Sustainability initiatives in the tea industry


Tea is thought to have originated more than 5,000 years ago in China, where it was used medicinally. It is the most consumed beverage in the world, besides water.

There are more than 3,000 kinds of teas. However, all non-herbal teas (e.g. green, black, white and oolong) are made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. The amount of time the leaves are processed determines whether you end up with a green, black or oolong tea, with green tea being the least processed.

The tea plant is an evergreen tree which grows in tropical or sub-tropical regions. It requires a high level of humidity, lots of sunshine and rain. For example, Darjeeling teas are grown in the Himalayan Mountains. The plants are cultivated in tea-gardens (which often give their names to certain growths of tea), and grown to around 1 metre.

Tea leaves are plucked three times a year and each harvest period imparts a distinctive flavour to the tea. In the Himalayas, the first harvest takes place from mid-March to mid-April and produces teas with a mild, vegetal taste (this is the "First Flush") and rare and aromatic qualities. The second or middle harvest takes place between mid-April and mid-May and produces teas with a more fruity and perfumed flavour. The last period is between mid-May and mid-July, for the stronger and less delicate growths.

The impacts of climate change, water use, poor soil conditions and destructive pest management are major environmental concerns in the tea industry. The rise of tea consumption and a higher demand for sustainable products, are dictating that the industry adopts a more sustainable approach. Consumers are also increasingly interested in fair trade, organic practices, and sustainable farming.

Programs to enhance sustainability

Two key programmes are the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP)  and the IDH tea program – the Sustainable Trade Initiative:

In 2013, Forum for the Future created a campaign called Tea 2030. The project involves companies and individuals across the tea industry, from pickers and packers to producers and purchasers, coming together to solve tea’s sustainability issues by the year 2030.

The ETP works with tea producers and smallholder farmers to help them meet internationally recognised social and environmental standards. This is done by providing training on issues that many producers struggle with (e.g. factory health and safety, safe use of agrochemicals, human resource management, and managing the environment sustainably).

The ETP also runs projects that tackle socio-economic issues (e.g. reducing harassment and discrimination of female workers/minority groups in the work place, improving the lives of young people in tea communities and reducing exploitation, improving living conditions and nutrition on tea estates, working towards living wage and benefits, and increasing climate change resilience). It works in four main areas:

  • Raising Standards. Ensuring that tea estates and processing factories conform to good social and environmental standards (e.g. e.g. hiring, job allocation, career opportunities and grievance procedures)
  • Tea Workers (tackling issues such as discrimination of women/minority groups, poor nutrition, and a lack of opportunities for young people (particularly girls))
  • Smallholder Tea Farmers (while 70% of global tea production is produced by 8 million smallholders, primarily in Africa, many of these smallholders struggle to make a decent living from tea (e.g. due to small farms and poor/infertile land, using out-dated and unproductive farming methods, and a lack of finance to invest in input materials such as fertiliser and new tea bushes)
  • Climate & Environment (the production of tea can have adverse impacts on the environment if it’s not managed responsibly. For example, the incorrect use of agrochemicals can lead to soil pollution and/or contamination of water bodies)

For many years, the IDH tea program has been promoting sustainable tea production in Africa and Asia, and sustainable procurement in Western Europe and Asia. For example, the Malawi Tea 2020 program is working towards a living wage. In India, it is aiming to improve the sustainability of the tea sector, as well as the livelihoods of people in tea communities, by addressing women and girls safety. IDH is also addressing gender and gender based violence on tea plantations in Kenya, through the multi-stakeholder Gender Empowerment Platform. The program is also active in Rwanda, Tanzania and Vietnam on smallholder inclusion and health and safety. In the South West Mau landscape, in Kenya, it is working with large tea plantations in the area to mitigate deforestation.

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