Toggle Search

Sustainable sourcing
  1. Home
  2. Sustainable Living
  3. Reducing environmental impact
  4. Sustainable sourcing
  5. Sustainable tea - leading the industry

Sustainable tea - leading the industry

Tea is the most popular non-alcoholic beverage after water. We are the world's biggest tea packer and are leading the way in sustainable sourcing. This not only gives us the opportunity to make a significant positive impact on communities and the environment, but also enables us to secure high quality tea for our much-loved brands.

Lipton tea farming

Our commitment to sustainable tea farming

We're committed to sustainably sourcing 100% of our tea, including loose tea, by 2020.

For us, this commitment presents an enormous opportunity - because our brands, which include Lipton, PG tips and Brooke Bond - connect us to millions of people whose livelihoods depend on tea production. We source tea from farmers on 750,000 smallholdings, mostly in Africa and Asia, as well as our own estates in Kenya and Tanzania. Our tea supply chain gives us the opportunity to enhance livelihoods on a significant scale.

Investing in sustainable tea is essential for our business. We want to ensure that we will continue to have a supply of high quality tea from expert tea farmers to underpin our growth. We need to show that we are committed to long-term partnerships with stakeholders in societies and economies where tea is grown, and inspire consumers to trust the quality and sustainability of our tea.

With a supply chain on this scale, there are many challenges to achieving change - but we have made good progress. 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 by 2016, 75% of our total tea volumes were from sustainable sources.

Spotlight Spotlight

Great taste, sustainably sourced

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 site to achieve Rainforest Alliance CertificationTM.

More than 1.3 million trees have been planted there since 2000, supporting biodiversity and a natural balance within the tea fields. There is also a range of initiatives focused on improving water and energy use and reducing waste and CO2, including one of Unilever’s longest-running renewable energy sources - the river running through Kericho has been used for hydro power since the 1920s.

More than 90% of the tea produced at Kericho is rated at the highest taste level for black tea.

How we're driving positive change

To achieve our ambitions for tea, we're working with a wide range of partners, including tea-growers, suppliers, NGOs, local and national governments and the wider tea industry.

One of the most important ways to drive change in any agricultural sector is through certification - and in 2006, we helped the Rainforest Alliance to develop a certification standard for sustainable tea, in the process helping to transform both our own supply chain and the wider industry. Today, Rainforest Alliance Certified 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 for certification.

Spotlight Spotlight

Man holding tea leaves

Farmer Field Schools reach tea-growers across Kenya

Around 86,000 lead farmers - including around 42,000 women – have been trained at the Farmer Field Schools we set up in partnership with the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) and The Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH) in 2006. These help them share best agricultural practices, increase yields, improve quality and improve their health and nutrition. And over 580,000 farmers have met the certification standards set by the Rainforest Alliance.

Now an embedded part of the tea system in KTDA, in 2016 we handed over full responsibility of the Farmer Field Schools to KTDA.

Read more about smallholder farmers in Inclusive business.

Public-private partnerships such as our work with KTDA can develop sustainable practices and improve the livelihoods of the people working in tea supply chains. We have signed public–private partnerships in Malawi, Tanzania, Vietnam and Yunnan province in China.

We signed an ambitious Memorandum of Understanding with the government of Tanzania in 2013. Its aim is to reinvigorate the tea industry by collaborating to upgrade our Mufindi tea estates and significantly increase our smallholder sourcing while increasing their yields. By the end of 2016, all our Mufindi estate out-growers were Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM with 1,000 new farmers joining our supply chain. In a separate new project at Njombe, 1,000 smallholder farmers have now begun replanting and expanding their tea production to supply a new factory we are building there.

Partnerships also address labour conditions on tea estates in regions such as Assam, 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 to Fairness in the workplace.

Further details of how our partnership programmes are enhancing the lives of smallholders and encouraging young farmers to maintain the tea industry can be found in Inclusive Business.

Spotlight Spotlight

Malawi Tea 2020

We're members of the Malawi Tea 2020 programme - a partnership that brings together organisations who can deliver the changes required to achieve a competitive and profitable Malawian tea industry. Read Malawi Tea 2020's 2016 progress report (PDF l 2MB).

Harnessing the power of partnership

We've embraced a number of comprehensive partnerships which address a range of social and environmental issues while embedding sustainable agricultural practices. For example, in October 2016 we began phase two of Integrating Smallholders into Quality and Sustainable Tea Supply Chains in Vietnam, a joint effort of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD), Unilever, IDH, VITAS and around 16,500 tea farmers in Vietnam.

We also helped to establish trustea n 2013, 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 2016, 315 factories had achieved trustea verification, impacting over 25,000 smallholders and around 350,000 tea estate workers, over half of who were women.

Spotlight Spotlight

Mobile Technology for Smallholder Farmers in Tanzania

Strong connections: mobile technology helps smallholders

"Payment through mpesa has made my life very easy because I do not have to go to the bank."

Leonard Benedict Kapasi began selling green leaf tea to one of our suppliers in Tanzania in 2016 - and technology is helping him improve his yields. Through our partnership with Vodafone, he now has the mpesa mobile phone to receive information about weather forecasts, crop quality and training opportunities, as well as a mobile payment system.

The initiative helps us complete Rainforest Alliance certification audits electronically, as well as analyse performance, volume, quality and impact data.

In 2017 we joined the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP), a non-governmental organisation which works with its 44 members as a catalyst for change to tackle the key issues in the tea industry. Working across tea companies and retailers, ETP drives improvements in sustainability by focusing on improving the lives and livelihoods of tea workers and farmers and the environment in which tea is produced. Unilever has an important role to play in addressing the endemic issues facing the industry, and working with ETP enables increased opportunities to partner with a wider group of key stakeholders to tackle both the environmental and social issues to deliver change at scale and enrich more lives in tea.

Leading research on reducing 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.

In 2014, we commissioned CABI (Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International) to conduct an independent scientific study (PDF | 178KB) to evaluate the non-pesticide methods for protecting tea crops in India, and subsequently developed a toolkit of best practice. In 2016, pilot trials in commercial tea gardens in Assam indicated yields comparable to those of integrated chemical management and chemical management practices. We have extended the project for another year to evaluate options for scaling-up.

Ensuring tea has a long-term future

While we believe the tea industry, and our tea brands, have a bright future, we recognise the challenges presented by climate change, water scarcity, competition for land and rapidly-changing consumer markets, among others.

We are helping to safeguard the future of the world’s tea supply through R&D to cultivate sustainable varieties. Our project, in partnership with Nature Source Genetics, runs 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 have 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 consumers.

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.

Back to top