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The big interview   |   Ethical business   |   Organics

Cereal sustainability

Alex Smith was aged just 23 when he found the £2 in the gutter that would change his life.

It was 1975, and the architecture university drop-out was squatting in a Victorian house in north London, in opposition to plans to demolish the building and make way for a lucrative development.

“The only way I felt I could morally oppose this vandalism, which was being done only for money, was to live without using money,” he recalls, in a voice that is slow, well-spoken, and extremely thoughtful. “My water I got from the roof, which I filtered twice through sand and charcoal to drink, and once through sand and I built a swimming pool and sauna in the basement. That’s how I got clean.

“Heating and lighting came from wood from skips, and I scavenged all my food. I used to go by bicycle down to New Covent Garden Market early in the morning and go around the bins there and pick up thrown away fruit and veg.”

It was after a year of living like this that his then partner decided she’d had enough. “My ex-partner and I then decided we would start using money again, and the very next day I found £2 in the gutter outside where we lived,” he says. “I took that £2 and borrowed a friend of mine’s Morris Minor pick-up truck. Whereas previously I’d been going down to the market on my bike which you could get in for free, it cost exactly £2 to take a van in. I went round the same dustbins collecting thrown away fruit and veg.”

Alex Smith Alara Cereals
Alex Smith founded organic cereal brand Alara with £2 he found on the floor.

The business began by selling fruit and veg to the local squatting community, a venture that quickly grew into wholesale nuts and oats, buying from local cooperative Community Foods. It was then he hit upon the idea of making muesli, and what would become Alara’s signature product.

“It wasn’t a passion for cereals, it was a passion for making sure we weren’t wasting things and providing good, nutritious and affordable food for people. It grew from there,” he explains.

Over 40 years later, Alara has become a leading organic cereal brand, but the radical ethos of squatting has continued to shape Smith’s vision, particularly when it comes to money.

“One of the good things about starting the business with absolutely no money at all, is I don’t take really much money out of it,” he says.

“When I was living without money it was easy but living without food was impossible. So I know that food is much, much more important than money is.”

This ‘anti-growth’ approach has evidently been successful – Alara has grown by 45 per cent in the last year, says Smith, who puts it down to the fact the company is “not here for growth”.

“Growth isn’t our main message,” he continues. “Just about all other businesses want growth, so they borrow masses of money and use that to invest for growth.

“If you watch what people raise money to do, they raise money for marketing, and that kind of stuff, where we don’t really do that much marketing,” he says, adding: “To be honest, doing it is more important than shouting about it.

“The main purpose of the business absolutely is to play our part in the transition to a non-sustainable to a sustainable society. That’s why I get up in the morning and come to work.”

Permaculture Forest Garden Alara
A permaculture forest garden surrounds the Alara factory in central London.

Becoming the first organic certified cereal in the world in 1985, the company had its roots in sustainable farming and fair trade to farmers and continues to source its oats from the UK. In the beginning, they paid £30 a tonne more for their organic oats on request from the organic growers’ association they were working with, says Smith, who believes it’s the lack of government support that has held back the organic sector in the UK.

Further afield, the company supports the Rainforest Saver charity, which trains indigenous farmers in South, Central America, and sub-Sarahan Africa in ‘Inga Alley Cropping’, based around the nitrogen-fixing crop Inga. As well as helping farmers move away from ‘slash and burn’ techniques in fragile areas, the company also uses the system to offset its own carbon footprint, something they calculate for all their food ingredients in one mega database.

It’s not all about cereals, or even food, either. Smith talks animatedly about an upcoming community sustainable development he’s involved in, including 1,000 affordable homes and food hub on their street in Kings Cross and Camden.

“We really want this to be amazing, and a world-leading sustainable development,” explains Smith, adding that he believes true sustainability must cover the environmental, financial, social and governance to have real impact.

Alex Smith Alara Cereals
'The thing about a sustainable future is the power structure has to change', says Alex Smith, founder of Alara.

In fact, there seems to be few aspects of impact or sustainability that haven’t been considered. The Alara factory itself, located in London’s Kings Cross, is certified zero waste, and is surrounded by its own permaculture forest garden, from which Smith harvests his own figs and apples, chopped up on his morning oats.

He digresses into the health benefits of ‘superfoods’, like maca, or cacao, both of which he eats on a daily basis. “Using food as medicine isn’t like a modern-day antibiotics – it’s only going to work as part of your regular routine over years, and years and years,” he says.

“I think that some people think that if I have my meal of superfoods, why don’t I turn into superman immediately? It’s of course not instantaneous at all. But eating very good quality food over a long period of time, I think is a very important part of a sensible, healthy living over the long-term.”

Perhaps it’s the maca, or a youth shaped by an alternative way of living, but Smith is deeply hopeful about the potential for change in the future because of, rather than despite, the turbulent political and economic times.

“There’s a very famous Chinese saying, where you have danger, you also have opportunity. The thing about a sustainable future is the power structure has to change,” he says.

“If you can imagine a society where the primary power structure is inspiration, then it gives you a flavour of what is awaiting us. It’s not doom and gloom, it’s exactly the opposite.”

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