It may come as a surprise to learn that Unilever is the world’s largest tea company. We have a portfolio of more than 30 brands including Lipton – the world’s most popular tea – as well as other household names such as Brooke Bond, Pure Leaf and Tazo.
We buy 10% of the global supply of black tea a year from 21 different countries. These range from India and China to Argentina and Australia, as well as three Unilever-owned estates in Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda.
That equates to 143 billion servings per year. Or, to put it another way, over 270,000 cups of Unilever tea are brewed every minute of every day.
Black and green tea – or Camellia sinensis, to give the plant its proper name – makes up 90% of our tea business. And it’s the details of where we source the leaves for our tea blends – for all our brands across all countries – that we have just made public.
Transparency is the basis for action
As such a big buyer of tea, we are continually working to make our supply chain more sustainable. This starts with caring about the people who pick our leaves and goes all the way through to how we blend and package our products, and the environmental impact tea production has on the planet.
Our brands connect us to millions of people whose livelihoods depend on tea production, and to the ecosystems they share – including on 750,000 smallholdings, mostly in Africa and Asia.
For some time, we have had full traceability of where our tea comes from, which has guided our efforts to make a positive impact in the sector. Through increasing transparency across our global supply chain, we believe we can accelerate our ongoing efforts to transform the entire tea industry.
The uplifting stories of workers and their families
To earn a living, farmers often sell their best crops. This leaves them with a monotonous diet of rice, maize and wheat which, while inexpensive and filling, lacks much-needed nutrition. Poor hygiene is also a big problem, with diarrhoea being the second biggest killer of children under five years old.
Our Seeds of Prosperity programme – a joint initiative with the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and IDH (The Sustainable Trade Initiative) – promotes the importance of nutritious foods, a diverse diet and handwashing with soap. Families are also given the means to create kitchen gardens to grow their own vegetables.
Pinky, a tea picker for 30 years in Assam, north-east India, used to feel dizzy and often faint, not realising that her poor diet was the cause. Since going through the Seeds of Prosperity programme, she understands the need to eat a variety of healthy foods. This is knowledge she’s also now passing on to her daughters.
Watch this short virtual reality video to get a fascinating glimpse into Pinky’s world.
Addressing some big challenges
Pinky is part of a broad and complex supply chain which involves an estimated workforce of nearly 1 million people. This inevitably brings challenges. For instance, we know that human rights abuses persist in some of the countries we source our tea from.
That’s where our Responsible Sourcing Policy comes in. This underpins our commitment to conduct business with integrity, openness and respect for universal human rights and core labour principles throughout our supply chain.
We have a range of programmes that address specific human rights issues around tea. These include women’s safety and labour conditions on tea estates in regions such as Assam in India and Kericho in Kenya, where we continue to work to eradicate unacceptable practices. Last year, in partnership with UN Women, we launched A Global Women’s Safety Framework in Rural Spaces (PDF 6.53MB). The Framework aims to empower women and girls socially, economically and politically, and it helps tea producers to understand the issues facing women, then how to identify and prevent them.
Working with partners, like UN Women and GAIN, enables us to tackle wider social and environmental issues, on an even bigger scale.
For example, in 2017 we became a member of the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP), a not-for-profit organisation that brings together the world’s most influential tea businesses to create a fairer, better and more sustainable tea industry for workers, farmers and the environment.
We are a signatory to the Malawi Tea 2020 programme, a first-of-its-kind partnership that aims to improve the competitiveness and sustainability of the Malawian industry to help move towards the point where workers are getting paid a living wage and small-scale farmers are earning a living income.
We were also founding members of trustea, the Indian tea industry collaboration on sustainability. Trustea verification guarantees the social, economic, agronomic and environmental performance of Indian tea estates, smallholders and ‘bought leaf factories’ – factories that buy tea from multiple sources.
Mick Van Ettinger, Unilever’s Executive Vice President for Tea, says: “With transparency comes transformation. Greater scrutiny of our supply chain helps us work more effectively with partners and suppliers to bring about positive change for people and planet. We want all our consumers to be part of this process too, so they can see where their tea comes from and how we are supporting the communities we work with. We’re determined to make our tea supply chain even more socially and environmentally sustainable, from tea estate to tea pot, and this is a great step to help us do that.”
Photo credits: main image – The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN); embedded image – Declan McCormack, UN Women.