Sustainable sourcing

This work supports the following UN Sustainable Development Goals

  • Zero Hunger
  • Climate Action
  • Life on Land
  • Partnership For The Goals

Sustainable tea – leading the industry

Tea can create better lives – for tea workers, smallholder tea farmers and tea drinkers. As the world's biggest tea company, we want to lead the way in ensuring tea keeps building communities, improving people's livelihoods and respecting the environment.

Lipton tea farming

Using our knowledge to make lives better

cup of tea icon

Cups per hour could be brewed from the tea leaf we grow or buy

Farmer with spade

People derive their livelihoods from our tea supply chain

With the tea we produce, you could brew over 16 million cups every hour. That means we need to source tea at enormous scale: which in turn means we support the livelihoods of more than 1 million people in 21 countries who work in tea estates belonging to us or our suppliers, or on small farms.

With this scale, we can produce some of the biggest and most innovative names in tea – brands such as Lipton, PG tips, Brooke Bond Red Label, T2, Tazo, Pure Leaf and Pukka, among many others.

It also gives us a unique understanding of the tea industry and its deep-rooted challenges – and a huge opportunity to make a difference to the lives of the people it depends on.

By respecting and valuing the human rights of tea workers and smallholder farmers, and working to improve their health and financial security while protecting and nurturing the land they work on, we aim to set the example for the industry. And by connecting with the millions of people who enjoy our teas, as well as partners within and beyond our sector, we aim to bring a thriving, healthy tea industry into the 21st century.

The Ethical Tea Partnership

We are a committed member of the Ethical Tea Partnership, a not-for-profit organisation which brings together the tea industry with development partners, NGOs and governments to improve the lives of tea workers, farmers and the environment in which they live and work.

Brands for better lives

Our brands are connecting with millions of tea drinkers all over the world to create movements for change.

Sustainable tea that builds communities

We source black, green and herbal teas – and our broad portfolio means we’re the biggest tea company in the world. We want to use that scale and reach to drive change – so, in 2010, we committed to sustainably sourcing 100% of our tea, including loose tea, by 2020.

We've 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 the end of 2019, 90% of all our tea was from certified sustainable sources. See Targets & performance for details.

Our commitments won't come to an end in 2020. We've always understood that investing in sustainable tea is essential for our future success, and our ambition for, and investment in, making a positive social and environmental impact through our tea business continues to develop. We know that people have always been at the heart of the tea business – but they have not always been properly respected and valued by it. That needs to change.


T2 products in shelves

T2: making a difference, from leaf to cup

T2, our premium tea brand, prides itself on "celebrating difference by making a difference".

And T2's long-standing commitment to inclusivity and sustainability has been recognised: the brand achieved B Corp accreditation in 2020.

Short for Benefit Corporation, B Corp certification is awarded to businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.

As T2 Global CEO Nicole Sparshott explains: "B Corp accreditation reflects our mission to be leaders and agents for positive change in the tea category and industry at large. We consider our impact in every step of our business, from the first leaf to the last sip."

T2 expects to source over 70% of tea ingredients from certified sustainable farms in 2020, with the balance on track to be certified sustainable in 2021. And over 90% of its packaging is now recyclable, reusable or compostable, and it’s aiming to reach 100% in 2021.

Tackling the issues & driving change for tea

Around the world, we're working on a range of programmes that aim to create better lives for people in the tea supply chain, both within and beyond our own tea estates in Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda.

Our programmes' objectives include increasing incomes for tea workers and smallholders, improving health and sanitation and empowering women.

Many of these programmes are featured in our interactive tea map. And they are interlinked with our wider work to make a positive social impact and support the UN SDGs, including our drive to increase Fairness in the workplace, create Opportunities for women, and Connecting with smallholder farmers to enhance livelihoods.


Tea farmer

Creating opportunities in Rwanda

In Nyaruguru, one of the poorest districts of Rwanda, we're putting our holistic approach to sustainable tea into practice. When we began building a factory and a small plantation covering about 4,200 hectares in 2017, we also launched a programme to help around 6,000 people – half of whom are women – earn a decent, sustainable living as smallholder tea farmers.

