THIS MONTH’S MOST DISAPPOINTING NEWS: PUKKA SELLS OUT TO UNILEVER

On 6th September, Pukka joined the Unilever family. Unilever, one of the world’s biggest buyers of palm oil, and home to best-selling beauty brand Dove (NOT on PETA’s cruelty-free list) and PG Tips, T2 and Lipton’s (Lipton’s went cruelty-free after a big PETA campaign in 2011). And let’s not forget Ben & Jerry’s, who brewed up a huge storm when they sold out to Unilever.

 

 

Pukka’s PR contacted me after I posted this on Instagram (you just have to read the comments on this post…) and I had contacted them to say how incredibly disappointed I was to read about this bad new marriage. Because at the end of the day, no matter which way you look at it, no matter the PR/founders’ spin, the burning, obvious question is, why didn’t Pukka sell to a global giant more in line with Pukka’s ethical stance? Or not sell at all?

LOVE don’t live here anymore

Because you could argue, why sell at all? Pukka’s been growing at about 30% apparently and it’s no longer a small Bristol indie – far from it. Pukka have some 120 employees and the brand is sold in 40 countries as they say in their own words (see below).

This is why we’ve all been buying Pukka’s teas….

Because of the founders Tim Westwell and Sebastian Pole (Sebastian’s the Master Herbalist). Because of the organic factor, the sheer, beautiful, range of teas it’s so wonderful to choose from, the give-back factor, the commitment to sustainability, their commitment to wellbeing…and yes, the incredibly pretty packaging! #swoon

Pukka’s blends have got me through some of the darkest, coldest winters…6.20am, before the heating’s even on, and it’s 4c and dark outside. Turmeric Gold, Mint Matcha Green, or Original Chai? Pukka tea bags were my mini sunshines on gloomy, dark days, my “after dinner mint” on summer evenings.

And one of their supplements (Clean Greens) won a Beauty Shortlist Award way back in the day.

BUT.

 

 

Note: Unilever claims it doesn’t test on animals but some of the brands it owns still do (and/or did, until campaigners won and they were forced to stop)

So how did it come to this? Pukka selling to “we’d like to be seen as greener” Unilever? Couldn’t Pukka have gone for a greener giant? Or just expanded without selling out, at all? (Pukka’s been going since 2001, one of the fastest-growing brands (at 30% last year, if I’m not mistaken, according to Euromonitor).

 

“Pukka has an annual turnover of over £30m and growth of about 30 per cent. Data from Euromonitor for last year showed it was the fastest growing organic tea company in the world”

The Independent

(read it HERE)

Pukka’s PR have a nightmare to deal with at the moment. And I couldn’t help but recall that quote, “You are defined by the choices you make” as I spent last night reading up on the new deal for a good couple of hours, including Unilever’s Sustainability Report.

(Side note here: The prime problem with this report, in my view, is the lack of benchmarks – it’s all a bit vague, albeit big-sounding. It’s more about enhancing livelihoods for workers in third world countries (great, thank you) but lest we forget, Unilever’s approx 400-strong product roster is chock full of things that will never be on The Beauty Shortlist or in many Pukka fans’ bathrooms.

 

 

Pukka’s founders

“Unilever is big. And that’s the point. Unilever gives us new levels of reach and influence. Not just outside influence, but influence from within too”

– Sebastian Pole, Pukka Herbs

Reaction to the sale (for an undisclosed sum) has been mixed to say the least. Here are some reactions taken from the news reported by Natural Products Global: “Unilever Acquires Pukka Herbs”(you can read the whole feature on BREAKING NEWS):

 

“Even if Pukka remains exactly the same, the point is that when we buy their products, the money now goes to the parent company, Unilever.

Surely they could have found a better company to sell to?”

