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What does it mean to be an ethical functional food business?—podcast

Audio-What does it mean to be an ethical functional food business?—podcast

Exploring how nutraceutical and functional food brands can take steps to ensure ethical and sustainable practice across the supply chain.

Consumers are increasingly demanding ethical options in the functional food space and transparency in the supply chain of the products they buy. How can brands meet this call for sustainable business? Tom Smale, co-founder of Wunder Workshop, discusses the importance of consumption with purpose, and shares how his functional food business makes decisions based on a set of ethical and sustainable values to promote a transparent relationship between grower and consumer.

Tune in to learn about:

  • Why consumers are becoming more interested in ethical consumption
  • The challenges and opportunities that come with making sustainable choices as a business
  • How to educate consumers about the importance of opting for sustainable offering
  • How to ensure that your products are both sustainably sourced and accessible
  • The process of becoming a B Corps
  • Innovations in sustainable packaging


Tom Smale
Co-founder at Wunder Workshop

Vitafoods Insights Podcast

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Episode transcript:

Vitafoods Insights: [00:00:00] welcome to the Vitafoods Insights podcast. Join us as we explore the latest science and innovation, helping the global health and nutrition industry connect, develop and progress. Today's host is Carla Hill, contributing editor.

Carla: [00:00:23] Hello, and welcome to another Vitafoods Insights podcast. I'm Carla Hill, contributing editor at Vitafoods Insights. I'm delighted to be hosting Tom Smale today. Tom is the co-founder of Wunder workshop, a London based functional food brand, making organic and ethically sourced tumeric paste products. Wunder workshop focuses on consumption with purpose and the decisions made at Wunder workshop are based on a set of ethical and sustainable values to promote a transparent relationship between grower and consumer. I'm really excited to be talking with Tom today about what it means to be a sustainable and ethically responsible functional food business. Tom, welcome. And thank you so much for coming on the show today.

Tom: [00:01:05] Hey, Carla. Thanks for having me.

Carla: [00:01:07] My pleasure. That's great to have you. I wonder if maybe we could start off today's show by asking you to tell us a bit in your own words about you, your background and how you came to fund Wunder workshop.

Tom: [00:01:17] My partner and I, Zoe. Started wonder workshop back in 2014. And we have been toying with various food concepts at the time, ranging from chocolate to chia pots. But at this time, Zoe was actually visiting Sri Lanka with her late mother and came across turmeric because that was in the food, of course, but also in the drinks in bars and all sorts of things, and really she learned about how it was used as a medicinal remedy in food, but also outside of that, in skincare and so on as well. And so it kind of struck us that turmeric was this really powerful, amazing spice. And we wanted to do something with it. Now my background is actually in pharmacology. And so this was also one of the ingredients that I could look at back then into the scientific studies, and they found that there were over 1400 scientific studies on turmeric and curcumin and its various health benefits. So for me, it really struck out as well as something that is obviously an ingredient, which is used in Ayurveda or traditional Chinese medicine and has been tested anecdotally for thousands of years and that needs to be honored, but it's now being proven by Western medicine and science that we know, and the I grew up with. And so that was yeah, really powerful. And that's how we started. We actually started with a golden milk, which is a, at the time it was a fresh, ready to drink product that we produced in a commercial kitchen in Acton twice a week, and it wasn't the most elegant of businesses time. It wasn't the most efficient, and that was our naivety going into the food world, but it's grown from there and we are still working with a lot of the same suppliers that we started with now seven, eight years old.

Carla: [00:03:15] That's great. And I know kind of at the time, turmeric  come in the Western, the UK and Europe, weren't kind of his biggest thing as they are today, right? Can you tell us a bit more about that? You were kind of one of the first bringing turmeric lattes to the UK and in London.

Tom: [00:03:29] Yeah, of course it was a definitely a new concept when we started. So we brought the fresh drink on to the portabello road market in London, and basically just got out there and sampled it as much as we could get it in people's hands and see what they thought. And it took a lot of explanation. I think the first two years of our business was really trying to teach people about the various health benefits of turmeric and that it can be consumed in other things rather than just curries. And what we found was actually a lot of people were already taking turmeric supplements in tablet form, and we're really open to trying out. This kind of new ingredient or at least, you know, an ingredient that was seen in a new format, which was really exciting. Of course, there was a lot of education at the beginning. We did have to kind of repeat ourselves over and over again, but it's definitely worth spreading that message because I think it's been an interest in turmeric has grown exponentially since then.

Carla: [00:04:32] I wonder what shop you guys talk a lot about consumption with purpose. Can you tell us a bit about kind of what this means to you? And how do you define being a responsible and sustainable business?

