Herbal revolutionary: Sebastian Pole in conversation


Pukka Herbs co-founder Sebastian Pole tells us about finding a mission, the power of plants and why we should care about a company’s ‘soul’ 

Q With your co-founder Tim Westwell, you have been on an extraordinary journey with Pukka. How did you both meet, and how did the business get started – and why ‘Pukka’?

Pukka began in 2001 when I met Tim. I wanted to help people feel the benefit of herbs and had an ambitious plan to awaken the world, beyond my clinic, to the wonders of healthy organic herbs. Meanwhile, Tim was looking to step out of the corporate work to find a way to express his love for natural and use his expertise to benefit conservation through commerce.

“Tim placed an advert – asking if anyone had a creative idea that needed support – in a regional UK magazine. The ad ran for two weeks and received one response…from me!”

Tim placed an advert – asking if anyone had a creative idea that needed support – in a regional UK magazine. The ad ran for two weeks and received one response…from me! We had different skillsets but shared a genuine desire to create a benevolent business which helps people feel healthier though powerful plants.

We chose the name Pukka because we loved what it stands for on so many levels; in Hindi pukka means ‘real, authentic or genuine’, and this was the type of company we wanted to create. It also means more colloquially ‘ripe, juicy, tasty and delicious’. ‘Pukka’ symbolised all we stood for in life. Being ‘pukka’ was our aspiration.

Q You have said that from the beginning Pukka was purpose-led, with its ‘conservation through commerce’ mission. Tell me a little bit about what that means in practice? 

Since the beginning of Pukka, we’ve always had one focus – of doing good by connecting people to the power of plants. Recently, we’ve done some work internally looking at Pukka’s global purpose, to help us co-create everything we do. The whole Pukka team had a chance to input into the work and we’ve agreed that Pukka’s here to nurture healthier, happier lives through powerful organic plants. I think it’s beautiful and summarises perfectly the type of business we are.

So, in practice, this means ensuring that our business practices promote biodiversity, ecosystems and communities – as well as bring benefit for their their value chain, from the soil to the customer. Having been involved in the organic agriculture movement for over 20 years now we can see the environmental and social benefits growing exponentially, as well as creating the opportunity for numerous beneficial herbal moments.

Q You launched with three organic tea products – a range that now totals over 46 different lines (along with a large organic supplement range and latte products). Why did you settle on tea as your core product, and the main vehicle for your mission? 

I first experienced the power of plants when I was eighteen. I had been travelling in India and had a terrible bout of ‘Delhi belly.’ An Ayurvedic doctor gave me a simple powder of licorice root, shatavari root and amla fruit to take. It cleared me up in a few days and I immediately wanted to find out how the blend had worked. Ever since then I have spent my life dedicated to learning about herbs as well as sharing my knowledge and inspiration. 

Plants have been at the centre of human health forever and it feels like we are only just rediscovering how important they are to living well today. Helping to nourish, cleanse, rejuvenate and restore your whole system, herbs can be used for both optimising your health as well as getting you better if you are unwell: in other words they can food as well as medicine. Their life enhancing properties are simple to bring into your everyday life, and one of my favourite ways to do this is by making herbal blends and drinking their delicious infusions. 

When we started Pukka, Tim and I thought at the very least if people drank something delicious, or used herbs that helped with their health, they would feel more positive about herbal medicine. Perhaps they would even choose to include more herbs into their lives, and we could create millions of herbal champions.

Since the beginning we have been overwhelmed by positive feedback; people love drinking our teas and using our health supplements. Our goal is to continue to serve the best cup of herbal tea we can by utilising some of the world’s finest herbs. We’ve wanted these teas to be as good as the cups of tea we serve to our friends and family – in fact, many of the Pukka blends have been directly inspired by those initially created for my friends and clients.

I have had the privilege of blending all the Pukka teas myself and each one has a story. Making our teas and supplements with our team of herbal experts is one of the most important and enjoyable things I do. 

Q As well as always being organic, Pukka has placed a strong emphasis on being signed up to rigorous certification schemes – Fair Wild, B Corp, 1% For the Planet among them. Why is that so important to you? 

Our certifications illustrate our commitment to doing business a better way. They are also excellent ways to learn how to run a better, fairer, more impactful business. They are tough standards with rigorous checks for environmental and social care. Of course, they are also essential to being a business that really engages with its relationship we as individuals, communities and businesses have on this Planet. Giving 1% of our turnover For The Planet isn’t just ‘being nice’, it’s an ethical cost of doing business.

Q When Pukka was acquired by Unilever in 2017 you talked about the move being an enabler of “a bigger mission”? What has the experience been like for you personally as part of major multinational?

Before we joined Unilever, we knew we needed some investment and to ensure Pukka was in safe hands for the future, way beyond our lifetimes. We went off in search of a suitable investor. In the crazy world of the financial realms we soon discovered that private equity and venture capital would be a poor choice for us – we did not want to be sold randomly or to reshape our values.

We took our time – a lot of time – to find the best partner, one that would help us deliver our ethical and environmental promises long into the future. We knew that a partnership with a ‘big business’ would lead to questions about the sanctity of our values; questions about the integrity of our herbs; and, perhaps most importantly, questions about Pukka’s soul and whether it will survive. Only a partner that would support and grow our work would do.

“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. Unilever will be around for a lot longer than politicians and can have a bigger impact over a longer period.”

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. Unilever will be around for a lot longer than politicians and can have a bigger impact over a longer period.  

