The Alternative Economy in GlaStonbury
 December 2020 -A Brief Summary -
for the full Report see

With thanks to:

  • Dr Ulrike Hotopp of Live Economics for her work on the main study
  • Barry Taylor of Savaric Whiting Ltd for funding this research
  • The Glaston Centre Ltd for supporting this research
  • Marion Bowman, Open University, for sharing unpublished research material
  • Dione Hills of the Tavistock Institute for her contribution to the resear

This report provides some key findings from the study of the alternative economy in Glastonbury.  The aim of this study was to map out the role that alternative businesses and organisations play within the overall Glastonbury economy to better understand the economic potential for the town. The study was undertaken at a time when the town has been chosen as one of over 100 towns in England to be given up to £25 million to kick start regeneration projects and give areas a boost. The town was chosen because of it has levels of deprivation that are amongst the highest in the country, whether this is measured in terms of levels of unemployment, poor health, low income and low educational achievement.

The town’s economy has experienced a significant change over the last 50 years from a being a centre for leather and related products to one that relies heavily on tourism, with associated service industries including retail, accommodation (mainly B&B) and personal services.[1][2]  One important feature of this service economy has been the rapid emergence of businesses and organisations which are conducted based on ethical and spiritual values reflected in the town’s spiritual background. It is these businesses that are described as in this report as ‘Alternative’.

A number of different data sources were used to explore the role that this alternative economy plays in the town today. Official statistics are used to assess the size of the alternative economy and compare it in structure and economic contribution to the mainstream economy. Recent research studies were used to look in more depth at the nature of the alternative economy and the people that contribute to this.

 Sources of data and information used in this study

  • A List of Chambers of Commerce members
  • A physical count of businesses on the High St and immediate surrounding area
  • Businesses (including sole traders) advertising in the “Oracle”
  • Uffice for National Statistics (ONS) listing and classifying local businesses by type
  • ONS analysis of turnover by type of business
  • A survey of businesses on the High St undertaken in 2007 (Open University)
  • A recent qualitative research study of spiritual and alternative organisations in the town undertaken by the Tavistock Institute (supported by the Glaston Centre)
The overall contribution of the ‘alternative economy

The ONS data on business geography includes around 630 for the areas of Mendip 011 and 012. Using the information listed above, and informal discussions with a number of people including shop owners, members of the Chamber of Commerce and Town Council, the study categorised 187 local businesses and organisations into either ‘Alternative’, Mainstream (non alternative) and organisations or businesses that did not neatly  fit into either category. (e.g. clothes or gift shops, or café that cater for both alternative and mainstream clientele). Although this is only a proportion of the businesses in and around the town, 187 is a sufficiently large number to conduct analysis, although it does represent a potential bias toward those that advertise themselves in local business listings, or have a visible presence on and around the High St.

An analysis of this list of organisations suggests “alternative” businesses make up just under 50% of the whole, with another 15% catering for an ‘alternative’ as well as mainstream clientele.                                                             

The presence of an organisation, by itself, does not indicate how it contributes to the local economy. This depends on factors such as its size, annual turnover and number of people employed. None of this information was easily accessible, so the study used data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) relating to the economic contribution of different types of business.

The ONS classifies businesses by a set of Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) codes. This broadly clusters businesses into 88 groups (with a SIC two digit classification) with more detail available via a four digit classification. Examples include group 47 Retail trade, except of motor vehicles and motorcycles and 56 Food and beverage service activities. At the four digit level examples are 47.61 Retail sale of books in specialised stores and 56.21 Event catering activities.

A high proportion of the businesses in the alternative sector fell into the retail (54%) or Human Health Activities (22%). For mainstream businesses, the proportion in the retail sector was a little lower (42%), and there were also a number of businesses in the food and beverage services, other personal services, accommodation and food services and real estate.

