Tea in a Global Pandemic

Five question interview with Oscar Wooley, co-founder of Suki Tea

About Oscar Woolley Co-Founder | Commercial Director SUKI TEA.


Since an early age Oscar's work life has been varied and colourful. Always striving for something that he was able to create from grassroots upward he moved from job to job gaining experience in many fields, from the shop floor up to board level. Though his current role at SUKI is Commercial Director, like many business owners he has worn many hats, not least in these last few months. After travelling the globe to find inspiration for a new business, Oscar moved to Northern Ireland in 2000, made friends with Anne Irwin and soon afterwards set up SUKI TEA with her. Based in Belfast, SUKI Tea Makers ethically sources and blends loose leaf teas, herbal infusions and fruit tisanes from all over the world. Suki's commitment to quality is reflected in responsible sourcing, great taste and delivering the very best customer experiences. Oscar currently sits on the European Specialty Tea Association’s Board of Directors as well as SUKI’s own education offshoot - the Speciality Tea Training Association.

01. How has the pandemic affected you and your business?

This year, the world has been given an opportunity to rethink what matters. I genuinely do not remember a time that I worked harder than these last few months, but with a sense of guilt, I admit to enjoying the peace. As societal and business pressures faded away there was a sense of calm and a real focus on wellbeing. Everything we associate with tea, in fact.

As a business we knew our resilience was going to be tested so put the kettle on, got into Zen mode and started planning. We ramped up our web sales, hosted online pub quizzes, collaborated with other brands on social media and launched a new RTD sparkling tea. One initiative went down particularly well: our online masterclasses. Lockdown gave us the chance to talk about tea in more depth than the world would normally allow us, whilst enjoying tea tasting at the same time with samples provided to each participant. It was great to engage with people on a subject we are so passionate about at a time when they could be so receptive.

02. What would you say is the single most interesting fact about tea?

As the most consumed beverage next to water around the world, tea is of course a popular source of hydration and known for its general health benefits. But the real magic is in something called L-theanine. You may be interested to learn that 50% of the amino acids found in tea are L-theanine, a substance that’s almost unique to tea.

L-theanine elevates serotonin and dopamine levels and is great for non-drowsy relaxation and mitigating the effects of caffeine. That is why you feel both revived and relaxed after a cuppa.

Japanese shade grown teas like matcha could have more than double the L-theanine content, as shading alters the balance of the tea’s components. (Probably one of the reasons why matcha is used for those zen-like moments in Buddhism, the Japanese tea ceremony - and contemplating what to do with your business during a global pandemic).

03. You are a business known for your ethical credentials. Has this been in any way affected by the pandemic?

Global crisis or not, not a single leaf crosses our threshold without careful consideration of the tea garden: understanding the growers and their expertise. It ensures that only the very best hand-plucked leaves go into the tea Suki drinkers enjoy. Operating in a more socially and environmentally sustainable manner is the cornerstone of everything we do.

Over the years, the more sourcing trips we embarked on the bigger the opportunities for our business to make a positive impact quickly became obvious. We could see a direct line from the revenue generated by purchasing from specific plantations to how it could benefit the pickers, growers, and their wider community.

Accreditation such as Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade certification are initiatives that do more to protect the wellbeing of workers, communities, and the wider environment. So far, so fair, but we wanted to go further.

We needed to see for ourselves that the quality of life and equality of opportunity for the tea pickers and their families was being positively impacted by our business. On every sourcing trip we now dig deeper into the lives of the people whose care for tea makes our business possible. Seeing things with our own eyes is so important. Only by doing that can we talk about what we do with integrity and authenticity.

We want to ensure that our business helps lives, increases possibility, and encourages higher standards for the people who pick and grow the teas we use. We support the ‘one cup of porridge per child’ campaign in Rwanda, reinvesting profits to an initiative that aims to give ‘education and breakfast’ to all children attending pre-school. It’s a small price to pay to ensure our business isn’t just doing well, it’s doing good, too.

