Change is Brewing in the Tea Industry

Rwandan Tea Farm Did you know that tea is the world’s most popular beverage after water? Around the globe, more than six million acres (2.4 million hectares) of land are used for growing the Camellia sinensis plant, whose leaves are brewed to make black, green and other varieties of tea. Like any tropical crop, tea raises a number of environmental and social issues.

Increasingly, however, the world’s tea supply is produced on Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms — great news for the environment and the workers who produce the tea. In the UK alone, 60 million of the more than 160 million cups of tea consumed each day are Rainforest Alliance Certified and it’s estimated that by the end of 2011, 70 percent of the tea volume sold by retailers there will have originated on a certified farm. That’s just the beginning.

Why is the Rainforest Alliance working in tea?

Tea farms often replace biodiversity-rich tropical forests with beautiful, but single-species, monocultures. When it is not managed responsibly, tea production can also lead to soil erosion, competition for water and pollution from fertilizers and pesticides, and tea processing can drive the demand for firewood to fuel tea dryers. On the social side, the industry employs millions of people around the globe, which leads to its own set of challenges relating to wages, labor issues, housing, healthcare and other rights and benefits. By adhering to the standards required for Rainforest Alliance certification, farmers are helping to build a sustainable future for themselves and their families.

Where and when did the program get its start?

The program kicked off just a few short years ago, with the first Rainforest Alliance certification of a tea plantation in 2007 — Kenya’s Kericho Estate, owned by Unilever, the multinational corporation that produces Lipton (the world’s best-selling tea brand). The company has pledged that all of its tea sold in tea bags around the world would be sourced from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms by 2015, and it is well on its way to meeting this goal, having already transitioned to certified tea in its Lipton Yellow Label line in Western Europe as well as in its PG tips brand, sold in the UK.

What other companies have committed to sustainability?

Though Unilever was the first big name to take the plunge, it has not been the last. The list of companies now committed to sourcing tea from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms reads like a who’s who of the industry. Tetley, the world’s second largest tea company, is sourcing certified tea for all of its branded tea bags and its loose black, green and red teas in the UK and Canada; it expects to do the same in the US, Australia and Europe starting in 2012. Twinings began incorporating Rainforest Alliance Certified tea into its Twinings Everyday brand in 2010, starting with 30 percent certified content and working its way toward 100 percent by 2015. A similar commitment has been made by Yorkshire Tea.

How can producers possibly meet the demand for all this certified tea?

We’re collaborating with the Ethical Tea Partnership — a nonprofit established by the industry — to offer guidance and assist in training, in the hope that farmers will decide to pursue certification and help meet the demand. We’ll also be expanding our efforts in other major tea-producing and -consuming countries, such as China, Russia and Turkey.

Where is Rainforest Alliance Certified tea currently grown?

Rainforest Alliance Certified tea is now grown in 11 countries — including Argentina, India, Kenya and Sri Lanka — on tea estates that have been audited to ensure compliance with the rigorous environmental, social and economic criteria required to earn Rainforest Alliance certification.

How much certified tea was produced last year?

In 2010, more than 120,000 metric tons of certified tea were produced, a 53 percent increase from 2009, representing approximately 3.2 percent of all global production.

Does the Rainforest Alliance expect this growth to continue?

According to the Rainforest Alliance’s Mercedes Tallo, it’s estimated that by 2016 the aforementioned mainstream tea brands will have helped convert 20 percent of the world’s tea estates to certified production.

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