Unwavering passion won’t change
“Good on them! Two fantastic guys that I like a lot and admire deeply. I do not for one second doubt that they will continue to be the brand that they were. Anyone that knows Seb and Tim knows the absolute unwavering passion that they have. That won’t go. Bloody good on them getting a reward for their hard work too.”
Dale Pinnock, food writer and broadcaster

Organic future at risk?
I love my Pukka tea, but how long before it’s no longer organic?
Janey Lee Grace Natural health writer and broadcaster

Power to influence is gone
The point isn’t really whether Pukka maintains its own standards and integrity (organic etc) – although history tells us that rarely happens, as there’s usually a date built into the contract after which the original owners no longer have any influence over the product. Even if Pukka remains exactly the same, the point is that when we buy their products, the money now goes to the parent company, Unilever. Pukka products may remain healthy and lovely in every way, but many people will no longer feel able to buy them, because they don’t want to boost the coffers of the vile Unilever. Surely they could have found a better company to sell to?
Catherine Francis

We’re delisting
Sadly Pukka have sold out to Unilever so we are delisting them. Stock up on your favourites now, when they’re gone they’re gone for good at The Natural Choice.
Jo Carpenter, independent retailer

 

Unilever’s brands use chemical, questionably-sourced, not clean green ingredients (we knew that already), and palm oil everywhere although they’re improving on their sourcing ethics. And for Pukka fans, animal testing has been a big concern.

There’s been a barrage, storm, tsunami, of messages on Pukka’s FB page, Instagram and all over social media, from London to Sydney, from natural health store owners dropping the brand (yep!) to consumers still in shock posting messages along the lines of : “No! No! No!! So disappointed!”, “Gutted”, “Pukka did you even do your due diligence?!?” and “Never buying your teas again”  (and way harsher, I saw a lot of comments this morning on their FB page HERE).

 

#wearedefinedbythechoiceswemake

Unilever meanwhile is keen to broadcast its sustainability efforts, although the company has been criticised by Amnesty International and you won’t find Dove on PETA’s cruelty-free list.

Unilever, in our increasingly toxic, planet-damaging corporate world may be perceived as more sustainable than some big players, but for buyers of ethically-produced, green, natural products it’s one of the biggest ones to steer well clear of.

I was also reading an interesting piece last night about a supposed tie-in between The Guardian and Unilever, the implication being that Unilever had paid the Guardian in return for “editorial” about its sustainable practices although I don’t have any background/facts on this. So no comment. Unilever’s relatively new Duch CEO Paul Polman has focused a lot on the company’s sustainability message, and took a 20% pay cut in 2016. Lowering his earnings to around 8.4 million euros. (Financial Times)

UNILEVER’S MESSAGE (LINKEDIN/WEBSITE):

“On any given day, 2.5 billion people use Unilever products to look good, feel good and get more out of life. With more than 400 brands focused on health and wellbeing, no company touches so many people’s lives in so many different ways. Our portfolio ranges from nutritionally balanced foods to indulgent ice creams, affordable soaps, luxurious shampoos and everyday household care products.”

(Which are your brands focused on health and wellbeing, Unilever?)

See also:

Unilever and the failure of corporate responsibility – FORBES.COM

Inside Unilever’s Sustainability Myth

So. Here’s Tim and Sebastian’s open letter about the Unilever deal (you won’t find on Pukka Herbs’ home page, it’s under the Wellbeing link, then “Blog”:

https://www.pukkaherbs.com/your-wellbeing/blog/2017/09/pukka-joins-unilever/

Tim and Sebastian say they plan to sway Unilever in a greener direction and that remains to be seen. A bit of a David and Goliath scenario, in my view. Time will tell.

In the meantime, here’s what Tim and Sebastian have written in response to questions/as an FAQ relating to the Unilever deal:

What will happen to Pukka now you are owned by Unilever?
Pukka will keep on doing what we do best; driving positive change with the power of herbs. We will still have the same incredible team and we still will be located in Bristol. In fact, we’ve just signed a ten year lease for a new office. Tim and Sebastian will still be part of Pukka. We will be forever 100% organic, continue to donate at least 1% of our annual sales (yes, that’s sales, not profit) to environmental charities, be committed to sustainable wild harvesting with FairWild and be a champion of fair trading with Fair for Life. And of course we will continue to be part of the B Company movement – enshrining our commitment to serving society and the environment.