We are training these smallholders in smart farming techniques to help them make efficient use of scarce resources and develop resilience to drought and climate change. With tea paying up to ten times more than traditional crops, this will increase incomes and reduce poverty in the area. We provide training in health and safety, and run campaigns to tackle sexual and gender-based violence. And through our Sunlight brand, we also provide clean water through four Water Centres, which together serve around 200 households.

The impact is clearly felt. As Ester, one of the farmers, says: “Working for Unilever means I can support my family and afford medical insurance. Importantly, I work near my home, not far away in somewhere like Kigali."

This initiative is in partnership with The Wood Foundation Africa and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID).

Photo Philip Sigey

  • Good Health and Wellbeing)
  • Gender Equality)
  • Clean Water and Sanitation)
  • Decent Work and Economic Growth)
  • Climate Action)

Making sure tea workers are safe

Improving safety for women and girls in the tea industry is a priority. Women working in the industry are too often subjected to violence and harassment, and further denied their rights by inadequate, or non-existent, grievance mechanisms and safe spaces.

Everyone in the sector should feel safe, respected, included and valued – and we will not tolerate gender-based violence against the women and girls who make up around half the tea pluckers and smallholder farmers in our supply chain.

We've worked extensively to drive change in this area. Our awareness and engagement programmes across communities in Kenya and India have reached more than 600,000 people. And we continue to drive action on the ground through the Global Women’s Safety Framework in Rural Spaces (PDF | 7MB), which we launched with UN Women in 2018. It helps tea producers understand what the safety issues facing women and girls are, how to identify them and how to prevent them.

Improving the health of tea workers

Poor diet is a long-standing issue in parts of the tea industry. We’re working with partners to implement the Healthy Diets for Everyone in Tea Communities programme to improve the diet and hygiene of tea workers and smallholder farmers in Kenya, Malawi and India. This sector-wide nutrition partnership, which includes The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), the Ethical Tea Partnership and tea companies, builds on the success of our Seeds of Prosperity programme.

Protecting the land for future generations

green hardwood tree icon

Trees planted around our Kenyan tea estates

Tea workers and farmers depend on the land to grow their tea – and we're committed to nurturing it so that future generations will continue to benefit. We're continuing to build on programmes that implement sustainable farming practices including improving soil, crop quality, biodiversity, tea plant breeding and reforestation.

To take one example, we've planted 1.3 million trees across our Unilever Tea Kenya estates, and donated a further 30,000 indigenous trees to local communities and institutions. Some of our work on smart agriculture, water conservation and pesticide reduction is described further below.

Making tea workers' lives more financially secure

Financial security is critical to the future of the tea sector – and to our aim to ensure better lives for the people it depends on. Low wages and financial uncertainty continue to hold many tea workers and smallholders back. We've worked with a wide range of partners to build workers' financial resilience – by working on the living wage in Africa and India, for example, or through the financial literacy training we've introduced on our own estates.

Malawi Tea 2020: better wages, better livelihoods

SS Tea Jvan Honk Insight

Jordy van Honk is Global Director for Agricultural Commodities (Cocoa, Tea, Coffee) at IDH.

“We reached a significant milestone in the Malawi Tea 2020 programme in 2019: closing 29% of the net living wage gap. This means that 50,000 tea workers on plantations in Malawi now get 18% more than the country’s agricultural minimum daily wage.

This was the result of a truly collaborative effort with stakeholders from across the entire tea value chain to achieve a living wage for tea workers. With a collective bargaining process successfully embedded, we’re creating a safer workplace for tea workers, especially women. The framework we’ve developed is a sustainable procurement model that shows buyers how they can contribute to a living wage.”


Towards a transparent tea industry

We want consumers to understand where their tea comes from, because transparency is a key ingredient in our ambition to make the tea industry fairer and more sustainable. Greater scrutiny of our supply chains helps us work more effectively with partners and suppliers to bring about positive change.

In September 2019, we took an important step forward by publishing a list of all our global suppliers (PDF | 683KB) of black and green tea – a list we’ll update annually. Details of our suppliers are also included in our interactive map: where does your tea come from?

