Sharon’s decision to change her life started on a compost heap in Devon, UK. She and her husband, Gary had made it – they had the careers, the big incomes, all the stuff money can buy. They lived in their ideal house in the country. The only problem was their rubbish collection was unreliable, so to cut down on waste Sharon started a compost heap. Then some ‘thing’ began to grow on top of it. This Thing changed their lives.

Our journey into downshifting started very appropriately on a compost heap about 15 years ago in deepest Devon. As a then twenty-something couple on hefty incomes we were about as blasé as you could get when it came to spending big bucks on unnecessary tat and space-absorbing stuff.

I had always loved the countryside and never strayed too close to suburban living and back then Gary and I were enjoying life in a tumbledown cottage just outside Exeter. With a very casual interest in being self-sufficient and a rather unreliable rubbish collection service we started up a compost heap in the back garden. Sometime in the early summer I spotted something odd growing on the heap. I thought it must be something horribly poisonous, but as weeks passed a very large and very beautiful squash-type thing developed. It became clear that we should do something with it, so one night after a horrible day in a stuffy office I bravely sacrificed the globe-like squash and roasted it in the Rayburn. Gary came home from work and we ate home-grown, all be it accidentally, squash with yoghurt and mint sauce and some rice, it was fantastic and it was cheap, nearly free in fact.

We were hooked. So what next? Well in all honesty we both hated our jobs in Marketing and were always secretly looking for something better or different. Over time our lifestyles became less wasteful and more productive – we grew vegetables, we preserved food, collected kindling, made and drank wine, sloe gin and damson vodka, shopped locally where possible and generally lived a fairly ‘good life’ so to speak. However, it would be untrue to say we were ‘green’, more that we were looking after ‘our own’ and not really aware or tuned-in to what was going on with the planet or outside the safety of our little haven where rain and sunshine were plentiful and the soil good. We were complacent.

Moving house to be near Gary’s new job marked a pivotal and pretty low point in our effort to live greener. Life was hectic and spending even more so, time was non-existent and we barely saw each other in order to keep payments up to date on our burdensome credit cards which had amassed over the years. Archie was in nursery and therefore in expensive disposable nappies. I had a three-hour round trip to work each day – somewhere along the line we had lost sight of what crucially mattered in life. We had to change and get things back on track, and so we did.

After many late nights talking through our options, we realised that not only were we time and energy poor but no better off financially as commuting and nursery fees ate away nearly all our income.

We wrote down lists of aims, ideals and plans, we identified ways of earning money in a more family friendly way, and most of all we read, and read some more: books, magazines, newspapers, journals, websites, case studies, biographies and blogs by those who had already made the leap into living more naturally and consciously. By researching options and lifestyle choices I became acutely aware of the wider impact all our individual choices had on the world as a whole, from choosing to buy local and insisting on fair trade to opting to cook from scratch and refusing GM foods.

Issues were raised in our house from homeschooling to politics, shopping to crafts. We both realised that we had taken control of our lives again and could make informed choices on how to live better in the future.

We started our own business and became responsible for our own hours, income and working environment. Working for ourselves has given us much more freedom and allowed us to enjoy time out with our children without having to schedule them around our work. I also completed a year-long course in Horticulture with the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) and most significantly we moved to a rural area of Tuscany in Italy.

The journey into downshifting is a continual one and each day brings a new challenge or discovery; I am constantly amazed at how many people want a simple way of life but do nothing about it. The debt issue is universal, most of my friends owe large sums to the bank, us included, although we are nearing the end of a long period of miserable loan repayments. Personally, I only recognised the link between income and expenditure in my late twenties when I had already immersed myself in the debt culture.

What has changed most remarkably in our lives is not what we do but how we think. I have always been a sucker for a bargain and trawled charity shops for cheap clobber, but now I consciously ask myself do I really need that novelty cake tin or pink spotty teapot or do I simply want it because it is cute. This train of thought is saving us money every day, and every day we are able to decrease our financial commitments and buy time and freedom. Of course, actions speak volumes and in our household things that come naturally nowadays are recycling, re-using, revamping, cooking food from scratch, growing our own, creating new plants from cuttings (totally free and makes great gifts), eating as a family, turning the TV off (well, as much as we can), enjoying the outdoors, and sharing our enthusiasm and home-grown produce with friends.

The move to Italy was more to do with loving life than downshifting. We’d had a long romance with the country and I wanted our children to enjoy a childhood in an environment where kids counted for something and were cherished by those around them. Sadly, the UK still struggles with this concept in my opinion. Children are welcomed in all restaurants here in Italy and there is no such thing as a children’s menu; most Italian food is loved by kids – you can’t really go wrong with pasta and pizza after all!

Italy has got recycling down to a fine art; we take all our rubbish with us when we leave the house and place it in the designated large roadside recycling bins, all clearly labelled. Train stations boast a minimum of three recycling bins and plastic bags are shunned by most food shops. One phenomenon sadly missing is the ‘charity shop’ as Italians are by nature very proud and do not entertain the idea of buying other people’s cast-offs. However, I think this may be offset by the strong make-do-and-mend approach still very much alive within both the home and workplace. Here, you can pretty much find parts for any type of electrical appliance or white good and everyday things such as shoes and leather goods are made to last.

The essential thing in changing your lifestyle for the better is to recognise your ‘energy thieves’ – in other words what really drags you down. If it’s your job, why not think about learning a new trade, one that inspires you and has purpose? If it is where you live, what are the possibilities of renting a house somewhere different, where you can enjoy nature? I long ago gleefully rejected the ‘must own a house’ mentality and now live happily and mortgage-free in sunny Tuscany. By taking a few logical steps to a simpler lifestyle you could literally be saving your sanity whilst saving the planet.

Sharon’s top three tips for downshifting:

Grow something to eat

As a little girl I remember my dad carving my name into the side of a marrow and each day we watched my name get bigger and bigger – pure magic.

Say No to stuff

Gadgets, gizmos and all those mad-capped supposed timesavers are just money wasters and space guzzlers. Learn to use your brain and your hands and reduce electricity and battery use.

Rescue some animals

What better way for children to learn about life than to watch an animal grow. Whether you choose livestock for food or pets for pleasure, loving and nurturing is a core life skill and one that gives back tenfold. Always check out rescue and rehoming centres for information – there is no better stress buster than a hug from an old dog.

Where To Find Sharon:

Sharon’s Recommended Reading List

The Self-Sufficient Gardener: A Complete Guide to Growing and Preserving All Your Own Food (Using the New Deep Bed Method to Grow More Food in Less Space)

The Spirit of Silence: Making Space for Creativity of John Lane on 04 April 2006

Timeless Simplicity: Creative Living in a Consumer Society

Green Parent

Listen to Rosie’s Interview with Sharon, the podcast link and link to the YouTube interview are at the top of this blog post.

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