By Ann Armbrecht

Is Pukka Selling Out?

Pukka Herbs, one of the handful of herb companies I still truly believe in, was just purchased by Uniliver, a company I first heard of when it bought Ben and Jerry’s and began the wave of big monster companies buying small ethical companies. The immediate reaction (in herb circles) on social media was immediate and absolute. “This move will NOT preserve the integrity of the product. The ONLY motive now is profit—which will be made if they have to mix lawn clippings in with the product,” someone posted on the Sustainable Herbs Project Facebook page. I too felt a sinking feeling when I read the news. Another company I supported falling under the weight of capitalism.

I first met Sebastian Pole, co-founder of Pukka Herbs, in his home office in the fall of 2015. He talked freely and openly about the values that guided the company and the challenges of implementing those values in their day-to-day work of sourcing and producing high quality herbal products. From the beginning I was impressed by his insights into the industry as a whole and his priorities. I was also impressed with his readiness to acknowledge that he didn’t have all the answers and by his honest reflections on the challenges to sustainable and fair sourcing and the opportunities for improvement.

Education First

The botanical industry is incredibly complex. Any given company is sourcing different parts of different plants from all over the world. These plants have to be handled and processed differently depending on the plants themselves, the regions from which they are sourced, and their end use. I created the Sustainable Herbs Project to educate consumers about this supply chain and the issues involved so we can make more informed decisions about which products to buy and what companies to support.

Before judging a company, we need to understand what it takes to do what they do: where and how are the plants grown, collected, dried, processed and stored? What does it take to ensure each step is done correctly and done well? How does the changing regulatory context impact small and large companies? What financial pressures and realities do companies face? No one has all the answers or is doing it all right. And anyone who tells you they are isn’t telling the truth.

Transparency

Having met me only once, a year later Sebastian invited Terry, my co-producer, and me to join his sourcing team on a 10-day trip to southern India to meet current and potential suppliers. Once in India, he let us join them wherever they went, cameras rolling the entire time. No other herbal products company has allowed us that kind of access. This bears repeating. In an industry known for secrecy, nothing was off limits. Throughout the visit, I was impressed with the thoughtfulness with which Sebastian talked about his priorities for the company and his awareness of the tradeoffs involved. I was impressed with the candidness with which he interacted with everyone. And I was impressed with his commitment to the values he has worked so hard to put into practice at each step of the supply chain.

Selling to Unilever

Pukka has been looking for a partner for some time now to help them spread their mission and their vision. I asked Sebastian about the sale in an email. He responded,

Sometimes you have to swim upstream to create the changes we need. For me, the planet, our plants and people are in deep need of rapid change. I can’t see that this can happen without those with scale bringing big impact. I think its worth reflecting for a minute on the context we now live in: there are 7 billion people in the world and 1.5 billion people are the ‘producers’ of everything we live on with approximately 75% of all that trade being controlled by 400 companies. If you mull on this fact you soon realise that if we want social and environmental change we need these corporations to change.

In choosing Unilever, I have to trust that Sebastian and his partner Tim have done what they feel is necessary to ensure that the practices they have worked so hard to put into place will continue. I can’t imagine they would be willing to throw that work away or that, given all they have accomplished, they would be naïve about empty promises. They have written a longer response for their customers which offers more insight into their reasoning and their vision.

Lessons Learned

Rather than immediately condemning Pukka for selling out, I wonder what we can all learn from their decision. These buyouts aren’t going away. Instead of assuming the worst, what about inviting Pukka to be a leader in charting a course where a smaller company actually is able to retain its original vision and high standards while benefiting from the investment and broader reach a larger company provides? Beyond demonstrating how they will continue to “conduct business as usual”, what about also asking them to share their experience as they go through this sale? What are the challenges? What are the new opportunities?

Moving forward, how will Pukka balance the perhaps increased pressure for profits with the attention to sustainability and fair trade and doing the right thing that has made their brand so popular? How will the definition of ‘the right thing’ change, if at all? What changes does Unilever make as a result of Pukka’s approach? What are the tradeoffs Pukka is willing or not willing to make and will this new ownership structure allow them to choose? What lessons do they learn as they go through this process and what advice do they have for others?

Regardless of the outcome for Pukka, the discussion that ensues might allow more hopeful and helpful scenarios to emerge that can guide the founders of other value based companies as they also seek to retire or transform the companies they have worked so hard to create.

Being cynical is the easy path. It isn’t hard to find evidence to support such a stand, one that keeps us stuck in black and white dichotomies of big bad companies versus small good ones. Instead, in this time when everything feels unprecedented, what about choosing hope – not hope based on magical thinking, but hoped based on actual evidence and examples, on looking closely at how the “solid iron-clad commitments” that Pukka claims its values are secured by with Unilever actually play out in practice?