Respecting human rights in our tea supply chain

Valuing the individual, seeking fairness, promoting transparency – all these priorities reflect the fact that respecting and advancing human rights are at the core of our business.

But we know that human rights abuses persist in the tea supply chain, and alongside the active programmes we run to address specific issues, all our work is underpinned by our Responsible Sourcing Policy (RSP). Described in detail in Advancing human rights in our extended supply chain, the RSP reflects our commitment to conduct business with integrity, openness and respect for universal human rights and core labour principles throughout our supply chain.

Further activities are described in Safety for women and our Human Rights Report 2017 (PDF | 10MB); and we describe our application of our Land Rights Principles for our new factory and tea estate in Rwanda in Understanding and reporting on our human rights impacts.

The twelve fundamental principles

Shaping the change we want to see

As these programmes show, we'll only achieve our ambitions for tea if we work with many partners, from tea growers, suppliers and NGOs, to local and national governments and the wider industry.

Public–private partnerships are an important way in which we 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 around 600,000 farmers since 2006.

One of our longest-running partnerships of this kind was in Kenya, with the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) and IDH (The Sustainable Trade Initiative). Initiated 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.

Building progress through certification

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Indian tea estates and factories achieved trustea verification by 2019

Certification is another important way to drive this kind of change, and we have a long history of supporting it.

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. This process helped to transform both our own supply chain and the wider industry. It led to us becoming the first major tea company to commit to sustainably sourcing tea on a large scale, with Kericho, our largest tea estate in Kenya, being 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. In Kenya alone, over 700,000 smallholder farmers have achieved Rainforest Alliance certification for their farms.

We were also a founding member 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.

By the end of 2019, 653 factories and tea estates had achieved trustea verification, impacting around 55,670 smallholders and 619,500 tea estate workers, over half of whom were women.

For further details of how our partnership programmes are enhancing the lives of smallholders and encouraging young farmers to maintain the tea industry, see Inclusive business.

No tea without water

Responsible water management is essential to sustainable tea production, and we're working on a number of programmes to raise awareness and reduce impacts.

In Kenya, we’re involved in IDH’s Sustainable Landscape Initiative. It aims to stop and reverse deforestation in the South West Mau Forest, which is contributing to water shortages and drought. A pilot project was initiated in 2017 with the aim of providing local cattle herds with alternative fodder to reduce grazing pressure on the forest. It concluded in 2019, reaching 200 farmers.

In Sri Lanka, we began work in 2018 with Sri Lanka Water Partnership (SLWP), also known as Lanka Jalani, to promote responsible water stewardship in tea landscapes through schools in and around tea estates. The programme promotes Rainforest Alliance practices and is active in 15 schools in the Agra Oya basin. Find out more about how we're Working with our suppliers and farmers to manage water use.

Understanding how to reduce pesticides

The climate and agricultural practices on our estates 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.


Tea plantation

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 was the first time this had 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 mites, loopers, thrips, black rot and the tea mosquito bug. 

Ensuring tea has a long-term future

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Tea varieties studied to understand their genetic diversity

Many crops, including tea, face enormous challenges from climate change. To increase the resilience of tea, we’ve developed a number of agricultural interventions. We worked with the Crop Trust to develop a global conservation strategy, building on our work of sourcing more than 1,000 tea varieties from around the world in order to map tea's genetic diversity.

We’ve also developed innovative models to accelerate the breeding of varieties more resilient to climate change. And with Microsoft AI for Earth and Cranfield University’s Centre for Environmental and Agricultural Informatics, we’re implementing digital agricultural solutions to increase sustainable productivity on our tea estate in Kenya.

Our strategic tea review

We're proud of our tea brands and the work we've done to make the tea industry fairer and more sustainable, but we cannot ignore the fact that sales of traditional black tea, the largest segment of the category, have been in decline in developed markets for several years, as consumer preferences have changed. In January 2020, we announced a strategic review of our global tea business, which will consider all options for our portfolio and which we expect to conclude by mid-2020. This does not change our commitment to sustainable sourcing.

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