Ptthee: Growing herbal tea, building a thriving company and regenerating the Earth (Wearth Sustainable Pioneers & Frontrunners series)

Entrepreneurs Daan van Diepen and Matthijs Westerwoudt have started The Landscape Company in 2018 to launch ventures and propositions that restore nature whilst being economically viable and scalable. Their first venture is ptthee, Dutch herbal tea that contributes to biodiversity (in Dutch the brand’s pun works perfectly, for our English-speaking readers: “PTT” was the Dutch post office and ‘Thee’ means tea).

We’re talking to Daan and Matthijs on the verge of spring, which is the start of their second growing season making Dutch biodiversity tea. Although we did not realize it at the time, it was also the last week that ‘live’ meetings like these could take place before the Dutch corona ‘intelli’-lockdown. They will share with us a bit about the why, what, how & with whom of ptthee. And how they look at sustainability and the inherent trade-offs.

These are the lessons we found most insightful and inspirational to help other pioneers or incumbents transitioning towards a (more) sustainable business model. Scroll down for the full interview:

  1. By carefully considering the full impact on planet, people (and profit) in the design & innovation phase, you can then fully focus on growth, growth, growth – knowing that more growth just means more positive impact. A strong purpose for the business helps a lot to achieve this.
  2. There will always be challenging trade-offs to make. Ptthee’s lesson is to start with the 80% rule, i.e. if you start with “great” while not losing sight of “even better”, it will be fine. For example in ptthee’s context: the ‘ideal’ seeds are very costly, so they use a blend of ‘perfect’ with the ‘80% right’ seeds which are also biologic, local origin yet available at a fair price.
  3. A continuous focus on and commitment to innovation is key as a sustainable pioneer. You have to keep re-thinking every aspect of the business and keep finding creative partnerships to stay ahead in sustainability. With green claims like ours, you are under a microscope. An example: we developed our fully compostable tea bags ourselves (contrary to what many people think, those on the market actually contain plastics and are not compostable).

Structure / interview method

We use our Value Creation Loop and Sustainability Visor frameworks to structure the interview. It results in 7 questions which guide the interviews in this ‘Sustainability Pioneers & Frontrunners’ series. They are: 1) Sustainability meaning & benefits; 2) The Why; 3) The How; 4) The What; 5) With Whom; 6) Trade-offs (4 P’s); 7) Next horizon.

1. SUSTAINABILITY – What does sustainability mean for you? Which elements of ‘our’ take on it`{`1`}` resonate most with your company?

This ecological definition works well for us. We haven’t defined sustainability as such; for us, a regenerative element is important. Linked to the purpose of the Landscape Company, we want to provide a “positive action perspective” for ourselves and others. Especially since the array of sustainability challenges can at times feel overwhelming. Every time you choose to buy something, is a chance to vote for the world you believe in.

We’ve also observed that with farmers, ecologist and many others in the sector, there is plenty of knowledge of how to treat the land and the soil very well – we don’t really have something to add there. What both of us are good at, however, is the entrepreneurial & business development aspects: which regenerative activities lead to something that people are interested in and willing to pay for? We’ve found that we can help farmers a lot in this respect: helping nature meet economics and business.

2. WHY – Can you share a little more about the Why behind ptthee? And how does this link to your personal mission or values?

Matthijs: “I was really keen to establish business models where more growth leads to more positive impact and positive side effects. That’s why we established the landscape company, and Ptthee is the first venture we are scaling. The more growth and success, the better it will be for biodiversity and nature restoration. That is an exciting thought! Since most businesses tend to have one or more serious negative effects if they keep growing.”

Daan: “At my previous company, the purpose was good but I felt I could contribute more and better by literally putting myself with my ‘feet in the clay’. So far that works out very well with ptthee.”

4. WHAT – What does your value creation loop look like? What do you consider the most differentiating part? And what is the bottleneck for further development?

