“I can’t stop people flying, but I can influence the way they behave – offer them the choice to stay with interesting people”
THIS IS THE KIND of morning that suggests all is right with the world. In Clifton, the steeply rising Bristol hilltop settled by the merchants who brought the city its wealth, a cloudless sky allows ranks of grand Georgian terraces to bask in the sun’s rays. A trilling nightingale is, surely, only just out of earshot.And yet, those merchants didn’t build here simply for the view. They came to escape the hovelled poverty and putrid stench of the industrial city below. Out of scent, out of mind. Even more so, the African lives they traded in, wrenched from homelands to work enslaved in Caribbean colonies.
As we’re warmly ushered into a spectacularly spacious abode and the owner speaks of our attitude to climate change, we’re put in mind of a contemporary parallel. “We’re like the people of Rome,” says Alastair Sawday. “Too busy enjoying their massages and wine to bother about the Barbarians coming. There should be a revolution. Why do we allow it? It’s the West that caused it, but we’ll find ways of adapting. In the meantime we’ll allow more refugees to leave hit countries, islands to sink, and food supplies to become more expensive, to the detriment of the poor.”
Today his name is synonymous with eco excursions – first as a tour operator and latterly for a vast range of travel guides, alongside tomes on food and broader green living. He’s been one of environmentalism’s most articulate voices for the best part of four decades, since his views saw him labelled “a complete crank. Barmy, hopeless, quixotic, useless, irrelevant.” When he founded the Avon branch of Friends of the Earth in 1978, nuclear power was the issue of the day. “I found it intellectually fascinating, arguing the irrelevance of a brilliant system.”
Even before the partial nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island a year later, Cold War fears meant Alastair was pushing at a partly open door. The next venture was paper recycling – initially collecting in his own van, selling to wastepaper merchants, living off the “pittance”. This increased to three lorries, 100 employees, and city-wide collection. “Our managers were long-term unemployed, collecting staff were kids off the street. I don’t think of myself as a businessman, more as a social entrepreneur."
Green is good Born in Kashmir in 1945, moving to the UK in infancy, Alastair attributes his outlook to his parents and their friends. “Their narratives were of service, commitment, a certain amount of sacrifice. ‘Decency’ and ‘integrity’ were bandied around a lot.” He shares a telling anecdote: before reading law at Oxford, Alastair studied in the US, returning to announce plans for a pizza business “which would have been pioneering in Britain. I’d probably be a pizza billionaire by now. My parents were just appalled: what an incredibly vulgar, self-serving thing to be doing.”
Betterment of life for others was the thing. Eschewing law, he embarked upon “probably the most significant transformational experience,” with Voluntary Service Overseas in St Lucia. “I realised people were poor because the system was set against them. [Other] people wanted it to be like that.”
Ensuing years saw him travelling South America, running a VSO programme for Papua New Guinea from London, becoming a “semi-social worker” to Asian refugees thrown out of Uganda by Idi Amin, and teaching, first in inner-city London, then Bristol.
“I wanted to do something transformative,” says Alastair. Building on the recycling, he set up an organic food distribution project via local schools. “It was a total failure. Organics were in their early stages.” Nevertheless, the strategy was sound enough for the Soil Association to take on, and organic food remains a passion for Alastair. The suggestion that it’s too inefficient to meet the planet’s needs cuts little ice. “We’re not feeding the world properly with the system we have, are we? It’s to do with far more than growing – it’s delivery, logistics, markets. By putting more power into the hands of a few corporations, we’re depriving the world of any openness on the issue. We’ve got to build resilience.”
In 1984 he founded Alastair Sawday’s Tours. “Completely committed to showing people the real world, introducing them to human beings, getting them under the skin of places. I was trying to redefine the way we travel, but it rather fizzled out.”
Standing as Green candidate at the 1992 election, he finished fourth. “A pretty debilitating experience. I was told: ‘We think you’re dead right, but it’s a wasted vote’.” Kipling would doubtless approve that Alastair treats his disasters with the same frankness as his triumphs. Nevertheless, this passage is uniquely illuminating. “If the ship’s going down, and we’re all going to drown, it doesn’t stop you bailing. Winning the battle was less important than playing a part in possibly one day winning the war.”