Retail is a sector with quite a low turnover. The large number of alternative businesses in this sector means that the average turnover for the alternative businesses on our list  (based on ONS figures for the sector) is £253.49K  per annum, compared to £317.37K for the mainstream businesses

 The overall contribution of alternative businesses to the Glastonbury economy in terms of their annual turnover is rather smaller than their share in the number of businesses.

 although alternative businesses make up 49% of the whole, they only contributed 44% in terms of annual turnover. (Calculated by multiplying the number of businesses in each category by the average income for that kind of business)


The strengths of the alternative sector

 Although many of the alternative businesses fall into relatively low turnover sectors, there were a number of features of these which potentially contributes to the overall robustness of the Glastonbury economy, something particularly important in a time of economic shocks. These include:

  • The variety of businesses
  • Their robustness and independence
  • The creation of a ‘specialist’ or ‘niche’ visitor and tourist destination
  • A values and wellbeing focus
The variety of businesses in the alternative sector

As noted earlier, within the broad ONS ‘SIC’ categories, there are a number of subcategories, and one feature of the alternative businesses is that they show greater variety at this level, than the mainstream businesses.  At this level, the alternative businesses have a higher proportion that pay slightly higher wages and have a higher turnover than others in the same category. How this potentially impacts on the Glastonbury economy can be demonstrated by calculating what the economy would look like if it were made up of all mainstream businesses or all alternative businesses.

Overall, the economy in Glastonbury (combining both alternative and non-alternative businesses) performs at 83% compared to the rest of the South West. If the whole of the Glastonbury economy had the same structure as its non-alternative side would reduce this to 79%. However, if the whole of the Glastonbury economy had the structure of the Alternative Economy would increase this to 90%. I.e, although the Glastonbury economy would still be performing worse than the rest of the South West, this would be at 90% compared to 83% in its current structure. 

Robustness and independence

Another indicator of how businesses contribute to the economy is their ability to survive, particularly when faced by major challenges such as a recession, or the current COVID 19 pandemic.

Businesses inevitably come and go. This is as true in Glastonbury: figure 7 below shows that the town (Mendip 011 and 012) is not dissimilar to the rest of the area of Mendip in terms of the percentages of businesses opening (births) or closing (deaths) during the years of 2016 and 2017 (the latest dates for which figures were available).

Although there appear to have been a relatively high number of business ‘deaths’ in the town in 2016 (as there were in several neighbouring areas), this appears to have been balanced by a number of new businesses opening during a similar time period suggesting a level of robustness and vitality in the economy of the town.

Another important characteristic of the town is the high proportion of businesses are either independently or locally owned. The New Economics Foundation classifies high streets across the UK by the share of independent shops and has placed Glastonbury in the top group of towns with a high share of independent shops[4].

There could be a number of explanations for this – the small size of many of the shops in and around the High St being one. However, we were also told that efforts are made to ensure that shops becoming empty are quickly filled up by new, local businesses, making it difficult for chains to gain a foothold in the town. This means that the town is less affected by major national chains going into administration in times of economic stress.

Another reason for the robustness of local business may be their relatively small size and flexible staffing arrangements. Some local organisations rely heavily on volunteers to support their work (e.g. Chalice Well), while others are primarily run by the owners themselves, with a relatively small number of part time staff. Recent interviews with local organisations (Hills 2020[5]) noted that those who ran or worked in these organisations often put in considerable time (over and above any formal designation of working hours) and had more than one source of income rather than relying on one, full time, job. There was also evidence of considerable creativity, for example, expanding online businesses, increasingly their reach to an audience or clientele outside of Glastonbury itself.  This has been supported by a local organisation, Glastonbury online, which provided free listings during the COVID lock down

The creation of a specialist or ‘niche’ tourist attraction

The large number of independent businesses contributes to another important aspect of the alternative economy: the unique character it gives to the high street, with nearly every other shop catering for ‘alternative, spiritual and ecological’ interests. Regular cafes and pubs also now frequently provide vegetarian or vegan options and there are many organisations – and individuals - in the town that provide a wide range of other services, including workshops, trainings, individual therapy sessions and other events (e.g. ‘Body mind spirit or vegan fayres in the town hall). Some of these, such as the Goddess Conference, attract hundreds of additional visitors to the town, where presumably they contribute to the income of other shops, cafes and accommodation.

