International Tea Day 2022

Coming together to create a sustainable tea sector.

This International Tea Day, the United Nations in Western Europe UNRIC interviewed our Executive Director, Jenny Costelloe, about the key issues in tea and the value of partnerships to support tea communities.

1. Tell us a bit more about your organisation. When was the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) founded, and what was the impetus behind it?

Jenny Costelloe: ETP was founded in 1997 by a coalition of tea companies seeking to source tea ethically. ETP, Tea Sourcing Partnership at the time, was established as an auditing body with its own standard. In 2016, we decided to phase auditing from our remit recognising that, while helpful to identify issues, certification is not enough to address the complex and deep-rooted issues that constrain the sustainability of tea production.

Our aim is to have a positive impact across three focus areas: economics; equality and the environmental sustainability of tea.

Our current strategy was developed to create transformational change for the tea sector, through projects, business pilots and policy work. Our aim is to have a positive impact across three focus areas: the economics of tea; (improving living wage for tea workers and a living income for tea farmers), equality for women and young people in tea; and the environmental sustainability of tea.

2. What are the greatest obstacles to creating a sustainable tea sector?

JC: The tea sector faces many challenges. The climate crisis is having, and will continue to have, detrimental effects for tea farmers in all tea growing regions. Deforestation, soil erosion, droughts, and flooding are just some of the most pressing issues tea farmers face.

This is exacerbated by poverty, gender inequality, and legacies of colonisation as well as outdated legislation that act as barriers to address deep-rooted issues to create a more sustainable tea sector.

To address the climate crisis, we are exploring the potential for a ‘net zero’ tea industry. This requires a unified and consistent approach to accurately determine tea’s carbon footprint. This is something we are working on for the sector and is crucial to help companies to set realistic emission reduction targets and more importantly help them find ways to reach those targets.

While we need to make the tea industry more environmentally sustainable, we also need to make the tea industry more sustainable for those that rely on it to make a living. Tea is a commodity that commands low prices, and this means smallholder tea farmers suffer from poor working conditions, low wages, and discrimination in many tea growing regions. We must work across the tea supply chain to improve the economics of tea, but this isn’t a quick or easy process and will require time and investment.

3. A lot of ETP's work is in parallel with the UN SDGs and other UN agencies. Can you talk about these partnerships, and how they help shape ETP's mission?

JC: The Sustainable Developing Goals are fundamental for the future of tea, and we frequently evaluate our work to understand our contribution to the SDGs. When we map the footprint of tea against the SDGs, we can see that there is much work that needs to be done to make progress to reach all 17 SDG goals across all tea producing regions. The SDGs provide a common vernacular for many stakeholders to use together.

The Sustainable Developing Goals are fundamental for the future of tea, and we frequently evaluate our work to understand our contribution to the SDGs.

One example of the SDGs underpinning a partnership is our membership with the UN-based Better Than Cash Alliance.

We are working with the Alliance to research how digital payments in the tea sector can ignite faster progress towards the SDGs, specifically around gender equality.

4. What sort of work does ETP do on the ground with local communities to support ethical and sustainable partnerships?

JC: A lot of our work focuses on putting communities at the core of our programme and pilots, and we’re doing this in Malawi to help smallholder farmers diversify their income streams through the development of Village and Saving Loan Associations. We have over 400 of these groups set up across the country and they work to encourage group saving in a joint fund.

The VSLA model is successful because it encourages mutual accountability and trust amongst the members. Many members use loans for other business initiatives and group savings to buy shared plots of land or cattle. We are also able to offer training and educational workshops to strengthen the performance of the groups, we believe these groups will be truly sustainable once projects and programmes end.

The Village and Saving Loan Associations model is successful because it encourages mutual accountability and trust amongst the members.

We also are extremely proud of the work we are doing in Assam, India with UNICEF on the ‘Improving Lives programme’. The programme focuses on helping children and young people living in tea communities that face numerous issues such as healthcare, child development and nutrition, water, sanitation, hygiene, education and child protection. The project has been scaled up with increased investment over three years and we estimate that we’ve improved the lives of over 250,000 women, girls, and boys in Assam. Its reach spans more than 25% of all tea estates in Assam.

5. The UK is known for being a tea-drinking nation. What can people do to help support a sustainable tea sector?

JC: Consumers play a critical role in creating sustainable change across the supply chain. This means we must work to educate the consumer to make well informed decisions and to understand more about the journey of the tea leaf to the teacup. More tea companies are providing information on their environmental efforts as pressure mounts for greater transparency in tea supply chains.

We can also do more to get consumers to think about their consumption and how much energy they use to make a cup of tea. The Smart Boil initiative led by the UK Tea and Infusions Association aims to make UK tea drinkers ‘Smart Boilers.’ This means getting everyone to only boil the amount of water needed, once, and if people can, switch to renewable energy in their own homes. Small changes make a huge difference to reduce carbon emissions, so it is very much about changing consumer behaviour over time.