Tom: [00:04:42] Yeah, I think for us, it's really important, as kind of conscious citizens ourselves, we try to have more thoughts about each decision that we make, personally, and as a business. And I think it's our responsibility as businesses, being the ones who provide customers with the options that they have in the supermarket aisle or online with products, with services that are mutually beneficial to the customers, of course, but also to the environment and the people who are providing each sort of elements along the path of that journey of that product. And so for us consumption, we're purpose really means about producing products that are beneficial to the customer and have been thought through; they are based on research and our own personal experiences as well, but they provide a sort of full circle element that goes from the packaging, which is recyclable or home compostable and has minimal impact on the environment. And also, benefiting the people who supply the ingredients as well, so supporting their traditional methods of farming, which for us in Sri Lanka is known as forest gardening and agroforestry. And then, you know, making sure that they are being supported financially as well. Ultimately, it's them and their passion that puts the ingredients into our products, and without that energy, I don't think that we would have as good announced, powerful products that we have to offer.

Carla: [00:06:21] That's great. And can you tell us a bit more in a bit more detail about kind of the sustainable agricultural practices? I'd love to hear more about forest gardening, for example, and how you guys are implementing these practices with your farmers in Sri Lanka.

Tom: [00:06:33] Yeah. So, as a business, we vote for the world that we want to live in with every penny that we spend as a business and supporting that sort of traditional way of farming isn't necessarily changing old farmers into something new, which is actually what conventional farming kind of has been doing over the last few decades, and we're seeing a lot of pressure on some of our farmers to change over, to using pesticides and monocropping their land. And what agroforestry does is, it really works with diversity. It thrives on the concept of diversity in the land. So for instance, you have turmeric growing in the shade of black pepper trees and cinnamon. And so, that diversity helps to improve the soil, nutrient quality and improves the nutrient density, which in turn helps the plants to grow into stronger, more adaptable forms, which are higher in nutrients and less reliant on inputs, and, you know, external fertilizes and so on. And it also provides the farmers with more financial security If one crop failed because of the climate, there are other options for them to harvest, to sell on their land and of course eat themselves. So, it's a really, kind of more about a relationship with the land that they have and not using pesticides, encouraging that biodiversity to produce a more stable and a higher quality product.

Carla: [00:08:11] And I'm sure a lot of this kind of incentive and pressure, really to respect our supply chain and respect our farmers comes from consumers. I know there's just a lot more talk at the moment about the demand that consumers have for kind of ethically sourced products. Why do you think that people are becoming more interested in ethical consumption?

Tom: [00:08:29] I think that people are taking more care to spend the money that they have with potential financial crashes looming and, of course, health being the number one subject of the moment of the last year or so, people are really investing in their health and they want to know where their ingredients are coming from. They want to know who's grown it. They want to know where the clothes are coming from, how they're being manufactured and so on. And so understanding the origin and really paying respects to those origins, I think is becoming more and more important. I believe that consumers are willing to pay a little bit extra for that and for knowing the care has been taken to provide something that is higher quality, that is of more of an autism produce rather than mass produced and the way that it kind of, I sort of having a more harmful effect on the environment. So people are definitely becoming more conscious of their own personal impact. And that's what we try to, we try and connect that, that sort of communication between farmers and consumers through our own products, so that we are kind of opening up a little bit more about the origins and the farmers and how they work.

Carla: [00:09:51] That's great. And it's pretty inspiring, really to hear there is that kind of respectful line of connection that brands can open up between consumers and farmers and supply chain. It's interesting that you said that people are kinda of prepared to pay a premium for ethically sourced products, which understandably because you know, we're paying the farmers, the amount that they decide to be paid and we're paying them much more than mass produced products companies would pay that they're a bit more expensive, but does this is create a problem for you guys. That's a kind of tension then between creating a product, which values its supply chain and the kind of appropriate way, but then can maybe create a kind of accessibility problem for your consumers. Do you ever find that then, you know, there could be an issue that you can't make a product as affordable as, as you'd like, and then that will kind of narrow your consumer base and you won't be able to maybe offer them to people who might not be able to afford products that are then good for their health?

Tom: [00:10:43] Yeah, absolutely. It's something that we constantly wrestle with. The kind of catch point for us is obviously we want to include as many people as we can and make our products available to them by lowering the price. The ultimate cost of that is that we have to squeeze the farmers and the producers. They're the ones that the kind of the bottom of the chain who will feel it the most, if we were to lower our product prices and there needs to be room for all of us, I believe. Um, and whether that's making sure that we are more respectful with the way that we work as a business, I think that in terms of kind of making products more accessible, it often comes down to where they're sold as well. We often have to give up, you know, a 50% margin to retailers. And they'll take a lot of that. Obviously, they're paying for the brick and mortar space, but that's where a lot of the cost is actually added. And so, there is a way to get product down, but that's, by being more direct with the consumers.