We may not be travelling to tea farms right now, but our support and commitment continues through our sourcing of Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance products and our continued charitable support. We are proud to operate a business that helps protect livelihoods of the most vulnerable and the planet. This will continue to be the case, as long as we exist.

04. You recently re-branded. Why was that important to your long term objectives?

Branding is something that runs far deeper than just a logo and nice packaging. Genuine branding is about putting a metaphorical stake in the ground that identifies what you believe in and why it matters. For organisations that get it right, their brand becomes a business purpose, propelling everyone who works there in the same direction to an identical outcome. Some famous examples of great brands in action are Apple – ‘To empower creative exploration and self-expression’, while clothing manufacturer Patagonia’s stated brand purpose is ‘To use business to save our planet’. They are lofty ambitions, but you can see how they drive those businesses forward. We haven’t chosen them as examples by accident. Each has aspects that also ring true for the Suki brand. Apple’s creative curiosity and Patagonia’s commitment to environmental improvement are themes you’ll find present throughout our own organisation. Our purpose is about building a community of loose-leaf tea drinkers – ‘To grow an appreciation society of the ritual in great tasting, honest tea’ and as you’d expect from us, there’s some sound principles underpinning this ambition. Here’s a summary:

1.We don’t settle for less We value quality over quantity - our tea is world-class, and we won’t settle for anything that’s second best. It is our belief that quality is reflected in responsible sourcing, taste and excellent customer experiences. We don’t do gimmicks, or cheap deals that are driven by short term greed. We keep our focus on our long-term vision. We want our products to provide great taste experiences and encourage new journeys in tea. 2.Tea lovers unite We are constantly looking for new adventures and new ways to introduce the best tasting loose-leaf tea to the world. We embrace the simplicity and purity of the ritual, because we know it improves the tea drinking experience. We’re aiming to build a worldwide community of Suki Tea ambassadors who will be key to sharing the message. We want to grow this community, appreciate them and connect them with each other. 3.Adventures in creativity Our brand is about much more than just sourcing great tasting tea, although that will always be our primary concern. It’s about driving craftmanship at every level, being brave, having diverse, eclectic cultural tastes, drawing stuff, debating ideas, planning, formulating, breaking new ground and having a great time doing it all. It’s why we are constantly challenging ourselves and it’s in how we talk to our customers, friends and new followers. Dream big we say, release your inner child, be curious, ask questions, listen to others, risk yourself in the act of creating. 4.More than just a stamp We care about people, plant and planet. From open and responsible sourcing, to protecting the farmers who grow the tea and their families and selecting only teas that have been hand plucked to ensure that the integrity of the tea plants remains. Any brand can stamp a box or a package and send it on its way, but for us, our stamp means more - it’s how we want to live; it’s what we believe in; it’s our passionate point of view. These things matter to us. They inspire and excite us every day. keep us authentic, grounded and full of purpose. So, when you see our newly developed brand, don’t just think, ‘nice logo’. Instead, maybe ponder ‘Nice values’ instead. That’s the dream, anyway. Hopefully, over time, we’ll get there. One thing is for sure, we’re going have a blast along the way.

“Genuine branding is about putting a metaphorical stake in the ground that identifies what you believe in and why it matters..”

05. Tell us a little bit more about your commitment to sustainable packaging.

There can be quite a bit of confusion surrounding some environmental terminology and particularly when it comes to the terms biodegradable and compostable, often thought to be the same and interchangeable, but quite different. While both words refer to the ability for a material to return safely to the earth there are some key differences... Biodegradable While most people refer to the correct definition of the word (the breakdown of materials in a natural environment using micro-organisms), there are instances where businesses referring to plastic alternatives will use the term to make a product appear more environmentally friendly than it really is. This is known as 'greenwashing' and can be very misleading for consumers trying to make an effort to be more conscious with their purchases. The difficulty is that technically everything biodegrades (even plastic), but it might take years for it to happen and the process can result in larger issues such as microplastics. Compostable This term has a much clearer definition (the breakdown of materials into natural elements including water, carbon dioxide, biomass) but the bottom line is that materials must be capable of being incorporated into compost at the end of their life. Compostable materials are often associated with a specific time period; however, this largely depends on the composting environment, for instance some require certain conditions to decompose properly, such as a higher level of heat or moisture. This means that they aren’t always suitable for your home compost heap and are better suited to industrial (council or commercial) waste collections.

