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Decluttering Your Life Is Not Just A Trend—It’s Big Business

In a world obsessed with tidying, professional organizers like Marie Kondo are a rising commercial force.

In a restaurant where the ceiling is a work of art and the books on the shelf are arranged by color, eBay is holding a promotional event for its new service, eBay Valet. On the tables—around which sit guests from magazines like InStyle and Redbook–are tiny, beautifully illustrated booklets of flashcards featuring organizing guru Marie Kondo’s tips for tidying kids’ stuff, “exclusive to eBay.”

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Kondo is the author of mega bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and in the last year, she has appeared in seemingly every major newspaper, magazine (see our interview here), and morning talk show to proselytize her strategy for decluttering. Time magazine named her one of the most influential people of 2015.

Now, eBay has gathered the people with most influence on America’s aspirational fashion and shelter trends to hear that pitch with an eBay twist.

“There is not time as a working mom to go through things and declutter,” announces Mary Alice Stephenson, a tall, glamorous woman who works as a celebrity stylist and beauty expert, before lunch starts. “So when eBay called me to tell me about this amazing partnership with Marie Kondo, I was so excited.” She presses a button on a screen, and Kondo, a tiny woman who speaks Japanese, appears. We read in the subtitles what so many have already read in more than 3 million sold copies of her book: Every single thing we keep in our lives should bring us joy. If it doesn’t bring us joy, we should get rid of it.

As the video ends, Stephenson explains that it costs $630, on average, to send a child back to school, a statistic that is also posted on placards at the table, on inserts into gift bags, and on a poster-sized printout. The message is pretty clear: Our closets are full of stuff that isn’t bringing us joy. It’s back-to-school season, and so extra money couldn’t hurt. And thus, we should use eBay’s new Valet service to easily sell some of our stuff (it really does seem easy, by the way–you print a shipping label, send stuff to eBay, and they sell it for you).

Kondo is not the first guru to bring organization to the forefront of American consciousness, but rather the latest in a decades-long march toward establishing organization as an American virtue. And by American virtue, I mean something worth spending money on.

It hasn’t always been this way. Erica Ecker, a professional organizer in New York City, started her tidying business 17 years ago. “Back then, there were one handful of books to read on organizing,” she says. “There were no websites, there were no reality TV shows.”

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Over the last decade or so, that has changed. In 2003, the reality television show Mission: Organization debuted on HGTV, giving a mainstream American audience a glimpse at what professionals like Ecker do for a living. TLC’s Clean Sweep premiered the same year. A&E’s Hoarders followed in 2009, and then TLC’s Hoarding: Buried Alive in 2010. Kondo may have been the one to hit it big, but there’s an entire category of books and personal brands related to organizing, with titles like The Joy of Less and Clutter Free. All of this had an impact on the organizing industry. “I will get a call,” says Regina Lark, a professional organizer in Los Angeles, “and this is how they preface it: ‘I’m just like the show’ or ‘I’m not like the show but am afraid I could be on the show.’ They’re using the show as a reference to how they’re comparing themselves.”

Lark is on the board of the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO), which has been around since 1985. That first year, NAPO only had 16 members in Los Angeles. By 1991, it had about 400 members and had established “Get Organized Week.” By 2005, it had expanded to “Get Organized Month” (January, by the way) and developed an official certification for organizers. Today, it has 32 chapters, with more than 4,000 members in 22 countries.

This establishment of the profession has had a ripple effect on other industries. The New York Times recently reported that consignment shops are seeing an uptick in fashionable items purged from closets following “the Marie Kondo effect.” Business owners in other services report a similar effect, but don’t pin it to Kondo specifically.

Scott Sinclair, the founder of a storage company called Box Butler, goes to NAPO meetings in hopes of getting referrals to customers who are cleaning out a closet or tidying up. Historically, storage businesses have focused their marketing efforts on people undergoing life events, like moving in with a partner, having a baby, or staging an apartment for a sale. Now, Sinclair says, “We have found that our clients are more and more using our services for lifestyle decluttering.” About half of his clients are packing up winter jackets or Christmas decorations to store and retrieve when needed.

Lon Epstein, who runs business development at a company called The Junkluggers, also goes to NAPO meetings to look for leads. “Flat out, the answer is yes,” he tells me when I ask if the rise of organizing has changed his business. “It has definitely changed the way we market our services. We put a stronger emphasis on targeting organizers as a whole, finding organizers who are working in specific areas.“

Organizational gurus are such a good lead for business that The Container Store has created its own. Amid falling sales and a plummeting stock price, it has launched its own personalized, in-home organization service called Contained Home. The store sends organizational gurus into homes for $75 an hour, but refunds the fee if customers spend at least $500 on Container Store goods during their makeover. Most spend much more than that. The store says the average ticket is $2,500.

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The Container Store began carrying Marie Kondo’s book in its store in July. Which is a tad ironic because Kondo doesn’t actually put much stock in storage, saying that “sooner or later, all the storage units are full, the room once again overflows with things, and some new and ‘easy‘ storage method becomes necessary, creating a downward spiral.” (Kondo does, however, promote using smaller containers to organize and separate necessary items like power cords or socks within drawers so they don’t get jumbled.) Some of the Container Store’s pro-storage philosophies obviously depart from this. (“We agree and believe that eliminating the things you don’t need is the first step in clearing out the clutter in your home and in your life,” says Container Store chief marketing officer Sharon Tindell. “However . . . we all have items that are sentimental to us that we don’t want to throw out. I do think it is OK to save these things so you can enjoy and appreciate them occasionally.“)

But the truth is, it doesn’t really matter whether Kondo would actually buy things at The Container Store. Her book reminds us that we want to be organized, just like Rachael Ray or Guy Fieri reminds us that we want to know our way around a kitchen. The exact recipe or tidying method isn’t necessarily relevant. It’s the aspiration that counts.

Once that aspiration hits, it can be tied to things that have very little to do with Kondo or, really, with organizing at all. In Brooklyn, a sandwich board in front of an arts and crafts studio, for instance, recently compelled passersby to “Organize your desk! Paint a pencil holder.”

In the beautiful books produced for eBay about decluttering kids’ bedrooms, the last tip reminds parents that “if an item no longer brings you joy, it might bring someone else joy.” In which case, they have many options, including “eBay’s professional selling service.”

About the author

Sarah Kessler is a senior writer at Fast Company, where she writes about the on-demand/gig/sharing "economies" and the future of work.

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