Sustainable tea – leading the industry

Business News

“Tea is second only to water as the world’s most popular non-alcoholic drink – and our brands are long-standing favourites the world over.”


By Unilever

As the world’s biggest tea packer, we believe that leading the way in sustainable tea sourcing creates an enormous opportunity: both to secure the tea we need for our much-loved brands and to make a significant positive impact on communities and the environment.

Why we want to lead the way to a sustainable tea industry

Our brands include some of the biggest and most innovative names in tea. Lipton, the world’s leading tea brand, is enjoyed in more than 110 countries, while iconic brands such as PG tips, Brooke Bond and Bushells refresh millions of tea-drinkers every day.

In 2017 we acquired two new tea brands. The first is Pukka Herbs Ltd which uses 100% certified, organic and ethically sourced ingredients to produce its herbal teas and supplements.

Its health and wellness philosophy centres on benefiting people, plants and planet, so Pukka has a clear strategic fit with our business.

The second acquisition is TAZO®, which we acquired from Starbucks. Founded in 1994, TAZO® has a strong position in speciality black, green and herbal teas, as well as the liquid concentrates used in chai lattes.

Both represent good opportunities to expand our business in the fast-growing speciality tea market. Our portfolio means we’re one of the biggest buyers of tea in the world. And across every brand, we’re committed to sustainably sourcing 100% of our tea, including loose tea, by 2020.

Why? Because investing in sustainable tea is essential for our future success. We want to ensure that we will continue to have a supply of quality tea from expert tea farmers to underpin our growth. We need to show that we’re committed to long-term partnerships with stakeholders in societies and economies where tea is grown, and inspire consumers to trust, and choose, the quality and sustainability of our tea.

But tea is also essential to our ambitions to make a positive impact through our business.

Our brands connect us to millions of people whose livelihoods depend on tea production, and to the ecosystems they share – including 750,000 smallholdings, mostly in Africa and Asia, as well as our own estates in Kenya and Tanzania. Such a wide-ranging supply chain brings its own challenges – but it also gives us the opportunity to make a real difference to communities and to the environment.

We met our target to source all the tea for Lipton tea bags from 100% Rainforest Alliance Certified™ sources by the end of 2015, and are making good progress towards our 2020 target for all tea.

Cross-cutting programmes that aim to change lives

In 2017, we were working on around 40 major programmes in our tea supply chain. The objectives of these programmes included increasing tea workers’ and smallholders’ incomes, improving health, empowering women, improving sanitation, supporting biodiversity and addressing climate change – with individual programmes often addressing multiple issues.

Shaping the change we want to see

20% of world tea production is now Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM To achieve our ambitions for tea, we need to work with many partners, from tea-growers, suppliers and NGOs to local and national governments, the wider tea industry and beyond.

One of the most important ways to drive change in any agricultural sector is through certification. In 2007, we assisted the Rainforest Alliance in the development of local indicators for sustainable tea production in Kenya in accordance with the Sustainable Agriculture Network certification standard and began to certify our tea farms, in the process helping to transform both our own supply chain and the wider industry.

In 2007, we became the first major tea company to commit to sustainably sourcing tea on a large scale. In the same year Kericho, our largest tea estate in Kenya, was the first tea farm to achieve Rainforest Alliance certification.

Today, Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM tea accounts for around 20% of the world’s tea production, and we work with suppliers in 14 countries in Africa and Asia to train smallholder farmers so they can achieve farm certification.

However, certification is not the only way to create change. We recognise the importance of exploring alternative approaches which in some cases are a better fit or go further than existing schemes. Partnerships for impact Public–private partnerships provide the opportunity to develop sustainable practices and improve the livelihoods of the people working in tea supply chains.

We have signed public–private partnerships in Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania and Vietnam, helping us reach nearly 568,000 farmers since 2006. One of our longest-running partnerships of this kind was in Kenya, with the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) and The Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH). Launched in 2006, it enabled 86,000 lead farmers – including around 42,000 women – to train at Farmer Field Schools for guidance on how to share best agricultural practices, increase yields, improve quality and improve their health and nutrition.

As a result, around 580,000 farmers have met the standards for Rainforest Alliance farm certification. In 2016, with the Farmer Field Schools fully embedded, we handed over full responsibility for them to KTDA. Partnerships also address labour conditions on tea estates in regions such as Assam in India, where more needs to be done to eradicate unacceptable practices.

The strengthening of certification models, particularly regarding labour rights and working conditions, is a key part of the solution. Read more about our approach in Fairness in the workplace and our Human Rights Report 2017.

Unlocking smallholders’ potential through technology

Our Lipton brand has deep roots in Sri Lanka, where Sir Thomas Lipton grew his first tea more than a century ago. Today, more than 70% of the tea leaves grown on the island are farmed by smallholders, working in plots that average less than an acre (under half a hectare).

