Hugo Tagholm is the Chief Executive of Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), the innovative and dynamic Cornwall-based charity focused on building a movement of people to protect the ocean. Last year alone, SAS launched their ambitious Million Mile Beach Clean, made a splash at the G7 summit, exposed the ‘dirty dozen’ companies fuelling the UK’s packaging pollution crisis, and released a damning yet galvanising report on the quality of our UK bathing waters.
At the start of what will be a critical year for oceans on the international policy stage, we caught up with Hugo to hear more about SAS and the organisation’s mission for 2022.
Tell us in 20 words or fewer about Surfers Against Sewage and your mission.
Surfers Against Sewage is focused on creating ocean activists everywhere. We're a charity about people and the planet.
Why have you chosen to focus on marine conservation?
I've had a convoluted journey that has ended in a place I feel I was always destined to get to. I was mad about nature as a kid. I spent a long time scouring coastlines and rock pools, and collecting, documenting, labelling, and researching everything I found. It’s my first great passion - the outside world and wildlife. Then I became interested in sports, and surfing captured me. Surfers Against Sewage fuses my great passion for nature, my great passion for sport, and my great passion for people and politics. It brings together all the things I love.
We're a living, breathing movement of people focused on ocean conservation and restoration, and that's driven by people's connection with the sea. Our members love the sea, whether that's surfers or swimmers or holidaymakers. Surfers isn't an exclusive or excluding term. It's about surfers bringing people together and using the inspiration of the ocean to drive change. It starts at the beachfront and it goes all the way to the front benches of parliament.
What values are at the core of your work?
We're dynamic, we're daring, we're open. It's about seizing opportunities and taking risks. I love running a charity but the charity sector can often be quite risk averse and almost un-innovative. For us, innovation, progress, and looking forward are key. I think we prove that time and time again with our campaigns. So many businesses and charities can get left behind because they're not daring enough, and they're not dynamic enough to move with what is now a very fast-paced society.
What does an average day look like for you?
My days are focused around strategy, communications, and networking. Because of the pandemic, I've also been focused on making sure the team is supported through a difficult time. A typical day will consist of media interviews, and working on high-level strategic plans with funders and partners. It will involve working with my leadership team to make sure that the plans are progressing in the right way. And hopefully, depending on the day, it involves a dip in the sea. It's been less frequent than I wanted this year, but next year it's going to be core to my mission. It’s the driving force behind what we do and if we lose that, we're unanchored.
Tell us about a career-defining moment.
2015 was a really big year for Surfers Against Sewage. We ran an event called the Global Wave Conference, which showed off our ambitions on the global stage, which was probably one of the defining events for us as an organisation. It really started to set us apart from other charities in the UK, and embedded our ambitions in the psyche of the public.
How is what you’re doing inspiring change in others?
I think our community speaks for itself. Last year we mobilised over 140,000 beach clean volunteers. We've got 850 plastic-free communities in all corners of the country. We have 230 regional reps leading communities in towns, cities and villages around the country. We regularly comment on the big ocean issues in the national news. We have a royal patron. We’re well-known in Parliament. Through all of that – the influence we have on a national scale and within the establishment – we've remained true and authentic to our roots and never drifted away from that. I think that speaks for itself. We reach a huge amount of people with an incredibly small team of 27 people here in Cornwall.
What's the one thing that you want people to know about your work?
We're all about the people around us. Our campaigns should be in the heart of people, and our people are at the heart of our campaigns. I want people to think about their connection with the ocean and how they can use their voice to create change with us.
What's one action that you want people who will read this blog to take today to protect people and nature?
Most of all, I would ask people to become political and to make politicians understand their feelings – whether it's through signing petitions or writing letters to Parliament on the issues you care about with guidance and support from charities like Surfers Against Sewage. I think politicians now are feeling the pressure and it’s important we keep that up. We're already affecting change on ocean and climate, on water quality, on plastic pollution. The more people that are making their feelings heard, the better.
There’s a school of thought that it will all be down to individual actions to save the planet. I don't think we can refill or reuse our way out of the situation we're in. It's one of the greatest tricks in the book by industry and government to assign responsibility to the individual to drive the change we need. It's not going to happen. But our voices together can force the changes we need within the system. So let's connect and mobilise. Let's activate. This needs to be a radical decade of activism, of truth, of honesty, of evidence, and holding politicians and business to account.
"There’s a school of thought that it will all be down to individual actions to save the planet. I don't think we can refill or reuse our way out of the situation we're in."
Chief Executive, SAS
What is your favourite medium for storytelling to inspire positive change? Do you have any recommendations?
I'm not sure I'm drawn to a medium, because each medium has its time and place. There are books that have inspired me that I think are fabulous - Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, for example, is prescient, powerful, accessible, relatable, and took science to the masses in a way that drove change. There's films like Seaspiracy, which, despite the criticism, was brilliant in communicating at the right time, in the right way for people to engage with the information.
I think that there's a range of ways we can tell stories that are relevant and important at different times - and it’s important that it happens at the right time. Blue Planet, for example. People remember it for plastics, but plastic was only 14 minutes of the series. For me, that was a powerful example of storytelling at the right time. People were ready to do more on plastic because of the prior work of SAS, MCS and lots of other organisations. That 14 minutes landed at a time when people were primed to take action and go on the journey. Storytelling is about that moment that catalyses the transition from the foundational work into mass accessibility.
Who is your role model and why?
I don’t have a role model, but there are behaviours that I admire. I'm a fan of entrepreneurs and risk-takers, and people putting their necks on the line. I'm a fan of businesses that do that. I'm a fan of individuals who are committed to developing new technology and products that are better for this planet we live on. I'm also a fan of people who have the right work-life balance, who are inspired by what they do in their personal time and take that inspiration and energy into their professional role.
What do you do to re-energise yourself?
I go in the sea whenever I can. My son and I surf together and that's really important to me, and will always reinvigorate me. Working harder isn't necessarily working smarter. You need to switch off to have your best ideas. It's when you switch off that your mind switches on to find the solutions to the challenges that you're facing. Getting in the sea or going for that run, or spending time on a walk in the morning, or swimming laps in the pool or doing whatever you do - that might be when you find the ideas and the inspiration to do your best work.
What’s on the horizon for you and for SAS?
Next year is another really big year for the ocean. We've got the Our Ocean Conference in Palau at the beginning of the year, the UNEA global plastics treaty, the UN Ocean Conference in Portugal, COP27 in Egypt. There's all sorts of things that are happening that are vital from an external point of view.
Within SAS, we’re going to focus on the big issues we worked on last year – sewage pollution, plastic pollution and the ocean climate emergency – and mobilise bigger communities around them. There's a lot of work to do on sewage in our rivers, and the need for bathing waters in our rivers and on our coastline. We’ve made progress on plastics but there’s much more to do. And on the ocean and climate emergency, how do we keep redoubling the effort and forcing politicians to recognise that the climate, biodiversity, and ocean emergencies are equally as pressing as the pandemic, if not more so?
We need to keep our focus and remain authentic and true to our roots. We are about people connecting with the ocean. The moment we become too fixated on working within the establishment, it can be complicated for us. So we're going to focus on being true to ourselves.
And I'm going to get in the sea a bit more too.
You can find Hugo on Twitter at @HugoSAS.To keep up to date with the work of Surfers Against Sewage follow the organisation on Twitter and Facebook, and check out sas.org.uk.Or read our blogs about their Annual Water Quality Report, the G7 paddle-out protest and the Million Mile Beach Clean.Find out more about Greenhouse Communications here.