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Tea Industry Leaders Aiming to Make World’s Favorite Beverage a 'Hero Crop'

Every cup of tea you drink should help better the lives of the people who produce it, improve the environment where it is grown, and contribute to a thriving global industry, according to a new report from some of sector’s biggest players, launched today by global sustainability nonprofit Forum for the Future.

Unilever, Yorkshire Tea, Tata Global Beverages and James Finlay are among members of the Tea 2030 partnership calling for the sector to find legal ways to collaborate — whilst continuing to compete vigorously — to turn tea from a standard commodity into a “hero crop,“ which benefits the millions who work in all parts of the industry as well as the wider environment and economy.

The Tea 2030 partners will now focus their collaboration on three key areas:

  • Sustainable production — benefitting the environment and communities where tea is grown;
  • žMarket mechanisms — which deliver greater value to all players in the supply chain;
  • žEngage consumers — so they both demand more sustainable tea and reduce impacts associated with tea consumption.

Launched today, The Future of Tea — A Hero Crop for 2030, is the result of a year’s research and collaboration between organisations from all parts of the sector, facilitated and managed by Forum for the Future. The Tea 2030 partners include four of the seven companies responsible for 90% of the world tea market, Unilever, Tata Global Beverages, James Finlay and Twinings, plus the Ethical Tea Partnership, Fairtrade International, IDH — the Sustainable Trade Initiative, Rainforest Alliance, S&D Coffee and Tea, and Yorkshire Tea, and they are supported by the International Tea Committee.

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The report identifies profound challenges facing the industry, including climate change, population growth, and competition for agricultural land and water. It sets out key principles that will allow the sector to overcome these challenges and achieve a sustainable future. And it calls on everyone across the tea value chain — workers, growers, processors, traders, packers, retailers and consumers — to unite to achieve the shared vision.

Sally Uren, CEO of Forum for the Future, said: “The tea industry operates in some of the world’s poorest countries that are most vulnerable to climate change and faces serious challenges. We are urging organisations across the sector to collaborate to find solutions that will safeguard its future and transform the lives of millions of people working throughout the industry.

“The Tea 2030 partnership is leading the way by planning action to make tea a hero crop — one that not only delivers a great commodity, but also improves livelihoods, tackles climate change, and engages the support of tea drinkers throughout the world in creating a sustainable industry.”

Challenges Facing the Tea Sector

The tea sector is facing some major challenges that will have a profound impact on the growing, distribution and marketing of tea in the future. The report identifies ten key issues:

  • Demographic changes
  • Resource constraints
  • Climate change
  • Competition for land and productivity
  • Availability of labour and mechanisation
  • Balance of power across the supply chain
  • Emergence of new business models
  • Sustainability leadership of emerging economies
  • Improvement in wages and labour welfare in the supply chain
  • Consumer attitude to food value

Pier Luigi Sigismondi, Chief Supply Chain Officer at Unilever, said: “Unilever is committed to creating a sustainable tea business but we know we cannot do this alone. That’s why we are proud to be part of Tea 2030 and believe this important collaboration is key to improving the livelihoods of millions of people in the sector and building a more sustainable future for tea.”

The report presents four possible scenarios for the year 2030, examining ways in which these challenges may shape the world and the future of the tea industry. They are designed as a tool to help businesses plan for the future and develop sustainable products and business models.

Following extensive research, a series of workshops and collaboration meetings with the Steering Group, three platforms have been identified as priorities for action working together. Delivering improved livelihoods for all within the tea value chain is central to all three platforms. They are:

1. Reaching and engaging tea drinkers

  • Tea is the world’s most popular beverage after water, and more than three billion cups are drunk each day. The report says that consumer support is essential in making tea a hero crop and generating the investment needed to build a sustainable tea industry.
  • Tea 2030 partners will now take action and make recommendations on how to create consumer demand for sustainable tea. “By communicating more creatively on how and where tea is made, brands have a huge opportunity to change the perception of tea among its drinkers and to encourage them to value it as a high-quality, sustainable product,” says the report.
  • Coffee drinkers now choose “quality” coffee over instant, and consumers are interested in the provenance and story behind their cup of fairtrade coffee. Marketing teams from brands and retailers have an important role to play in generating consumer demand for better quality tea produced to high social and environmental standards.
  • The industry will also look at how to change consumers’ behaviour to reduce the environmental impacts of tea consumption; for example, saving energy and water by boiling only as much as is needed and recycling used tea bags.

2. Creating more sustainable market mechanisms

  • Tea is grown in 35 countries, including some of the world’s poorest, and provides a vital source of employment and export earnings. A second platform will study how to develop sustainable market mechanisms that will benefit players in all parts of the tea “value chain,” particularly growers.
  • The report notes that the whole industry will benefit if growers gain more control over their product and a greater share of its value. This will give them the opportunity and motive to develop their agronomy and business skills, improve productivity and professionalism, and ultimately make the sector more resilient and able to cope with changes that lie ahead.
  • The industry should review a whole range of issues, including payment terms, the availability of investment finance, the way tea is traded, where it is processed and packaged, and wider questions such as whether to set up a futures market for tea, following the example of coffee.
  • The report says traders could play a bigger role encouraging cooperation across the value chain, helping retailers understand the challenges of sustainable production and producers to understand consumer demands.

3. Developing more sustainable production

Tea is grown in some of the countries most vulnerable to future climate change. Changing weather patterns are already causing problems in some tea-growing areas, and threaten to affect yields and prices. As populations grow, tea is also likely to have to compete with food crops for land, water and scarce resources such as phosphorous for fertiliser.

  • “Tea companies need to ensure that their production benefits local communities, by providing employment, by respecting communities and contributing to local services, and by treating the environment sustainably, ensuring that the land maintains productivity in the long term,” says the report.
  • The tea industry should not only minimise its impact on the environment but also restore ecosystems through reforestation, increasing biodiversity and improving water management and soil quality, the report says.
  • It should also explore how tea growing can deliver additional benefits; for example, mixed planting of tea and food crops, and developing tea estates so that they store carbon — potentially attracting carbon financing.

Ron Mathison, Group MD of James Finlay Limited, said: “Today we face many environmental and social challenges. Some of the challenges are similar to those faced years ago, some are different and require new ways of working. We recognise that we cannot overcome all these challenges on our own and that no business can be truly sustainable in isolation. We must work with all the key stakeholders to explore all the major factors that might influence and shape the future sustainability of the tea industry.”


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