 

Why do you need investment?
You may have thought of Pukka as a small UK business. We’re not anymore. We’ve got 120 employees, we sell in over 40 countries and indirectly we employ thousands more across the globe through our work with farmers, wild harvesters, blenders and many others in our organic value chain. We need investment to enable us to continue our mission. Investment to not only sustain us but allow us to think long-term, helping us to fuel our global growth ambitions to take organic herbs to as many people as we can whilst maintaining our high standards.

 

Why couldn’t Pukka find investors rather than selling?
Unilever gives us the sustained reach we need to take the power of plants truly global. With Unilever we can maintain our philosophy and approach; it’d have been harder to do that via the private equity route. We also explored the employee ownership route but felt that it wouldn’t be fair to saddle everyone with debt, nor would it offer us the opportunity for sustainable scale we want. Plus, this way, Tim and Sebastian remain at the helm.

 

Will Pukka’s founders, Tim and Sebastian, leave Pukka?
No. Tim and Sebastian will stay at forefront of Pukka, sitting on the Pukka Board, driving and shaping the organisation to achieve the same mission they set Pukka up with of 15 years ago.  As our Master Herbsmith Sebastian will keep formulating our herbal teas and wellbeing supplements and, as our CEO, Tim will keep promoting our vision around the world.

 

Doesn’t the Unilever acquisition compromise Pukka’s values?
No. Pukka’s values will not in any way be compromised. Whilst Pukka is a deep idea for social and planetary change through the power of herbs, it’s also run by the Pukka people who work here, more than 100 of us – a strong group of committed environmentalists. We also have a cast iron commitment that we will always be organic and we will always champion ethical and sustainable business practices. So this means more – much more – organic land certified and sustainable FairWild herbs sourced; more money to environmental charities through our commitment to 1% for the Planet; and a greater support to marginalised communities through our trailblazing initiative with Fair for Life. Our commitment to ensuring our activities serve social and environmental benefit are enshrined in our active participation with B-Company.

 

Are Unilever are owned by Monsanto?
No. Contrary to what some people have been saying on social media, Unilever are not owned nor are they a part of Monsanto.

 

Do Unilever test their products on animals?
Unilever do not test their products on animals. Governments in a small minority of countries insist that certain ingredients are tested for safety reasons before they reach consumers. In these instances, instead of pulling out from that market – and make thousands of people redundant – they decided to tackle the problem head on by developing the first animal-free cosmetic tests.

 

Pukka has never tested its products or ingredients on animals and never will.

 

Do Unilever use palm oil?
Yes. But they are committed to source 100% physically certified palm oil by 2019 and they are leading the drive to change in the industry.

Pukka never and never will use palm oil (it doesn’t taste good in tea).

 

What sort of due diligence did you do before deciding to partner with Unilever?
Obviously, this isn’t a decision we have made lightly. We – along with a whole team of experts including leading environmentalists – made it our mission to get under the hood of Unilever. As it happens they have the most ambitious sustainability plans of any large company in the world: to halve their environmental impact and be socially and environmentally net positive by 2030 as well as improve the livelihoods of millions of people less materially fortunate than ourselves.

 

Yes, Unilever aren’t perfect. And that’s another reason why they want to partner with Pukka. As a beacon for ethical and sustainable business we will be at the table to help them in their pursuit to do even more good.  Our founders Tim and Sebastian, will support them on their Global Tea Group and influence from within.

