Alex Smith, the founder of organic and sustainable food pioneer Alara Wholefoods, is this year’s recipient of the Natural Products Outstanding Achievement Award. The Award, announced at last month’s Natural & Organic Products Europe event, recognises an “exceptional contribution by an individual or organisation that has brought lasting benefit and change to the whole industry and celebrates the commitment, efforts and talent of one of its outstanding ambassadors”.
Natural Newsdesk editor, Jim Manson, has been talking to Alex Smith .
Natural Newsdesk: The Natural Products Outstanding Achievement Award is a prestigious, high–level recognition of a substantial contribution to the natural and organic sector. How did you feel when you were announced as the winner of the 2022 award?
Alex Smith: I feel extremely honoured, particularly as the Outstanding Achievement Award has previously been given to so many people in the industry I’ve looked up to over the years.
NN: Your own, and Alara’s, contribution to organic and sustainable food has been a genuinely pioneering one, with some unusual origins. Can you tell us about how Alara came into being?
AS: In 1974, in opposition to very destructive property development, I decided to live without using any money, which I did for a year. After about a year, my partner at the time was clearly getting a bit fed up with this. So we decided to start using money again. Serendipitously, I found two pounds in the street the very next day, which was exactly how much it cost at the time to take a van into New Covent Garden Market. I borrowed a friend of mine’s Morris Minor Pick-up and drove it into the market where I gathered up all the discarded fruit and veg, which you could have for free, and took it back to our squat. We started selling this ‘waste’ food from the squat, and that’s how Alara started life.
NN: Where did the early impetus for Alara come from, and what shaped your thinking at the time?
AS: It really came from the huge amount of food waste which was present then, and is still present now. As I was just saying, the first thing we sold in our squat was thrown away food and vegetables. Focusing on reducing waste, of all types, has been the primary priority ever since.
NN: Alara can claim a string of sustainability ‘firsts’. Which of these have made the biggest impact do you think?
AS: That’s quite difficult to answer, in terms of which has made the biggest impact. I would say being the first certified organic brand for the cereal category in the world in 1988, followed by first certified gluten-free business in the UK, first certified zero-waste in the food industry across the UK and finally, using the specialist see-through paper (made from eucalyptus cellulose) rather than plastic for packaging. We print the text “Don’t slip up, treat this bag as you would a banana skin” on each bag.
NN: How do you ensure that sustainability – a sometimes elastic concept – is fully integrated into the Alara business, and delivers meaningful outcomes?
AS: The measures we use for our sustainability are combining the concept of Economic Social and Governance (ESG), and people, planet and profit (triple bottom line) by having an economic measure – payment for all goods and services on delivery; a social measure – great parties (except in lockdown); a governance measure – transparent audits; and an environmental measure – Net-Zero Carbon in our brand. We think all of our measures deliver meaningful outputs.
NN: Can you tell us about the permaculture forest garden you have created alongside the Alara factory?
AS: We planted a permaculture forest garden around our factory in King’s Cross sixteen years ago. It is now a Permaculture Association demonstration garden, and we organise regular school visits and education events, in collaboration with London Gardens Trust. We have about 80 different food crops growing including what we believe to be the largest Yacon plantation in the UK. Because it’s quite unusual and unexpected feature to find in central London we get regular visits by magazines and film crews. Lush have been here filming this week.
NN: The natural and organic movement has been a force for change in the wider food industry. What do you see as its biggest successes in this respect?
AS: I think its biggest single success has been to highlight the link between food and health; both of people and the environment. The move to clean labels in this country has been one of its most notable successes, and certainly in Europe. The recognition of organic as the root to sustainable agriculture is a very important development and one I wish the UK government would follow.
“I think the biggest single success of the natural and organic movement has been the highlighting of the link between food and health; both of humans and the environment”
NN: Alara is deeply engaged with its local (King’s Cross, central London) community. Can you give some examples of how this works in practice, and why it is important to you?
AS: This engagement with our local community has developed in quite a large part through the parties and celebrations that we have been holding here for the last fifteen years, including our wassailing and harvest parties, to which both local residents as well as businesses are invited. This has led to me becoming the chair of the Camley Street Neighbourhood Forum which has developed, and has now adopted, a neighbourhood plan. I recently also ran as a Green Party candidate to be a Ward Counsellor for the Kings Cross area. Unfortunately, I came in fourth! But it was a great opportunity to talk to people on their doorsteps about food, which is a subject so rarely discussed by politicians at either the local or national level.
NN: You’re an advocate for a King’s Cross Food Quarter, in the way that the area is a fulcrum for the information technology and the health sciences sectors. More generally, you want to see food taking a more central role in society and in our lives. Can you expand on this?
AS: Generally, the political system takes food for granted and forgets that food is responsible for one-third of all climate chaos gas, two-thirds of bio-diversity loss, and three quarters of fresh water use. As well as this it touches everybody every day and, while it causes more chronic diseases that alcohol smoking and drug use put together, it is also vital for life. Because of these fundamental, yet overlooked attributes of food, food must in my view play a central role in transitioning to a sustainable society.
NN: You’ve talked about how a green recovery from the pandemic can help us navigate towards a better future and to transformational change. You’re optimistic about the future, aren’t you?
“I believe we will reconfigure society to a higher order, which will be by its nature sustainable. and I also believe that food transformation must be in the vanguard of that transition”
AS: At present, we are seeing society becoming more and more chaotic through a whole variety of causes. It almost seems as if the four horsemen of the Apocalypse are waiting in the wings of this bifurcation point; when things either break down or reconfigure in a higher order. It might see strange, but I believe we will reconfigure society in this higher order, which will be by its nature sustainable and I also believe that food transformation must be in the vanguard of that transition.
Main image: Alex Smith (second right) receives his Outstanding Achievement Award last month