In 1994 he launched Alastair Sawday Publishing. “I realised publishing books about places I loved was going to be a damn sight easier than trying to persuade people to enjoy every moment of the day I was organising for them.” Before the term ‘boutique holiday’ was coined, his guides offered a welter of green-leaning destinations, handpicked by trusted contacts across the continent. In an increasingly online world, and notwithstanding a 30% fall in book sales, business remains stable thanks to all guide entries paying a fee for inclusion. Isn’t it tempting to accept money from sub-standard providers? “Imagine looking on our website and finding some naff place, run by unpleasant people, overlooking a motorway. You’d start to disbelieve us.”
Environmentally aware On climate change, Alastair says: “The most upsetting aspect is the unfairness on those who’ve made no contribution to it. I can’t bear it. I’m tearful as I’m talking now.” And he is. Which makes asking the next question as difficult as it is unavoidable: how does such an environmentally aware man reconcile heading a travel-encouraging business? “I feel it very keenly. I can’t stop people flying, but I can influence the way they behave – offer them the choice to stay with interesting people, eating organic food from their gardens. It’s not an impressive answer because I have, presumably, contributed to the damage.” A beat. “I don’t know if I’ve reduced damage or increased it. We’ve actively avoided long haul, have turned down sponsorship from companies we disagree with. That’s another way we try to ease our consciences. If we can encourage B&B owners to put [solar] panels on their roofs, provide bicycles, little things add up.”
Family business In 2010, Alastair handed over management of the company to his son, Toby. The latter has presided over digital transition (“We’ve now got an app, for example, which I’d never heard of”), and taken on his father’s offshoot, Canopy & Stars, borne from a love of treehouses, offering genuinely esoteric accommodation. Alastair enthuses about a “farmer who’s built a wooden hut on a floating platform in a gravel pit – imaginative, beautiful.”
Just don’t call it glamping. “I hate the term, loathe the pampering people love nowadays: the emphasis on power showers, fat towels, the self-conscious pursuit of hedonistic pleasures.” Nevertheless, isn’t traditional camping the simplest travel pleasure of all? “We’d never survive if we just offered camping.” And who wouldn’t “get a kick out of a slightly more upmarket camping weekend up a tree”?
Perhaps Sawday Jr’s biggest change concerns company HQ, sacrificing the totemic eco-friendly base in an outskirt village for a central office block. “Easier to get to, easier to recruit, easier to run,” avows his father. Nevertheless, “I’ve been through an awful lot of emotional turmoil; even thought of going to live there. But Toby’s right, business has to come first.” Though there may no longer be an office pond in which to take a dip, the fundamentals still apply. “I can’t stand the greed that tends to follow the successful. The salary range from bottom to top in the average FTSE 500 company is something like 250 to 1. Oxfam advocates a maximum of 10 to 1. In Sawday’s it’s 3.5 to 1.”
Projects keep coming. Alastair helped secure Bristol’s European Green Capital 2015 award; next year he’ll chair the city’s Big Green Week; there’s talk of a good food book for dinner ladies. Because ultimately, for all his misgivings about humanity, Alastair remains driven by a belief he didn’t so much learn as inherit: “Our potential for doing benign, intelligent things is enormous.”
ALASTAIR’S CAREER PATH www.sawdays.co.uk
1945 Born in Kashmir
1964-67 Studied law at Oxford
1968 VSO teacher in St Lucia
1969-78 School teacher
1976 Moved to Bristol
1978 Founded Avon Friends of the Earth
1984 Set up Alastair Sawday’s Tours
1994 Founded Alastair Sawday Publishing
2005-7 Vice-chair of Soil Association
2006-11 Founder-chair of Bristol’s Green Capital Momentum Group
2008-10 Awarded Environmental Publisher of the Year
2010 Founded Sawday’s Canopy & Stars
2014 Chair of Bristol’s Big Green Week