by Tara Murphy
It’s a rainy morning, I’m sat down with a cup of tea waiting to be inspired and there it was sat in front of me. TEA. But more importantly, the tea industry.
Consumer goods producers are jumping on the sustainability ‘raft’ because it’s becoming evident that their company’s futures depend on their ability to morph into the evolving environment of depleting resources, increasing effects of climate change and consumer selectivity. The tea industry is no different, with major players like Unilever (who govern tea brands like PG tips, Lipton, and T2), Tetley, and Yorkshire tea working towards more “sustainable tea”. However, a lot of the focus seems to be towards gaining the ‘sustainability pin’ by hitching an external certification, such as the rainforest alliance or fair-trade certifications. This often masks what’s really being dealt with as through the Sustainable Development Goals, we can see that there needs to be a focus on the environment as well as the social development. The former certification has been criticised for failing to really implement a long-term development framework, whereas the latter has been critiqued for its lack of focus on the environmental risks of the business and its stakeholders.
The question is how much are we willing to pay for our tea? Because we as consumers are demanding a more ‘responsible’ product whilst also trying to stop our wallets taking the hit. In this way, the companies are trying to create a more sustainable product by prioritising their environmental or community practices. This has limits such as the cost of technology, land ownership, the wages that they can pay their employees, the amount they can invest back into their community, etc. Despite these initiatives being beneficial to the company’s long-term objectives, it can also threaten some of their business processes.
For example, tea producers that invest back into their communities through means such as education and health-care, are in a way “empowering” their workforce to become better and expect better from their employers. This can filter down through the communities to the younger generations and drive their ambitions towards other vocations such as doctors and lawyers. In the future, this will result in a depleting workforce or higher costs to try and compete against other vocation’s salaries, for the initial workforce.
I wonder if there is a way that the whole tea industry could collectively demand a change, that benefits the suppliers, whilst allowing for the flexibility of tea prices in the future due to rising costs, whilst also avoiding a drop in demand for tea from the consumers. Given that people in the UK drink an average of 876 cups of tea a year, is a few pence extra going to deter the majority of the market, or could this shift to sustainable tea be commended as it’s in line with the ‘ethical sourcing trend’ we’re seeing unfold in global markets today?
Unilever as “Ethical Tea” Producer – https://ratetea.com/topic/unilever-tea-brands/31/
10 Fairtrade Tea brands and their ‘smart sustainable practices’ – https://www.treehugger.com/slideshows/green-food/10-fair-trade-tea-brands-with-smart-sustainable-practices/page/10/
The Wall Street Journal on ‘What consistutes sustainable tea?’ – https://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2011/11/21/what-constitutes-sustainable-tea/
Challenges of the Ethical Tea Partnership – http://www.expo2015.org/magazine/en/economy/the-challenges-of-the-tea-industry–environmental-and-social-sustainability-.html
The Guardian’s ‘Is the tea industry really taking steps to be more ethical and sustainable?’ – https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/tea-industry-ethical-sustainable
Image: Shabbir Ferdous on Flickr (Creative Commons)