Its been an interesting few days in the world of tea and sustainability, with more media interest, both positive and negative, in the issues we work on in the last 48 hours than in the previous 12 months. So I had a somewhat surreal start to my Valentine’s day, as I found myself chatting with BBC news reporters about on-line dating, before discussing tea worker wages on the World Service (24m 48s - 29m, live link until 21/02/2014).

Some of this interest results from the rising global agenda on issues such as ‘living wage’, in other cases it is driven by increased NGO and journalist focus on serious social issues affecting key tea producing countries.  And very positively, some of the interviews I have been doing are a result of the increased collaboration by tea companies on sustainability, which was announced at the Tea 2030 event last night.

At that event, I described how the tea industry is now entering its fourth wave of collaboration. This industry has consistently shown real leadership in the way it works together to tackle the serious challenges it faces.

I am a development and sustainability professional by background, so I spent much of the early 2000s working on projects that, almost inevitably, ended with calls for greater collaboration between companies –and between companies and other ‘stakeholders’ – as the only way to deal with the serious sustainability issues facing us. While undeniably true, it so rarely led to any meaningful outcomes; the word collaboration used to induce a kind of ‘here we go again’ type ennui in me every time I heard it.

ETP Summer meetingYet in the mid-1990s, visionary tea companies had already found ways of putting commercial considerations to one side so that they could jointly work on ethical issues in their supply chains, with the establishment of what is now the ETP. This first wave of collaboration was focused on raising core standards, with huge investment in improving working conditions and management of social and environmental issues in tea supply chains. Very excitingly, the waves of certification that have been through the export oriented chains are now being followed by similar work in domestic market suppliers, such as the work that we are involved in as part of the Trustea programme in India. Raising core standards in these huge markets is crucial if sustainability is to be properly embedded.

The second wave, is one that we will still be riding for quite some time to come, focusing on issues where there are strong links between sustainability and security of supply, such as smallholder livelihoods and climate change adaptation.

The third wave is one that we are deeply engaged in at the moment, focusing on the socio-economic issues facing the workers and farmers producing tea. This is taking collaboration into a different dimension. Dealing with challenges such as living wage, exploitation of women and children in tea communities, and the future of smallholder livelihoods requires co-operation not just between companies and their technical partners but also with NGOs, unions, retailers, and governments.

And now we are adding a fourth wave. The Tea 2030 project gave us an opportunity to take a step back and do a sense check of where we have got to and making sure that the partnerships we have are sufficient to deal with both current and future challenges.  Interviews with influencers inside and outside the sector helped the Forum for the Future team develop three future scenarios to inform our thinking.

The overall conclusion is that the collaborative relationships that already exist between companies and with external partners such as IDH and ETP’s key networks, provide the structures we need to continue to scale up our impact in the producer part of the value chain. Current partnerships should be complemented by new collaborations on the macro level. So there should be a greater focus on how market mechanisms can contribute to farmers and workers receiving greater value from producing tea. And we should add in a landscapes focus to ensure that all the work that is being done at the farmer and estate level adds up to more than the sum of its parts, and conversely that policy decisions taken far from the tea sector do not undermine the excellent work that is being carried out at the local level.

The major missing element currently is at the consumer end of the value chain where there has been very little joint working on issues such as carbon emissions, packaging, or communicating sustainability issues to consumers. More joint working at this end of the chain can only be helpful in accelerating overall progress.

Read about ETP Strategy – the Next 3 Years to improve the sustainability of the tea sector, the lives of workers and farmers, and the environment in which tea is produced.