ReGen Brands Recap #70

Briana Buckles @ Yogi Tea

Embracing The Complexity In Regenerating Global Tea Supply Chains

On this episode, Anthony and Kyle speak with Briana Buckles, the Global Senior Sustainability Manager at Yogi Tea. Yogi Tea is supporting regenerative agriculture with 9 projects around the globe dedicated to increasing regenerative agriculture adoption in the supply chain for their Yogi Tea and Choice Organics brands. Yogi has been around for more than 50 years and produces over 70 SKUs. Their products are stocked across thousands of retailers in North America and Europe.



Big & Complex

Yogi’s supply chain is anything but simple. To create teas for their two brands, Yogi Tea and Choice Organics, they source over 150 ingredients from more than 40 countries! The ingredients are brought to one of their two manufacturing locations (Oregon for US distribution and Italy for European distribution) where they are mixed and packed into individual tea bags. 

A wide range of ingredients and sourcing destinations requires multiple sourcing strategies. Yogi’s ingredients include tea, herbs, flowers, and roots. Some of the products are cultivated while others are actually wild harvested. Many of the ingredients are produced in incredibly rural locations by hundreds of smallholder farmers. To source these ingredients, Yogi buys directly from individual farms and also uses brokers who source from farmers or organizations of farmers. They currently source 50% of their ingredient supply directly from farms, which they aim to continue to increase over time so that more of the money from their purchases stay in the country where the ingredients are grown. Despite the complexity of their supply chain, Yogi has managed to achieve 92% supply chain transparency in 2023 (up from 10% in 2020), meaning they know exactly where almost all of their products are harvested.


From Broad Vision to On-the-Ground Execution

Yogi has always focused on sourcing top-quality ingredients to create functional teas that deliver health benefits. However, it wasn’t until 2020 that the company began to focus and invest more intentionally in sustainability and regenerative agriculture. It was then that Briana entered the firm as their first sustainability employee. Her strategic mindset and experience studying sustainable business practices during her MBA at the University of Oregon helped Yogi to move from a broad vision of “creating a world that’s better off because they’re in it” to defining and implementing a regenerative agriculture strategy.

Yogi’s regenerative agriculture strategy is divided into three approaches: 1) supply chain visibility, 2) direct intervention, and 3) supply chain expansion. In the first approach, Yogi analyzes their supply chain to create transparency all the way down to the farm level and baselines what level of regenerative agriculture adoption is occurring on those partner farms. In 2020 they launched a baseline survey to understand which regenerative agricultural practices were being applied for which ingredients and in which locations. This critical first step allows Yogi to better identify existing suppliers already excelling in regen ag, ones that could use help improving, and ones that might need to be removed from their supply base. In the second approach, Yogi works with their largest and longest-standing suppliers to design and implement projects that support farmers to adopt specific regenerative agriculture practices. Finally, in the supply chain expansion approach, Yogi identifies new farms growing their key ingredients that are already practicing regenerative agriculture and develops new sourcing partnerships with them. Implementing these approaches in parallel ensures their most important suppliers are brought along on the regenerative transition, while also leveraging and amplifying the impact of existing regenerative producers both old and new to the Yogi supply chain. 


Project-Based Supply Transition

Briana has supported Yogi in designing and executing nine regenerative agriculture projects around the globe and will launch three more this year. To develop these projects, Yogi first identifies their highest volume ingredients and partners with their strategic suppliers to design a regenerative agriculture intervention on the ground. To identify the most effective and appropriate regenerative practices, Yogi contracts a third-party expert from the sourcing country who can help ensure the agronomy of the project is tailored to the local context. This local expert also serves as a project coordinator on the ground, supporting the delivery of inputs and technical assistance to the farmers. These regenerative agricultural projects are funded through the Yogi Tea Foundation with some combined resources from the Yogi sustainability operations budget. 

For example, in Rwanda, Yogi supports smallholder tea farmers to intercrop lemongrass, a key ingredient in many Yogi Teas. Planted between tea hedges, lemongrass covers the bare soil, helping to reduce soil erosion and improve farm biodiversity. Yogi buys the harvested lemongrass directly from the farmers, creating an additional source of revenue that helps farming families to diversify their incomes outside of tea alone. In this pilot program, Yogi provided seedlings to 65 farmers and facilitated training for the farmers to learn how to grow lemongrass. After two years, the farmers are successfully growing and selling the new crop, and Yogi plans to expand the program to 100 additional farmers this year.