Calculating the additional revenue that such activities and events bring into the town was beyond the scope of the present study but would be worth further investigation.

A focus on values and wellbeing  

Another features of the  businesses in the alternative sector is their focus: in some cases this is on a specific spiritual tradition (e.g. Buddhism, Goddess consciousness or Paganism), on ethical values (e.g. an  emphasis on environmental issues or fair trade), or on health and wellbeing. The literature on spiritual and strongly value based organisations and businesses supports the idea that these have additional resources and robustness beyond other types of organisation. The commitment of their employees and trust they create in the customers who return in order to support a business that shares their views is a key feature in such organisations.

Several of the businesses in the alternative economy offer therapeutic or spiritual support to their customers and clients (22% of the Alternative Economy compared to 2% of the non-alternative economy).  Again, there is a literature evidencing the positive impact on productivity in organisations that introduce initiatives to reduce stress and enhance the wellbeing of their workers. This suggests that the spiritual and health orientation of such organisations could also contribute to their robustness (so long as the same support is offered to their staff and volunteers as is offered to clients).

Within the specific context of Glastonbury it is also important to note that numerous people have felt called to the town and operate businesses there, encouraged by the overall ‘alternative’ culture of the town. Some of these have brought investment into the town, or experience and skills gained elsewhere, and many also donate gratis their time, skills, and energy for community and communal initiatives, whether as Trustees of the many charities in the town, or workers and  volunteers in various organisations.

The entrepreneurs interviewed for a study by Bowman (2007) saw no contradiction between spirituality and business, and indeed tended to regard their business as part of their spiritual path, as well as confirmation of their personal skills and qualities. In line with the philosophy ‘in every life a lesson’, even when some business ventures had not turned out well, spiritual and personal insights were drawn from the experience, as well as commercial refocusing. A more recent study of local organisations (Hills 2020[7]) drew similar conclusions. .

While there are people who undoubtedly make what they describe as a ‘comfortable’ living from their businesses, Bowman noted a notable lack of conspicuous consumption and a certain modesty of lifestyle among them. The importance of ‘right livelihood’, integrity and balance were stressed repeatedly in the interviews, and the concept of having a business with a purpose came up on a number of occasions. Bowman notes that ‘some businesses struggle to keep costs low to the extent that they find profit almost impossible; one catering business owner confided that they only just keep going, but I have witnessed payment being waived or negotiated in cases of hardship in that establishment’. This does, however, have implications for the overall ‘low turnover, low wage’ character of many of the businesses in the alternative economy, noted earlier.

A Future for Glastonbury

The economic structure described above allows the identification of the potential sources for economic growth, which includes all residents and visitors to the town. This section includes some suggested areas for development.

  • Support independent shops and businesses in Glastonbury: As the work by the New Economic Foundations and recent figures of store closures by large retail chains[8] has shown having independent businesses and shops in a town does not only add to the attractiveness of the town to visitors but also increases the resilience in case of economic shocks.
  • Build on the potential of Glastonbury to support well-being. The alternative economy focuses on well-being be this by providing services or offering goods in shops people chose to enhance their well-being.
  • Both the independent businesses and the well-being and healing economy require skills. Glastonbury may want to ensure that the local population, especially younger people, are able to plug into these opportunities and find employment which pays more than the average retail or care roles.
  • Broaden the visitor and tourist base: Independent shops and the market town feel (compared to the “cloned” high streets so prevalent across the country) attracts tourists and visitors seeking not just to have a nice time out but also toimprove their well-being and life style. This raises the possibility of being more explicit in terms of advertising the town, by having ‘themed’ advertising targeting particular sectors (eco tourism, health tourism etc). This could help in spreading the duration of the tourist season, as well as potentially attracting new (and possibly higher income?) visitors to the town.
  • Create a culture of research and learning and link this to higher skilled employment

In combination with well being there is also scope for research of the local, national and spiritual history, spirituality and environmental issues in a location such as Glastonbury. This could provide links to academic institutes and related research networks, again bringing a different kind of visitor to the town.