 

Isn’t big bad?
Well, it depends on what you do with it. To have significant impact you need significant scale – if what you do is positive then that impact will be positive. That’s our modus operandi and our vision for the future. Businesses – from SMEs to the biggest in the world – have recognised that Governments, who are short term in their nature, aren’t doing enough to fight climate change. That’s why Unilever are leading the charge for sustainable business practices at a macro level. Unilever’s commitment to this comes right from the top, through their Chair, Paul Polman, who has made its his mission for Unilever to be a responsible business.

Unilever has a growing portfolio of brands which are organic certified and/or a B Corp – Pukka is honoured to be part of this growing group of change disruptors.

 

What reassurances have you got from Unilever that it won’t change Pukka?
We’re going in with open eyes, open arms and binding covenants to protect our commitment to organic, Fair for Life, 1% and B-Company. We are establishing a Mission Group- headed up by Jonathon Porritt (ex Director of Friends of The Earth, Green Party activist and co-founder of Forum For The Future) to facilitate knowledge exchange and deepen both companies environmental and social activities.

 

Will you continue to make supplements?
Yes. Our supplements are very important to Pukka, the jewel on the crown as they really demonstrate the power of herbs in a concentrated form. We are one of the few companies with 100% of our wellbeing supplements being certified organic, using the highest grade of herbs available.

 

Won’t your products become diluted?
Absolutely not. All our sourcing and quality and herbal blends will be done by us all at pukka. Our teas and supplements are world leading using pharmacopoeial grade herbs – we are one of the most ethical herbal tea and supplements companies in the world. Unilever recognises this is part of the recipe of our success to date. We won’t change the winning formula that has been our good friend for so long.

 

How can Pukka influence Unilever?
Our expertise in herbalism, our passion for regenerative business, our approach to research and development, our approach to our philosophy, and our approach to philanthropy. And also through our ‘challenger’ approach to disrupting the status quo to deliver organic herbs on a much wider scale than ever seen before. Unilever has been around for 150 years; it has survived and thrived because it never stands still. It wants to work with the best and learn from the best. It embraces inside out influence and we are going to be there to offer our enthusiasm and influence them.

Like so many have said on Pukka’s Instagram and Facebook, they won’t be buying Pukka anything any more. It’s over. For me, I feel very disappointed. Let down. Betrayed. Because however much hope you weave into this deal, however you spin the story, the way I see it, it comes down to money. Pukka’s marriage to Unilever came as a big shock to me. I’m glad I wasn’t invited to the wedding.

We vote with our wallets. I’m switching teas. There’s going to be a lot of new tea-tasting this autumn as it’s #goodbyepukka from me. I’m walking away. Sad. It was a beautiful journey but now it’s over. Unilever is not part of my life and Pukka isn’t either, any more.

I was fuming when I read the news. Then I felt sad. Now I’m over it. But I think consumers need to know, which is why I’ve posted this.  On the one hand I hope Tim and Sebastian do manage to influence Unilever and spread the organic/sustainable word far and wide. On the other hand, I’m filled with utter disbelief. I’m not convinced. For a moment, last week, when I was in touch with Pukka’s PR I felt a glimmer of hope. Tim and Sebastian are essentially really good guys. But Pukka wasn’t forced to sell. It was a well (“well”)  thought out, huge decision. Perhaps Nestle or Amazon would have been better (racking my brain to think of a greener giant but since I’m allergic to boardrooms and mergers & acquisitions are not my thing, I’m drawing a temporary blank – any ideas??) I’m a championer of brands, not a critic. But tea time just got a bit toxic and as we do vote with our wallets it’s important people know about this.

Pukka’s sell out to Unilever (for an undisclosed sum) is a milestone move with with massive potential consequences. Let’s see. In the meantime, I’m not going to be drinking their tea.

#wearedefinedbythechoiceswemake

Thanks for sharing all your tea suggestions on Instagram.com/beautyshortlist including Neal’s Yard, Positivitea, Niche Tea and Yogi – and if you love green tea,  add Beauty Shortlist 2017 winner TG Green Tea to your list…here are the founders, near Hangzhou (and how gorgeous is this green tea plantation?!)

 

 



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