Sustainable tea - leading the industry

Tea is the most popular non-alcoholic beverage after water. As the number one tea packer, we purchase around 10% of the world’s black tea and are leading the way in sustainable sourcing.

Our commitment to sustainable tea farming

Our tea brands include Lipton, PG tips and Brooke Bond. Lipton is the world’s best-selling tea, available in over 100 countries with annual sales of around €3 billion.

We source tea from farmers on 750,000 smallholdings, mostly in Africa and Asia. 1 million people are thought to work there. We also grow about 10% of the tea we use on our own estates in Kenya and Tanzania - in Kenya alone, we employ over 9,000 permanent and seasonal pickers. There are millions more on the estates and smallholder farms from which we buy tea through auctions or direct contracts.

In 2007, we became the first major tea company to commit to sustainably sourcing tea on a large scale. By 2020, 100% of our tea, including loose tea, will be sustainably sourced. We also committed to source all the tea for Lipton tea bags from 100% Rainforest Alliance Certified™ sources by the end of 2015 – which we achieved. And 66% of our total volumes are now from sustainable sources.

Investing in sustainable tea

In 2006, we helped the Rainforest Alliance to develop a certification process for sustainable tea. This had a galvanising effect on our supply chain and other tea manufacturers. Today, Rainforest Alliance Certified tea accounts for around 20% of the world’s tea production. In partnership with Rainforest Alliance, we work with suppliers in 14 countries in Africa and Asia to train smallholder farmers for certification.

We have signed public–private partnerships in Malawi, Tanzania, Vietnam and Yunnan province in China. These aim to develop sustainable practices and improve the livelihoods of the people working in the supply chains.

In June 2015, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Malawi Tea 2020 Revitalisation Programme, alongside tea brands and producers, certification organisations, NGOs and the government. The signatories committed to working together to achieve a competitive and profitable tea industry in the country by 2020.

In September 2013 we signed an ambitious MOU with the Government of Tanzania to reinvigorate the country’s tea industry. Under this partnership, linked to our Mufindi tea estates, the government and Unilever agreed to collaborate, mutually invest and draw in donor funding. The aim is to create 5,000 jobs, develop 6,000 hectares of smallholder tea farms and thereby improve the lives of some 30,000 people. In 2015, we worked with over 1,200 existing smallholders, who planted 200 hectares of new tea.

Scaling up through partnerships

In 2013, Unilever and IDH agreed to invest €4 million over two years, to help take our sustainability initiatives to scale in Africa, Vietnam and India.

We continue to partner with the Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH) and Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) to co-fund farmer field schools (FFS). Together, we promote sustainable agriculture through group learning and field observation techniques.

In 2013, we expanded the programme to train 96,000 lead farmers by 2016. This means that the total number of farmers impacted by 2016 will be 560,000. By the end of 2015, over 2,500 FFS were established and had trained over 77,000 farmers.

“As well as protecting forests, an impact assessment in Kenya shows that certified, trained farmers are achieving higher and better yields than their non-trained, non-certified peers,” says Erwin Vroom, Procurement Operations Manager for tea.

In Vietnam, we have also been collaborating with IDH and the Rainforest Alliance since November 2013 on a two-year project to help smallholders access mainstream export markets. Improvements will be implemented in 30 tea factories, reaching over 19,000 Vietnamese smallholders. By the end of 2015, over 3,000 smallholders had been trained.

In 2013, we also helped to establish 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 covers over 600 tea factories and will impact 40,000 smallholders and 500,000 tea estate workers. By the end of 2015, 228,000 tonnes of tea has been trustea Verified impacting over 13,000 smallholders and over 200,000 tea estate workers.

See Livelihoods for Smallholder Farmers for more information.

Kericho model – the future of sustainable tea?

Kericho is Unilever’s largest tea estate in Kenya. More than 90% of tea produced there is rated at the highest taste level across the black tea industry. It was the first site to achieve Rainforest Alliance certification in 2007.

Unilever Tea Kenya has also made significant quality improvements across its operations, introducing a range of initiatives to save water, energy, waste and CO₂. Thanks to its Trees 2000 project, over 1 million trees have been planted since 2000, supporting biodiversity and a natural balance within the tea fields.

Raising the bar on pesticides

The climate and agricultural practices on our plantations in Kenya and Tanzania allow the tea to be grown without pesticides. However, in some parts of the world conditions currently require pesticides to preserve yields.

We encourage the global tea industry to eliminate or reduce the use of pesticides to a minimum. In March 2014, we published Unilever Guidelines on Use of Pesticides in Sustainable Tea Sourcing. We are applying these through our Sustainable Agriculture Code. We are training suppliers and farmers in integrated pest management techniques and continue to collaborate with independent certification schemes such as Rainforest Alliance.

In August 2014, we commissioned CABI (Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International), an inter-governmental, not-for-profit organisation, to conduct an independent scientific study (PDF | 178KB). This is evaluating the environmental and economic feasibility of non-pesticide methods for protecting tea crops in India. In March 2015, field trial protocols began on commercial tea estates in Assam. The aim of this work is to develop a toolkit of best practice for industry-wide application.

Leading the industry beyond certification

Our challenge today is also to assess what we can do beyond certification to find tangible ways to improve farmers’ livelihoods. If they are unable to maintain their livelihoods, farming tea will become less attractive to the younger rural male community, who are more likely to move to the city to earn higher wages. We are reviewing where we as a company can have the most impact on those in the tea industry, from the tea pickers to the consumers and those in between.

We also take seriously issues such as labour conditions in tea estates in regions such as Assam, India and believe 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.

Tea 2030: collaborating for a long-term future

Climate change, water scarcity, competition for land and rapidly-changing consumer markets are just some of the challenges facing the tea industry in the years ahead. In Indonesia, for example, where we source large quantities of tea, 13,000 hectares of tea plantations were uprooted between 2005 and 2010 to make room for other crops.

Tackling these challenges requires a co-ordinated response, so in February 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.

Safeguarding the future of tea

Unilever is also 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, will be initiated in our tea gardens in Kenya. It aims to increase the number of crops that can withstand drought, disease and pests.

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