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Pukka Tea in Unilever’s Pot

Dec 14

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14/12/2017 11:17  RssIcon

What’s the fallout from the latest buyout of an ethical company, asks Simon Birch?


It’s not easy being an ethical shopper sometimes is it?

The latest ethical conundrum concerns Pukka Herbs, the Bristol-based company that’s been producing organic teas since 2001.

As a pioneering ethical company, Pukka has ticked every available eco-box in the book with its commitment to fair trade, organic production and environmental best practice along every step of its supply chain.


Image: Pukka Herbs


Consequently, Pukka has consistently, and quite rightly, been an Ethical Consumer recommended Best Buy company.

So far so good.

The ethical headache however kicked in this August when the UK’s ethical business community was shocked to learn that Pukka, one of its star performers, had agreed to be taken over by Unilever, one of the world’s biggest multi-national food companies.

Not everyone was thrilled by the news, and Pukka’s loyal customers immediately posted their disappointment and disapproval on social media.


Slipping down the rankings

Overnight Pukka slipped way down Ethical Consumer’s rankings and lost its recommended Best Buy status.

“It’s always sad when ethical companies sell out to big corporations, as the money spent on Pukka products will no longer just be going to a small fluffy company and their suppliers,” said Ethical Consumer co-editor Tim Hunt.

“Instead it will be winding its way into the coffers of one of the world’s largest food and toiletries companies, which has had a something of a mixed record when it comes to ethical issues.”

In response, Pukka has said that, as far as their ethics and environmental policies are concerned, nothing will change.

On the face of it, there’s some justification to Pukka’s claim that its ethics are safe because last year the company was certified by B Corporation, a growing US-based initiative which enshrines ethics and sustainability into a company’s mission statement.

So, what’s the problem?

“Ethical Consumer’s ratings look at which company owns a subsidiary. We seek out the Ultimate Holding Company,” explains Tim.

“Rating companies at this UHC level allows consumers to see how companies are structured so that they have an informed choice as to where the money that they spend ultimately goes.”

In the case of Pukka, the UHC is Unilever. Therein lies the issue as Ethical Consumer marks down the multi-national over a number of key ethical issues including animal testing and tax avoidance.

So much for the bad news.


The up side

However, Unilever has shown a level of understanding and commitment, on paper at least, to sustainability unmatched by any other multi-national, especially over the use of palm oil.

The result is that ethically switched-on shoppers shouldn’t necessarily avoid Pukka.

Sure, if you’ve got a well-stocked independent wholefood shop close by then you’ll be able to easily pick up a packet of your favourite tea made by any number of small companies who still have Ethical Consumer’s Best Buy status.

But what if you don’t and you’ve got to shop at a large supermarket instead?

Following the takeover, you’re much more likely to see Pukka on supermarket shelves. And given that the range of organic and Fairtrade teas on offer may be more limited, Pukka may be an ethical choice.

Complicated isn’t it?

Of course, big multi-nationals have been buying out smaller ethical companies for years.

Look how, in the past, the trail-blazing Body Shop was bought by L’Oréal, or Green & Black’s chocolate was gobbled up by what was then Cadbury’s.

Plus, more recently Ecover is now in the process of being bought out by the US giant SC Johnson.

“The upside of these buy-outs is that they demonstrate that big businesses see that ethical companies are good investments and are a vote of confidence in the ethical market,” says Ethical Consumer co-editor Rob Harrison.

There are however very real downsides too, says Donata Berger from Windmill Organics, one of the UK’s pioneering organic food companies and an Ethical Consumer recommended Best Buy company.

“We are approached from time to time by large corporations who are trying to secure a position in the organic ethical space,” says Donata.

“However, we see the importance of building a secure, reliable 100% organic company that farmers and suppliers can rely on, going forward,” adds Donata.

“Even if the market trends vary, our customers and suppliers know that they can rely on our brands and Windmill Organics always being organic, it’s in the name and our company genes.” 


See our ethical guide to Tea to compare 30 different brands









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