We partner with (organic) farmers that have sown the edges of their meadows with various herbs that make for a nice tea, whilst boosting local biodiversity. They receive a fee for the work and the herbs they supply. After sorting, mixing and packing, we then mail the tea to companies and consumers. Ptthee was the Dutch post office (and ‘Thee’ means tea), hence the name.

Our bottleneck for further development is definitely the ‘Create’ part; how to scale cost-efficiently whilst maintaining the social aspect of production (we are working with a ‘social working place’, where people sort the herbs by hand). Sales is relatively easy because the story of biodiversity is self-promoting, Dutch origin tea is appealing and the tea tastes good. As for ‘Source’: we currently have a waiting list of farmers that are keen to sow, mow and supply herbs.

5. WITH WHOM – Stakeholder landscape – which forces supported or hampered Ptthee on its journey so far? How important is ‘participation’?

A big driving force for us: the farmers and the ecosystem surrounding them. Although the first farmers who came on board were those that already pioneered biodiversity in their core business, we were surprised to see the traction and community effect that this quickly took. As we’ve also experienced ourselves now, it is heart-warming to see just how happy a farmer gets from seeing all kinds of insects and birds (re-)enter their land. Landscape regeneration at work! Plus what was considered ‘weeds’ starts to be perceived as a different type of crop.

As we have started a year ago and start to scale up now, there have been limited true ‘opposing’ forces hindering us. What we do see, is that a sustainable claim like ours means every aspect of our business is under a microscope. Certification might be necessary to ‘prove’ that, and exactly how (and by how much) our model is better for biodiversity than other tea brands. Green-washing by incumbent companies is a real risk!

We are also exploring several cooperative partnerships that could be viewed as being competitive. We use our instinct here: are partners intrinsically motivated to join forces, or is the primary driver a sympathetic, marketable story ‘on the side’ of the core business?

6. TRADE-OFFS – how do you experience the inherent trade-offs of running a sustainable venture? How do make the judgments between the 4Ps: Planet, People, Profit & Participation?

Matthijs: “This at times feels tricky; trading off the ‘profit’ dimension versus planet or people. We look at it as temporary choices for the current ‘best viable option’, whilst not stopping to pursue even better options.”

It’s the 80-20 rule; we want to get it at least 80% right to make sure we stay true to our purpose. But for impact and business success (and thereby more landscape regeneration impact), profit is a necessary enabler so trade-offs are always there. As an example, the full-fledged and most easily biodegradable packaging is twice as expensive, so we didn’t go for that option but found an alternative that is almost as good for roughly half the price. A similar example holds true for the seeds: for optimal contribution to biodiversity, there are strict requirements of endemic, biological, Dutch-origin seeds. Here we choose to blend the ‘100% right’ (and very expensive) option with the ‘80% right’ seeds which are more affordable.

Daan: “These trade-offs are necessary. It is also fairly easy for us to make these judgments, since we have a strong purpose that we believe in.”

7. NEXT HORIZONS – what are your ambitions and what impact would you still like to make?

Several nice avenues are on the horizon for us. With Ptthee we are keen to explore with farmers options of full meadows used for growing herbs that we use to produce tea (instead of strips on the edge, ed.). Also in conjunction (and symbiosis) with cattle grazing, for instance. On the market side, we plan to further develop and grow our B2B solutions.

With The Landscape Company, we have various regenerative concepts ‘on the shelf’ that we will launch when the time is right. Venturing into agroforestry is one of the many options.

Daan: “Zooming out, I believe we are just starting the transition towards a regenerative economy, where profit is in harmony with a regenerative and sustainable contribution to the planet. Our venture anticipates this transition – and by the way so does what you (Willem & Casper with Wearth Strategy Collective, ed.) have started. Currently we are still mostly in a ‘horizon 2’ economy where we try to reduce the negative impact of our previous ‘horizon 1’ economy, which is based on maximizing profit in a take-make-waste setup”

[1] The properties and abilities of systems to remain diverse and productive indefinitely

[2] Leadership, Strategy, Innovation, Organization, Assets & Risk; Metrics