t buy fast fashion for myself, not because I’m making a political statement but because I’m at a point where I want and need clothing made of fabric that is more forgiving and that won’t discolour or fall apart in the laundry. But that’s just me. I’ll admit that if my boys start camp in two days and they need tank tops that fit them, I’m more likely to grab them at Joe Fresh than at some organic, free trade boutique.

I recommend the documentary. It’s on Netflix and it will make you think, even if you already know the basics of apparel manufacturing. I, for one, am going to try to think seriously about everything I bring across my threshold, for myself or my family, and try to do a little better. Who’s with me?


  1. Your thought-provoking piece struck a cord with me. Must be fall. I’ve been thinking the same way and feeling guilty about adding to our household debt with shoes I’ve worn once, the earrings I just “had to have” from that vendor in Florida, the not-by-style funky top from Simon’s in Montreal. My vow is to resist the impromptu purchase and to concentrate on purchasing mainly consumables and asking: can we eat it? can we drink it? do we need it to make our household run smoothly? We’ll see how long this lasts. (And, don’t get me started on all the fresh produce that gets chucked on out house, or the box of samosas at the back of the freezer!) Thanks for posting your thoughts.

  2. Louise, I purged my house of excess stuff semi-annually, and came to a crisis point this past winter at how or why it all creeps in. I then read a book that I have applied to my life, work, and community and it has changed how I look at stuff. It’s by Marie Kondo and her approach is to only keep or bring in what gives you joy. You ditch the rest. Her system of clothes, books, paper, household goods, and sentimental helps you go through things systematically. Since I started this process, I have become much more conscious of what I buy, what I choose to bring in, what I keep, and what goes out. I have donated boxes and boxes, including clothes with tags and unopened tools etc. It has made such a huge difference.

    1. Thanks for dropping by Martha. The joy approach sounds great and I know for sure if I applied it to my life, I’d bring very little into the house. Not sure how I could convince the kids they will get no joy from the dollar store lootbags they get at birthday parties.

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