Carla: [00:11:57] Interesting. And I can see that that kind of communication with consumers is really important. I know we talked a little bit earlier about educating consumers and, um, making sure that we have that kind of engaged community of consumers. How do you ensure that? How do you engage your consumers? What channels do you use?

Tom: [00:12:12] Social media, of course, that's been an amazing tool over the last few years. Um, Instagram in particular, just to be able to, to put out information, to share stories, to share our own journey as well, and our own understanding of, of the ingredients and our own research. And so on has been using Instagram and Facebook has been a massive channel for us. And really only in the last year or so we started to do paid work with those channels, but it's really about maintaining a constant evolving conversation with the consumer and engaging them, seeing what they're interested in as well, providing them with the right ethical and environmental options that they can provide, um, that we can offer sorry. And, just trying to engage them, trying to educate as much as possible about the ingredients that we're using, where they're coming from and the traditions that we are trying to support by doing so.

Carla: [00:13:15] Thanks, Tom. And it's great to hear that, you know, huge steps that Wunder workshop have been making as an ethical business, but I'm sure there are many challenges that come with that. What would you say are the kind of key challenges that come with being an ethical business?

Tom: [00:13:28] I think there's an evolving challenge, which is kind of the expectation of consumers, as well as what is actually available with packaging. Packaging seems to be the hardest sort of challenge that we have faced, especially, you know, minimizing our environmental impact. There are difficulties with getting products with the right shelf life. For instance, that is over six months when using packaging that is home compostable and it's about educating the consumers as well about the difference between best, before and, and used by dates and so on. So that to minimize waste, there is a constant kind of catch 22 position that we find ourselves in a business where to lower our prices we have to produce in higher quantities and to manufacture our products in higher quantities. But to do so requires the products to then sell quickly because the packaging that we use is, is not going to be as stable as a sort of multilayered plastic pouch, which many companies use, and that poses issues for us. But we just try and educate as much as we can, try share the journey and share those issues, and be honest as a company to say that this is why we have these best before end dates and so on.

Carla: [00:14:50] While we're on the subject of packaging. Can you tell us more? So you said that you don't use the same kind of solution that other companies do in terms of plastic. What kind of materials do you use and how do you ensure that your packaging is sustainable?

Tom: [00:15:03] We use a lot of paper and card and our products. So, a turmeric latte blends, for instance, they are in a paper carton. And then inside is actually a home compostable pouch, which can basically put them into your own food waste bin and that'll decompose. And you know, that has, yeah, decreased our shelf life time from 18 months to 12 months for some products. But I think that it's, it's definitely worth it in the long run. I think it came to us, you know, when we first started that we didn't want to producing thousands of products, which would end up onto landfill. So, to be able to create different components in our packaging as well, we use corn starch packing pellets as Boyd filled for all of our orders instead of a sort of polystyrene mess. And that's been a real kind of eye-opener and actually a lot of customers do reach out and say, I was surprised that you're using these polystyrene pallets, but they're actually the cornstarch ones. So people are really aware of this and they want to have as minimal an impact as they possibly can.

Carla: [00:16:17] That's great. And I know sometimes it can be hard for brands to make the transition to more sustainable packaging solutions, but I'm sure that many branding and assisting will be really kind of inspired by you guys as a case study of, of how that can be possible. Tom you're currently in the process of becoming a B Corp and for those who are listening and are unsure what that means, certified B corporations are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified, social and environmental performance, public transparency, leave accountability to kind of make that balance of profit and purpose. Like we've been talking about today, really. Can you tell us about this process and how you've been getting on becoming a B Corp?

Tom: [00:16:53] Yeah, it's a very long-winded process, really. And what's great about it is that it does shine a light on everything as a business that you can do or should be doing to really improve the kind of ethical standpoint that we are and, you know, covering things from where we source our electricity from to how we treat our employees. It's a really broad scope and it does take some time to actually get through and, um, and to gather all of that information. We're now sort of powered by solar, so understanding that, but that's only just recently happened. And so covering each aspect and being accountable for that is something that's really important and that's what B Corp will help us to do.

Carla: [00:17:43] That's great. And I know we've, we talked a little bit about various challenges and I know that's great that kind of initiatives like B corp can kinda  of help us shine light on those and overcome those. And I'm sure one of those has been the pandemic. Has it posed difficulties for you connecting closely with your supply chain and kind of maybe being able to visit your farms and that kind of thing?