The Business Imperative For Regenerative Transition

It is impossible for Yogi to create a one-size-fits-all definition of regenerative agriculture for its 150+ ingredients. There is no way to set a standard regenerative approach when some ingredients are wild harvested and other cultivated, some are roots pulled out of the ground and others are perennials, and some are grown in the desert while others are grown in tropical rainforests.

The brand knows it is unlikely to find one regenerative certification that applies to all of its ingredients because it went through a similar realization when working on social certifications. There are many well-recognized social certifications in the CPG industry: Fair Trade Certified, Fair for Life, FairWild Foundation, and Rainforest Alliance to name a few. While reviewing these certifications, Briana found that different ingredients prioritized different certifications. It didn’t make sense to choose one certification and require suppliers that had invested in Rainforest Alliance for years to have to switch to Fair Trade, for example. So instead, Yogi decided to create a “basket of acceptable standards,” enabling their suppliers to work with the certification that made the most sense for their ingredient or location. Now, over 70% of their supply holds one of Yogi’s selected social certifications. Yogi has not prioritized regenerative certification yet, but will likely take a similar “basket of acceptable standards” approach.

For now, Yogi is focusing on “doing the work” rather than messaging to consumers. They want to ensure they are genuinely supporting regenerative agriculture before making specific claims on their packaging. They are communicating about regenerative agriculture broadly with romance copy on some Choice Organic’s SKUs, but are mainly sharing about their work through their sustainability report.  In their reports they use storytelling, sharing direct quotes from farmers about how they are practicing regenerative agriculture and the benefits they experience as a result. 

“We want to be sure that when we do start shouting about this work from the rooftops to our consumers, that we're doing it in a very authentic way, that we're not just putting some words on a box that don't have any actual grounded practices behind them.” - Briana

Briana and Yogi have a very practical approach to their regenerative transition. They are focusing on strategically investing in transitioning their supply chain with integrity and conducting sufficient measurement to be able to meaningfully track their progress. Briana continuously checks the balance of her workload, ensuring that she and the Yogi teams are spending more time working on their supply chain than they are tracking and reporting numbers. 

Yogi’s authentic and strategic approach to supporting regenerative agriculture comes down to the fact that their business depends on it. Regenerative agriculture reduces their supply chain risk and increases its longevity. The soil health and biodiversity benefits help ensure their ingredients can continue to be cultivated and harvested for years to come. Just as importantly, the economic benefits help foster continued generations of farmers.

“If we want to be a business that's around for the next 50 years, it’s not going to happen if… poverty in supply chains continues to exist. So if we can use regenerative practices to have crop diversification, income diversification, more value for the crops that people are growing, higher yields for the crops that they're growing, less risk in the crops that they're growing…That's going to make people want to be farmers longer, which matters to our business and in long-term planning.” - Briana


50% Market Share 4 Regen

Briana believes that regenerative agriculture adoption will only grow when every link in the supply chain sees the benefits. She sees positive movement on the retail end where many stores are understanding the value of regenerative and investing in promoting it through their assortment. In her opinion, most CPG brands are bought into the movement, noting that every sustainability manager she knows is focusing on regenerative agriculture. Where she sees room for improvement is in consumer awareness and education. As many firms have noted on the podcast, consumers still need to understand what regenerative agriculture is and the benefits it drives in order to be willing to pay a premium for regenerative products. When it comes to the farmers, she believes more and more farmers are buying into the concept of regenerative, but that they won’t be willing to take the risk to change their practices until they realize the economic benefit.

“Every link in the value chain needs to see and actually be able to tangibly realize the benefits of regenerative agriculture… at the farm level, at the supplier level, at the brand level, retail level, and consumer level, every one of those links needs to be able to see and realize the tangible benefits of this work” - Briana


This ReGen Recap was written by Katey Finnegan

The illustrations were created by Stacey Shaller

You can check out the full episode with Briana Buckles @ Yogi Tea HERE

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