But too often they have been unable to access the information and support they need to unlock their full potential. As Neville Ratnayake, Chairman of Sri Lanka Federation of Tea Smallholders, describes it: “The average monthly tea yield in Sri Lanka is 300 kg.

However, we have identified cases where farmers have been able to get yields of up to 800 kg through an organised, scientific approach. But these methods are not widely adopted because most farmers use localised, traditional practices due to a lack of access to information. This is holding back individual farmers and the progress of an entire industry.”

In 2017, we began a new partnership with the Federation and telecoms provider Dialog Axiata to reach 400,000 smallholders with knowledge and sustainable growing techniques. By using technology to ensure smallholders get advice just when they need it, the partnership aims to help them grow their yields and incomes – while making our supply chain more resilient and sustainable.

Smallholders in the scheme get agricultural advice through Dialog’s Govi Mithuru (Farmer’s Friend) mobile platform. With content provided by a number of organisations, such as the Ministry of Agriculture, Govi Mithuru delivers voice mails tailored to a farmer’s crop, location and stage of cultivation.

With the Federation and a local university, we also aim to set up model farms where farmers from neighbouring areas will be invited to study and learn face to face.

Sustainable agriculture & beyond

536 Indian tea factories achieved trustea verification by 2017. We work with a range of partners on initiatives that take sustainable agricultural practices as a starting point, and go beyond them to tackle wider social and environmental issues.

In 2017 we joined the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP), a non-governmental organisation which works with tea companies and retailers to drive improvements in sustainability.

It focuses on improving the lives and livelihoods of tea workers and farmers and the environment in which tea is produced. We worked with the ETP on a number of programmes in 2017, including our Safety for Women and Girls partnership, as described in our Human Rights Report 2017, see Safety for women.

Through the Malawi Tea 2020 programme, we joined the ETP and public and private partners in establishing 50 Farmer Field Schools in Malawi in 2017, as well as working to increase tea sector wages, see Fair compensation.

We are founder members of trustea, the Indian tea industry collaboration on sustainability. The trustea logo guarantees the social, economic, agronomic and environmental performance of Indian tea estates, smallholders and ‘bought leaf factories’ – factories that buy tea from multiple sources.

The initiative covers over 600 tea factories and will impact 40,000 smallholders, and 500,000 tea estate workers. By the end of 2017, 536 factories had achieved trustea verification, impacting over 38,000 smallholders and around 490,000 tea estate workers, over half of whom were women.

In 2014 we launched Tea 2030 with Forum for the Future. Tata Global Beverages, Yorkshire Tea, James Finlays, the Ethical Tea Partnership and Fairtrade International have also joined the initiative. Tea 2030 focuses on three areas: sustainable landscapes, market mechanisms and engaging consumers.

Understanding how to reduce pesticides

The climate and agricultural practices on our plantations in Kenya and Tanzania allow tea to be grown without pesticides, but in some parts of the world conditions currently require pesticides to preserve yields.

We encourage the global tea industry to reduce the use of pesticides to a minimum. Our Unilever Guidelines on Use of Pesticides in Sustainable Tea Sourcing are applied through our Sustainable Agriculture Code. No pesticides, no pests?

In 2014, we commissioned CABI – the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International – to conduct an independent scientific study to evaluate non-pesticide methods for protecting tea crops in India. In partnership with the Tocklai Tea Research Institute, CABI conducted field trials over 2015–2017 on tea estates in Assam.

In the Phulbari tea garden, for example, the results showed that an ecologically managed plot can deliver a comparable yield to one conventionally managed with pesticides.

This is the first time this has been demonstrated through a scientific study. CABI has now developed a toolkit of best practice to help tea growers combat common pests such as red spider mite, loopers, thrips, black rot and the tea mosquito bug. 1,000 Tea cultivars studied to understand their genetic diversity.

Tea is second only to water as the world’s most popular non-alcoholic drink – and our brands are long-standing favourites the world over.

While we believe the tea industry and our tea brands have a bright future, we recognise the challenges presented to their growth. These include climate change, water scarcity, competition for land, working conditions and rapidly changing consumer markets.

We’ve started an R&D project to cultivate more sustainable varieties of tea – as a contribution to helping safeguard the future of the world’s tea supply. Our project is run in partnership with Nature Source Genetics in our tea gardens in Kenya.

It aims to increase the number of crops that can withstand drought, disease and pests. Working with tea research institutes, universities and tea companies, we’ve sourced more than a thousand tea cultivars from around the world and are mapping their genetic diversity.

We will preserve a selection of these as a living core collection, to secure tea resilience for future generations of farmers and the people who drink their tea.

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