Sustainable tea - leading the industry
As the world's biggest tea company, we believe that leading the way in sustainable tea sourcing creates opportunities: 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, Bushells and Pukka refresh millions of tea-drinkers every day with our black, green or herbal teas. Our broad 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.
And 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 on 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 challenges – but it also gives us the opportunity to make a real difference to communities, and to the environment.
We're making 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 we're working towards our 2020 target for all tea – by the end of 2018, 84% was from certified sustainable sources. See Targets & performance for details.
Cross-cutting programmes that aim to change lives
Partnerships and programmes supporting sustainable tea
In 2018, we were working on around 40 major sustainable sourcing 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. Our increasingly holistic approach means individual programmes often address multiple issues.
Shaping the change we want to see
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. In Kenya alone, over 700,000 smallholder farmers have achieved Rainforest Alliance certification for their farms.
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.
Impact through partnerships
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). 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.
Blockchain: exploring new ways to transform tea supply chains
We want to make tea production more sustainable - and help the people who improve their agricultural practices by enabling them to increase their incomes.
As with many crops, one of the biggest challenges in this area is traceability - knowing who produced a specific consignment of tea, and being able to show that they have put sustainable methods into action.
Solving this challenge could unlock financial incentives that reward sustainability - and we're exploring a number of innovative approaches.
In December 2017, we announced a pioneering partnership initiative, known as Project Trado. It explores the use of blockchain and other data technologies to create a shared data system for tea farmers in Malawi. The technology works by gathering and encoding standardised information from farmers about their produce, including production quality and price. This information is then available to all parties that can access that blockchain, making the supply chain – and its sustainability information – traceable and transparent.
This has huge potential. Barclays, BNP Paribas, Rabobank and Standard Chartered, which are all part of the initiative, could use this data to offer preferential terms or access to credit based on the evidence of sustainability supported by the blockchain.
One possible outcome is that, through access to cheaper levels of working capital, smallholders will be able to increase investments in their farms to become more productive without needing to convert more land. We're also exploring the potential for creating a sustainability fund, which could be invested in areas including legal services, irrigation systems, solar panels, farmer field schools, or new seedlings for interplanting.
Project Trado is currently a pilot initiative, convened by The University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)
Respecting human rights in our tea supply chain
Respecting and advancing human rights are at the core of our business. But we know that human rights abuses persist in some of the markets and sectors in which we operate - including the tea supply chain.
Our Responsible Sourcing Policy, described in Advancing human rights with suppliers and business partners, underpins our commitment to conduct business with integrity, openness and respect for universal human rights and core labour principles throughout our supply chain.
Alongside this commitment, we also work on programmes and partnerships to address specific human rights issues around tea.
These issues 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. Our work with UN Women on programmes to promote women's safety, including through developing A Global Framework on Women’s Safety (PDF | 7MB), is described in Safety for women and our Human Rights Report 2017 (PDF | 10MB).
The issues also include land rights − and we describe our application of our Land Rights Principles for a new factory and tea estate in Rwanda in Understanding our human rights impacts.
Sustainable agriculture & beyond
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. Our work with the ETP includes our Safety for Women and Girls partnership and the Malawi Tea 2020 programme which has increased tea sector wages and established farmer field schools in Malawi.
Malawi Tea 2020: better wages, better livelihoods
Jordy van Honk is Programme Director for Tea at IDH.
“We reached a significant milestone in the Malawi Tea 2020 programme in 2018: closing 25% of the net living wage gap. This means that 50,000 tea workers on plantations in Malawi now get 57% 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.”
Indian tea estates and factories achieved trustea verification by 2018
We were 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 started in 2013, setting out to cover over 600 tea factories and impacting 40,000 smallholders and 500,000 tea estate workers. By the end of 2018, 586 factories and tea estates had achieved trustea verification, impacting around 48,000 smallholders and 546,000 tea estate workers, over half of whom were women.
trustea: more knowledge, better tea
Daleram Gulia is our Procurement Manager in Sustainable Sourcing.
"You can see the change on the ground – people are hungry for knowledge," says Daleram. "The first question smallholders ask is: 'can you help me on judicious use of pesticides?' Then they want to know about compliance, green leaf-handling, how to improve quality, etc."
Daleram works with our tea supply chain in India, where around half the country's tea production is grown by smallholders – and where smallholder potential is being unlocked by trustea, as he explains. "Conditions for smallholders vary widely across the country, but overall the number of growers is increasing. Often, smallholders are fragmented and dependent on agents to sell their green leaf (the leaves that are then dried into black tea). That can mean they lack access to information about prices, traceability and sustainable agricultural practices – it also means it can be hard to get visibility of where and how our tea is grown.
trustea requires tea factories to first map their supply chain, which creates a connection to individual smallholders and the opportunity for them to organise in groups. That means we can reach them with soil management practices, training in sustainable agriculture, and a wide range of professional techniques so we can guide them towards compliance with trustea's code requirements.
Since 2013, the volumes of trustea verified teas in India’s domestic market have risen steadily, reaching about 47% of the country’s tea production in 2018. For Unilever, that means more knowledge about who’s growing our tea, and how. It also gives us greater assurance that the tea we’re selling meets mandatory criteria on wages, plant protection, safety and pesticide use – as per the Tea Board of India’s Plant Protection Code (PPC).”
Daleram and colleagues explain more about trustea in this film.
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.
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.
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.
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 Sri Lanka, for example, 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.
In Kenya, we’re involved in IDH’s (The Sustainable Trade Initiative) Sustainable Landscapes Initiative. It aims to stop and reverse deforestation in the South West Mau forest, which is contributing to water shortages and drought. By 2018, 250 hectares of forest had been rehabilitated, and work is underway to provide local cattle herds with alternative fodder to reduce the pressure on the forest.
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 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 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 mite, loopers, thrips, black rot and the tea mosquito bug.
Ensuring tea has a long-term future
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’re developing a number of agricultural interventions to increase the resilience of tea for the future. We are working with the Crop Trust to develop a global conservation strategy, building on our work of sourcing more than 1,000 tea cultivars from around the world in order to map tea's genetic diversity.
With Nature Source Improved Plants, we’re working to accelerate the breeding of varieties more resilient to climate change or differentiated on quality. And with Microsoft AI for Earth and Cranfield University’s Centre for Environmental and Agricultural Informatics, we’re looking at how to adopt digital agricultural solutions (such as crop modelling and remote sensing) to increase productivity sustainably on our tea plantation in Kenya.