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Pukka: “People say we sold out. Actually, we sold in.”


Authored by Tim Westwell and Sebastian Pole

The co-founders of Pukka Herbs talk about choosing Unilever, dealing with difficult social media comments and trying to make the world a better place, one cup of herbal tea at a time.

Pukka herbs founders

At the start, we mixed teas in a small kitchen and ran the business from a spare bedroom. That was in 2001, when we co-founded Pukka Herbs with £2,500 each of our own money. We now work with thousands of organic farmers and growers across the globe, and our teas and supplements are available in over 40 countries.

Selling to Unilever wasn’t a decision we took lightly. Top of our list was to safeguard Pukka’s legacy and accelerate our mission of bringing the power of herbs into more people’s lives. Some loyal Pukka fans were surprised at first, but when they understood our bigger vision of covering more of the earth in organic herbs, supporting many more communities and keeping the highest standards, it started to make sense.

Pukka is all about using business as a potent force for good, creating circles of benevolence to improve the health of people, plants and the planet. We must all work together to help address climate change and social inequality. Pukka’s purpose is to be part of that positive change, specifically helping to regenerate nature and support people’s health.

Choosing Unilever came down to scale and sustainability. Its size and expertise opens up endless opportunities for us to inspire positive change in more ecosystems and more people’s lives and, importantly – because of the climate and social health crisis we face – faster. In our view, Unilever has the most ambitious sustainability plans of any large company in the world. With our commitment to regenerative organic agriculture, FairWild sustainable wild harvesting and fair trade certification, we are working together to make that even more sustainable in the future.

Unilever also gives us access to incredible supply chain expertise. On top of our own organic practices, Unilever’s Sustainable Agricultural Programme gives us access to a network of farmers that are already organically certified or can easily be converted. As we grow, we will need therapeutic grade organic and fair trade herbs on a larger scale and working together, we can bring greater benefit and impact on multiple levels.

We work hard to alleviate poverty. Many of our herbs are third-party FairWild certified, meaning they are harvested sustainably and the collectors are paid fairly. And our whole supply chain and all our teas are Fair for Life – one of the most equitable and transparent fair trade systems in the world – meaning that every cup of Pukka tea drives benefit directly back to communities that need it most.

We feel everyone has a duty to look after our beautiful planet. It’s why our teas and supplements are 100% certified organic. It’s why we donate 1% of our turnover to environmental projects through 1% for the Planet, to take responsibility for using the earth’s resources to grow, make and transport our products. And it’s why we are a founding UK B Corp, to ensure our business keeps inspiring positive impact.

We expected the move would lead to questions. We’ve had plenty of support from people who are involved in new business models and sustainability. But there was concern from other quarters which is understandable. Some people think all big corporations are the enemy of society and the planet. While some are, Unilever’s commitment to impactful sustainability shows that’s simply not true.

You will always get people who want to voice an opinion, particularly on social media. But by joining Unilever, we knew we could work together for even greater good. It seems obvious that the only way to improve this world for everyone’s benefit is for all of us to work towards that same goal.

Feature image - Pukka interview: Chamomile

All our teas are Fair for Life – one of the most equitable and transparent fair trade systems in the world – meaning that every cup drives benefit directly back to communities that need it most.

Tim Westwell and Sebastian Pole

Of course, we both love Pukka and, having poured our lives into her, we want to see her flourish. Through all our discussions with Unilever leadership, we’ve developed a great partnership and an inspiring plan to keep doing what we do, but even better than before. Some people say we sold out. Actually, we wholeheartedly believe we sold in: to some amazing talent and expertise, and a bold vision for a better future.

Pukka has always been a challenger, and we’ll remain one. By that, we mean working externally to stretch the standards within the world of teas and supplements, and internally as we challenge ourselves and our partners to develop. As part of Unilever’s global tea group, we’ll be able to bring some influence here too as we support sustainable wild harvesting and the benefits of organic farming.

So our mission continues, with greater ambition and purpose. We will carry on championing the power of plants, shouting about organic, promoting fair business and doing all we can to help make the world a better place. To inform our strategy, we have set up a Mission Steering Council. Headed by Jonathon Porritt of Forum for the Future, this brings together a range of experts in sustainable health, regenerative agriculture, social empowerment and climate change.

We are inspired by so many individuals. Yvon Chouinard at Patagonia, a pioneer of modern-day purpose-led business. Journalist George Monbiot, who uses his writing to address the climate catastrophe we’re facing. And the Dalai Lama, who reminds us that real happiness only comes from within.

Going through this process, we have learned that it’s a lot easier to set up a business than it is to ensure its success. The advice we’d give others who want to use business as a force for good is to explore where your heart lies, engage with it and bring it alive in everything you do.

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