Tom: [00:18:05] Yeah, a key part of our own supply chain standards has been visiting the farms that we work with and ensuring that everything is to the kind of criteria that we stand by in different farming methods that are being used and, um, ensuring that there are no pesticides and so on. And we always like to explore and work with new ingredients as well to create new products. So the pandemic has had a massive impact. On that part of our business as well, but not least because of the way that it has shaped the global market for spices. For instance, even president Modi of India, declared to drink golden milk to help prevent colds and flus during the pandemic. So, you know, immediately turmeric prices in Sri Lanka and India rose because they were consuming more turmeric locally. And that's something that we have to respect as a global business and where we source our ingredients from as well and that's a cost that we would have to take on our own part. But, you know, the travel aspect is still hindering us at the moment, but we're able to, still to communicate fortunately through WhatsApp, through Skype calls and so on. This is all we're still able to make contact and stay in touch, which is great.

Carla: [00:19:29] That is great. And while we're on the topic of being a global business, how do you navigate the challenges of sensitivity bringing traditional herbs and spices from a variety of cultures across the globe to consumer base, which is kind of predominantly Western?

Tom: [00:19:43] We are very aware of this. And it's a topic that has been growing more and more.  We just try to respect those cultures, educate our consumers who are predominantly in the UK and Europe a little bit more about where their ingredients coming from and to give farmers more of a voice and share their stories because ultimately, as I said, it's their passion, which goes into the ingredients and how they're produced, which is what our customers can benefit from. And, you know, being able to respect those cultures and not just kind of claiming it a fad ingredient and something that can be utilized for your own personal growth, but really learning about how it's traditionally used and grown and respecting those cultures is really important for us. We just try and honor those traditions and, and share that as much as we can.

Carla: [00:20:44] Thanks, Tom. And I'd love to hear a bit about your 1% promise. How do you choose which causes that you give back to?

Tom: [00:20:53] There are two elements to that we have been working mostly with, at one point in there called Jaguar Simba. It's a reforestation project in Colombia, in Nevada to SantaMarta, and we've been supporting them with this reforestation project, which helps too take to indigenous people's land, um, which is under threat from Nico forestry and so on. And so by supporting them to help them to claim their land and to marcate it for their purposes. And also working with a social enterprise called AMA Srilanka, which means mother and Sinhalese. And that is the project that we've been working with, it helps to educate some train mothers who typically have come from tea, farming fields and retraining them into textiles and using natural dyes things, like avocado and turmeric to sort of dye the textiles as well. So those are the kind of two main projects that we've supported, but we also add hot donate to causes that we think are really beneficial, you know. We've donated to grand fel, which was a very local issue for us in London and a few other projects along the way. So it's 1% that we use to try and, and support projects that we feel very passionately about.

Carla: [00:22:19] That's amazing. And, and generally it's just been so fascinating to kind of hear the way which you guys are really leading the way for sustainable functional food businesses. What's the future of Wunder workshop and sustainable innovation and a nutraceutical and functional food space, would you say?

Tom: [00:22:34] Well, as I said, there's loads of developments in packs, packaging, and how products can be packaged. And we, so we are looking at that at the moment for a new range that we have coming out. And, you know, there are some very exciting prospects, things like mushroom grown packaging, so it's growing mushrooms rather than using waste foods to package products, which is very exciting. There are many challenges with that, however, of course, because you're dealing with something that is kind of alive and produced for that product in a sort of small, short timescale, but there's lots of developments in there and, the packaging industry is constantly evolving and there are new innovations happening all of the times. So it's about keeping track of that and, um, keeping one eye open to see the latest options that are available and providing that to our customers if it, if it's viable and, you know, really having the benefits that they claim to have.

Carla: [00:23:40] I love that story about mushroom packaging, I think, um, yeah, it will be really inspirational for kind of Brando and assisting to, to hear the kind of innovations that are out there. And speaking of which, what advice would you give to other businesses who are like you trying to implement more sustainable practices in their supply chain?

Tom: [00:23:58] Yeah, I guess the thing would be to just really focus on creating services or products that are driven by your own passion and then taking a step back and really assessing how this can be done in the most environmentally friendly, ethically sourced way, ensuring that all parts of your supply chain and obviously the consumers as well, a benefiting because I think the business should not be a transaction where one party is gaining; should be really, everyone is winning and we've got kind of more positive attitude to, to any relationship, any agreement that you make as a business that shares a more positive attitude into the final products and into the world that we would hopefully want to create.

Carla: [00:24:54] Thanks, Tom. I think that wraps us up really nicely for today. Thank you so much for coming on the show. It's been a pleasure to have you and hear all of your insights about what it means to be a sustainable and ethical business. And I'm sure it we'll see you again very soon.