What is downshifting?

Are you living the dream? Or walking zombie-like through the nightmare of modern consumerism? Laura Sevier explores the sanity of downshifting
If we are to survive as a species, downshifting could even be part of our evolution

What does quality of life mean to you? Is it the stuff you buy, keeping up with the Joneses? Or is fresh, clean air, the company you keep, and a less stressful living environment more important?

For Jo Hampson, a former Thames Valley Police Chief Superintendent, it meant dropping 85 per cent of her salary, giving up her job and buying a small business smoking food and making chocolates in Cumbria. After a few years’ service in the police force she had been catapulted to the top of her profession: ‘It was a fab job and very well paid – I had a huge budget and 500 staff from five police stations.’ The problem was, it was taking over her life.

She’d leave the house at 7am and get back after 9pm. There was no time for friends or family or to spend the money she was earning. Before taking a holiday she would have to work until midnight for days ahead, in order to prepare, and when she got back it took three weeks to clear her in-tray. ‘I swore I’d never have another holiday again,’ says Jo. ‘Life is for living and I was not really living it.’

Now her quality of life in Cumbria is, she says, ‘Fantastic. I’m less stressed; I live in the most amazing converted barn, high on the Fells. Every day I walk across the fields, whatever the weather, and think how lucky I am.’ After three years running the Smokehouse and increasing its turnover by 300 per cent, she and her partner sold the business and set up Stepping Off, a consultancy that helps other people to downshift.

Portrait of a downshifter

Downshifting in its most extreme form is often associated with people who reject the rat race entirely and head for the country, perhaps to tend pigs and chickens and aim for greater self sufficiency. But the term covers a far wider spectrum. Put simply, it’s about living more simply, slowing down; about making life less frantic and fraught. It values time over money and possessions – which usually means freely trading part of your income for more time and reducing the amount of stuff you buy. It’s about taking control of your life and seeking more of a work/life balance. Which means different things to different people.

Most people who go on Jo’s Stepping Off course – everyone from high-flying salesmen and people facing redundancy to local women wanting to start up their own businesses – want to do something for themselves, to stop commuting and working for other people. Often she meets people who are worn down by cut-throat, competitive, corporate culture, who are fed up with having to compromise their values. But the biggest motivating factor is time. ‘Time is the Holy Grail,’ says Jo. ‘It’s what everybody wants. Time for leisure, for themselves, to enjoy life more. Few people I come across take all their holiday time. And they want to be more free with their time. When I was running the Smokehouse I was working seven days a week, but as it was my business I could take the afternoon off to go fishing and then work later one evening.’

Far from finding an easy way out, downshifters often have to become more entrepreneurial than ever before. According to Tracey Smith, who founded National Downshifting Week in 2005, ‘The success stories I hear about are people who have researched how to earn a living beforehand. I know of many people who have moved to France and then, when they’ve got there, had a crisis because their funds became depleted – so they have to move back.’

Which is why she positively discourages people from moving unless they have really thought it out. ‘Anyone can downshift, but my line is: dip your toes into simple living; try it gently within your own four walls first.’

Buying less stuff is central to the ethos – but, rather than feeling deprived, ‘You’ve got to embrace living with less. Instead of thinking “I can’t afford it” and being miserable, you just think “I don’t need it”,’ says Tracey. ‘There are different ways of gaining – you can exchange, borrow or swap. I use things to the end. All our stuff is so old, but it all works. It’s not the latest colours but I’ve got more money in my pocket.’

Slow down and green up

It’s this ‘living with less’, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle ethos that makes downshifting a kindred spirit of the green movement – a central demand of environmentalism being that we should consume less. Likewise its ‘slow down a gear’ element allies it with the Slow Movement. Tracey Smith’s motto for National Downshifting Week is ‘Slow Down and Green Up’. She believes that the two are inextricably linked.

‘Slowing down – people don’t realise how green it is. By slowing down a gear you’re racing around less, you live with less and are more resourceful.’ The Downshifting Week Manifesto includes easy, simple actions, such as ‘Reclaim an hour of time this week’, and ‘Buy local’. So downshifting can be gradual, action by action, gear by gear, rather than a dramatic change from fifth (fast lane treadmill) to first gear (smallholding with chickens) all at once. ‘You just have to find your comfort level – which may be just one or two gears slower,’ she says.

One person who was greatly inspired by Tracey’s ideas and can testify to this gradual shift is Natalie Yeates, who calls herself a ‘bog-standard, Jo Bloggs downshifter’.

Fifteen years ago, Natalie was living in the middle of Guildford. ‘I would open the door in the morning and all I could smell was car fumes,’ she recalls. She had a ‘mad office job plus a mortgage’, but when she and her husband split up, she and her children moved to Wiltshire, where she now lives in a small social housing estate in the countryside.

‘It’s very lovely and agricultural. We are living our dream. Here the only thing you might wake up to is the sound of birds or tractors.’ She met Tracey a few years ago and has been making one small change at a time ever since, writing a blog to chart her downshifting progress and give advice (see www.greeningup.blogspot.com).

Natalie now works from home making eco wedding stationary – which means she has more time for her children (as I speak to her she’s cooking them a hearty organic meal). ‘We eat less meat now, but better meat, and we buy from the village shop where I volunteer one day a week.’ To get there she only has to walk through a field and down a little lane. ‘There’s more community spirit here. The neighbours are happy to help – and everybody says hello!’

So downshifting can make you happier, improve your quality of life, get you more involved in your community and help the environment. And this happiness – gasp! – has nothing to do with spending lots of money.