Personally, of course, it has had its moments. There has been lots of change in the world these last three years, but as the Climate Crisis becomes common-knowledge, it has been very rewarding working with colleagues at Unilever sharing our Pukka world-view as they set ambitious targets for carbon reduction, plastics transformation, human rights and regenerative farming. Sure, they have a long way to go, but they are focused on positive change.

Pukka is still an independently run company, with iron-clad commitments to staying 100% organic donating at least 1% of turnover to environmental causes annually and committed to sustainable wild harvesting with FairWild and a champion of fair trading with Fair for Life. 

At Pukka, we are completely unwilling to compromise; from the quality of our organic practitioner-grade herbs fairly sourced from around the world through to our tireless commitment to produce a fully recyclable envelope to enclose all of our herbal teas. 

Q What new developments can we expect to see from Pukka in the coming year?

We have lots of exciting new products in the pipeline, and I don’t want to spill the beans on these too much just yet. Unfortunately, due to the recent pandemic, we’ve postponed the launches of some new products until 2021. But I can promise you some truly Pukka creations next year…just watch this space!

Q How do you see the organic sector’s future, as the world pulls out of Covid pandemic? Are you optimistic that it can play a bigger role, for example, in mitigating climate change and the threats to food sovereignty?  

Organic methods bring people together with plants and animals for the good of everyone – and it’s this circular ‘put back what you take out’ system that makes organic principles so special to us. At its heart, organic means working with nature, not against it. It means higher levels of animal welfare, lower levels of pesticides, no chemical herbicides or artificial fertilisers and more environmentally sustainable management of the land and natural environment.

Just think for a minute of you existing is this dynamic life-affirming matrix of The Planetary Biome, The Soil Biome and The Human Biome. They are all interfacing and communicating with every breath and bite. The soil feeds the plants, that feed the air and food, that feeds us. Every breath you take is there because Nature has provided it. Every morsel of food is there because we have taken it from the land. In terms of simple self-preservation, it would be wise to care for them all with equal respect. It’s very important that we have a system where farmers are rewarded properly for growing ‘good’ food and polluters are paying the cost of their polluting otherwise it’s just not a level playing-field. And In terms of growing nutritious, environmentally and socially equitable food, the  current agricultural paradigm rewards you for doing the wrong thing and penalises you for doing the right thing.

The evidence for the ecosystem-wide benefits of organic farming continues to grow. It is now well documented that organic foods and herbs have higher levels of some primary and secondary nutrients than conventionally grown crops. Some protective polyphenols (found in herbs like turmeric and green tea) can be 50% higher in organic crops. For humans to be truly healthy, our planet must be too. Recent scientific reviews and meta-studies find that organic farms deliver more wildlife, healthier soils, climate mitigation, clean water, lower pesticide use, lower antibiotic use, more jobs and better food security. 

These advantages add up to many health benefits for individuals and our society. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true; the disruptive health impacts of our modern agricultural system and dietary habits is becoming all too evident as we are piling more pressure on an already overburdened NHS. As a society we are rapidly becoming both fatter and yet more malnourished (known as Type B malnutrition), our blood pressures are rising and our cognition descending. We might be good at dealing with medical emergencies, but chronic disease is on the way up, part of a reflection of the planetary malaise.

“We cannot talk about our own health without understanding our place in the environment. Perhaps if we were taught how to better understand the ecosystem, we live in we would be able to be more conscious of how to find harmony with it?”

We cannot talk about our own health without understanding our place in the environment. Perhaps if we were taught how to better understand the ecosystem, we live in we would be able to be more conscious of how to find harmony with it? Past traditions and ways of life can be helpful guides here and coming across Ayurveda has really helped me understand my place in the world.

The climate crisis is not only an environmental emergency, it also having a detrimental impact on lives and livelihoods. Scientists and activist organisations are telling us we can make the changes necessary, but we need to have the political and peoples’ will. Since the COVID pandemic began, pollution levels have dropped, animals are returning to areas they had previously abandoned, and more people have taken to travelling on foot or by bicycle. We have seen how changing our behaviour can have a positive impact on human health and the health of the natural world.

Q You have talked previously about the power of herbs. As a ‘herbal revolutionary’, how do you plan to spread the word even further about the healing and energising power of herbs? 

My hope is that recent events might bring an end to the UK habit of viewing modern biomedicine in one corner and traditional plant-based medicine in another. The whole history of human medicine is plant-based and most of the world is still dependent on traditional medicine today. There’s also a constant intertwining of the two, hundreds of drugs have been based on plants – the perennial meadowsweet was employed to create the first aspirins, foxglove extract is used in many heart drugs whilst yew-needles are used in certain chemotherapies. 

It shouldn’t be plants vs medicine. We should have both. Modern medicine is amazing, but it doesn’t have all the answers which we’re more aware of than ever right now with the rising epidemics of obesity, dementia for example. Drugs can force your body to do something – which you often need, like an emergency stop. Herbs help your body to do what it’s trying to do anyway. They’re micro-interventions to help optimise your health or potential.

My passion for plants and herbal medicine is still as strong now as it was when I first began, and I know that we can continue the phenomenal work we’re doing at Pukka. More and more people are waking up to the power of herbal remedies, and so the whole herbal community is rising up to collaborate as herbal practitioners, researchers, educators and ecological herb growers to further the benefits of herbalism.

At Pukka, we believe that our herbal expertise is what makes us different. We’re more than just a tea company and we invest heavily in our herbal research, working with leading universities across the world on ground-breaking clinical trials and studies to uncover new uses for the powerful plants we use in our products. We hope that our continued growth will mean that we can introduce even more people across the globe to the healing and nourishing power of herbs.

This article was originally published in Bio Eco Actual