OUR PACKAGING

1. LOOSE LEAF TEA

All our tea blends are natural products and great for home compost or your food waste bin! 2. PYRAMID TEA BAGS

Filled with the same quality ingredients as our loose-leaf teas and infusions, SUKI pyramids are plastic-free.They are made from paper, yarn and a special material called Soilon, meaning unlike some traditional teabags, our pyramid teabags are completely natural and plastic-free! Made from corn starch, Soilon is a naturally derived product that is fully compostable so can be disposed of with food waste collections. Although it can be added to your home compost bin it won’t decompose just as quickly here so it’s best to add it to either council or commercial food waste collections, if you have them.

Our pyramids are fully compliant with EN13432 and carry the OK Compost certification.

3. PYRAMID ENVELOPES

Unfortunately, our pyramid envelope outer packaging still contain plastic in their lining, however, we are working with our current supplier to find a suitable alternative material as soon as we can.

4. INNER RETAIL BAGS

You’ll find these clear inner bags in both our loose leaf and pyramid tea retail boxes and although they might look just like plastic, we promise they’re not!

They’re actually a clever film called Natureflex, created from cellulose made from sustainably sourced wood pulp. Natureflex is suitable for both industrial (council or commercial food waste) or home composting – meaning our packaging is now as environmentally friendly as the tea that goes inside it! Our inner bags are fully compliant with EN13432 and carry the OK Home Compost certification. 5. OUTER RETAIL BOXES

All our retail boxes are printed locally in Northern Ireland and made from sustainably sourced cardboard (always FSC or PEFC) and are either pre-printed using vegetable-based inks or use a paper-based label. While cardboard will technically decompose, it would take quite a long time, so the best place for disposing of your retail box is via your usual (council or commercial) recycling collection.

6. FOODSERVICE BAGS/LARGE BAGS Our foodservice bags are something quite wonderful - even if we do say so ourselves! Whilst on the hunt for a plastic free alternative to our previous packaging, which looked eco-friendly but had an unfortunate plastic lining, we came across a variety of options available to us for storing our loose leaf teas and infusions.

There are a lot of ‘eco-friendly’ packaging solutions on the market but as we produce more large bags than any other products, we wanted to make sure we had the best solution possible.

We investigated everything from recyclable bags (similar to crisp packets but unfortunately still made of plastic) to biodegradable bags (some made from natural materials and others made from composite materials which most recycling facilities reject due to their complexity) before finally looking at compostable bags. We knew compostable bags were by far the best solution, but we also had to consider the best packaging to protect our tea leaves, as well as whether to opt for industrial (council or commercial) or home compostable materials.

As our teas are enjoyed across the world, we wanted to make sure we selected a material that could be disposed of no matter where our customers are. So, after much testing and trialling, our brand-new bags now feature a triple layer barrier (perfect for protecting our teas) that is industrially compostable in as little as 12 weeks and fully home compostable in 12 – 26 weeks.*

Our foodservice/large bags are fully compliant with EN13432 and carry the OK Home Compost certification.

*Our bags also feature a label that unfortunately isn’t compostable yet, but we are working with our suppliers on a solution for this. Our recommendation is to remove the label before adding the bag to your food waste. 7. TIN TEA CADDIES A wonderful reusable product! Our tea caddies contain loose leaf tea with a beautifully textured paper label and biodegradable seal. Once you’ve finished with one of our tea caddies why not refill it again or remove the label to reveal our iconic SUKI illustration and fill it with another tea of your choosing.

If you want to dispose of your tea caddy pop it in your local council or commercial recycling – tin is a fantastic product that is infinitely recyclable so it will have a new lease of life as a drinks can, tin of baked beans or even part of your next car!