To hell with this

As a result, in a mass consumerist society the downshifting value system is highly subversive. It rejects the idea that to be happy you need to acquire, accumulate and desire products, be they anti-ageing creams, ‘must have’ handbags or a second home abroad. So much in our society seems geared towards getting us to do more, cram more into our already cramped and busy lives, and to buy more – in spite of credit card debt trebling between 1996 and 2003. And often, this means buying things we don’t really need.

For example, research by Churchill Home Insurance showed that 86 per cent of women have gone out and bought clothes that have remained on the hanger ever since. At an average of 14 items each, this amounts to £305 worth of clothes per year and a whopping £12,810 worth of unworn clothes over the average working life.

So downshifting, with its ‘consume less’ ethos, is a rebellion against the ‘norm’ that we should always want more – and thus have to earn more, work longer hours, keep climbing the ladder (or remain stuck on the treadmill), regardless of the impact it may have on our relationships and health. It’s an attitude that says: ‘To hell with this! I don’t need it any more.’

In this way, downshifting is an antidote to the ‘affluenza’ that afflicts our society, a concept described as ‘a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more’. It’s a concept explored in detail in the 2001 anti-consumerist book Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, written by John de Graaf, environmental scientist David Wann and economist Thomas H Naylor (Berrett-Koehler, £10.99).

Victor Lebow, a prominent American retailing analyst of the postwar era, summed up the credo of mass consumption thus: ‘We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, discarded at an ever-increasing rate.’ In a world of dwindling resources, climate change and increasing population, this is madness. Cultural historian Thomas Berry even considers the dynamism of our consumer society (i.e. of unlimited economic growth) ‘the supreme pathology of all history.’

A rational response

But downshifting is even more than a rebellion against the frantic consumerist lifestyle. It is a rational and constructive way to regain control of your life, in a positive way.

Downshifters are aware that there’s more to life than being trapped in the frenzy of consumer culture. And by going against this, people who voluntarily live simpler lives – as opposed to those living in poverty who have no choice – are modern heroes. Because they consume less, are less wasteful and tend to be more sensitive to the wider environment, their way of living could be a signpost to the future. After all, if everyone in the world lived in the way most people do in the UK, we would need three planets to sustain us.

One reason why downshifting is not widely seen as a form of modern heroism is the way in which it’s depicted in the popular media, which exists to sell us stuff, and lives or dies by the amount of advertising it carries. For this reason, downshifting is usually presented as just another lifestyle choice, with plenty of things you can purchase to make it happen. Either it’s ‘10 things you can buy to downshift your life’ – when buying is clearly not the answer – or a romanticised ‘Buy your dream rural property in France’; or it’s portrayed as a rather off-putting ‘It’s not easy being green’.

Yet, with increasing numbers of people downshifting, it’s a movement to be taken seriously. Far from being a minority interest, downshifting is happening all around us. In 2002, according to market research analysts Datamonitor, there were an estimated 12 million downshifters across Europe.

Research published in 2003 by the Australia Institute suggests that in the UK, 20 to 35 per cent of adults between the ages of 30 and 59 have downshifted, the average income having fallen by 40 per cent. And they’re not all wealthy or middle-aged, but spread right across all age groups and social strata.

Happening all around

In the USA, where it’s also known as ‘voluntary simplicity’ or ‘simple living’, downshifting was already well established by the time it filtered into Europe in the mid-1990s. Now between one in 20 and one in four Americans are believed to have opted for simpler, more balanced lifestyles, though the exact scale remains unclear.

More recently, it’s caught on in Australia. The survey by the Australia Institute found that nearly a quarter of 30- to 59-year-olds there were downshifting too and, again, that the trend cut across income groups, and was not confined to highly-paid professionals and business people.

Whether driven by work overload, redundancy, illness or by a conscious decision to adopt a more eco-friendly lifestyle, the seeds of a new movement are spreading on a mass scale – witness the growth of farmers’ markets, local brands, slow food and real ale.

‘Green consciousness’ has never been higher. A recent Mintel report shows that one in four people are ‘keen to be green’ and very conscious of and conscientious about green issues. Almost six in 10 adults are willing to make changes if they can be sure it will make a real difference, that companies are doing their bit, that local authorities are dealing with issues effectively and that other countries are taking the issues seriously.

On a community level, witness the evolving Transition Towns network – a community-led initiative aimed at reducing energy and resource use. Approximately 14 towns and cities are now signed up to the initiative.

Our evolution

Downshifting still has a long way to go before it’s truly part of the mainstream, but there are those who believe that if we are to survive and thrive as a species, it could even be part of our evolution — that it is part of our shift from Homo sapiens to ‘Homo sustainabilitus’. An article in the AXIS Performance Advisors newsletter in 2006 points out: ‘We know from Charles Darwin and the scientists who followed him that environmental pressures can precipitate an evolutionary shift. Right now we have a doozie of an environmental pressure: climate change… If we are to survive, we must evolve culturally.’

So downshifting can be seen as evidence that human culture is evolving in a sustainable direction. Downshifters are people who are quietly redefining ‘sucess’ on their own terms, and who, realising that ‘enough is enough’, have rethought things from scratch. They are now carving out a simpler way of living that treads more lightly on an increasingly fragile earth.


Downshifting Week

Stepping Off

Self Sufficient-ish



Useful books:

Downshifting: The Bestselling Guide to Happier, Simpler Living Polly Ghazi and Judy Jones
(Hodder & Stoughton, £10.99)

In Praise of Slow
Carl Honoré (Orion, £7.99)

The Penny Pinchers’ Book Revisited: Living Better for Less
John and Irma Mustoe
(Souvenir Press, £7.99)

Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich
Duane Elgin (William Morrow, $12.95)

This article first appeared in the Ecologist November 2007

If we are to survive as a species, downshifting could even be part of our evolution

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