In April 1997, a new organization was set up to monitor standards and conditions in seven of the world’s tea producing countries. Jane Pettigrew explains the aims and objectives of the Tea Sourcing Partnership.
There is growing awareness among consumers in the developed world that the sourcing of materials from developing countries should be organized in a way that is not detrimental to the well-being of anyone involved. The tea industry believes that it can stand up to close scrutiny with nothing to hide. However, it is not enough for the tea trade to make such an assertion - it has to be able to demonstrate to everyone that it takes a socially responsible approach to the way in which the industry is run.
We are all aware, through recent stories in the press and media, of the scandalous conditions in which some workers in the third world are expected to manufacture goods such as footballs, sportswear, and fashion garments. The tea industry is different - it has a long history of well-structured, well-managed controls and legislation from both governments and unions to protect workers and producers.
Superficially, it may seem that there is only a very tenuous connection between the tea producer and the tea drinker, separated as they are by thousands of miles. But the hand that plucks the leaf and the hand that raises the cup are respectively the start and culmination of the complex commercial activity that is the world tea trade.
Social responsibility is an important long-term issue - one that cannot be ignored by any responsible business. The Tea Sourcing Partnership (TSP) scheme is a natural development of responsible business practice to help the tea producer demonstrate clearly and visibly the high standard to which their business is run.
The Origin of the TSP
Early in 1997, a number of major companies within the U.K. tea trade met informally to discuss the ethical dimension of tea sourcing. These informal discussions led to a formal approach to all members of the U.K. trade and the creation, in April 1997, of the Tea Sourcing Partnership. “All our members believe that we have a shared responsibility for the social and ethical conditions involved in sourcing tea, and we felt that we could address the issues most effectively as a group rather than as individual companies,” says Fiona Hunter of the Tea Sourcing Partnership. “With a scheme this size, there are many logistical challenges which benefit from a non-competitive, apolitical, collective approach.”
Teas Sourcing Partnership Aims
The Tea Sourcing Partnership plan is unique. It has been devised for the tea trade by the tea trade.
The long-term aims of the new partnership are to develop a clear factual understanding of conditions on 1,500 tea estates in seven countries around the world and to validate that understanding by a continuous cycle of independent audits. Of the 30 countries that are involved in tea production, the Tea Sourcing Partnership scheme involves the seven that contribute nearly 80% of U.K. imports - Kenya, Malawi, Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. At first, the Tea Sourcing Partnership aimed to carry out its own audits, but then realized that a more effective approach would be to use respected, independent auditors with experience of social auditing. So in October 1997, BVQI (professional worldwide auditors, Bureau Veritas Quality International), were appointed to undertake the role.
In March 1998, the plan was presented to local producers and government representatives in Kenya. In April, the first questionnaires were distributed there and by November of that year, the pilot audits had been completed.
In January 1999, pilot audits in Sri Lanka were completed, and between April and December of the same year, audits were carried out on 329 estates in Kenya.
The distribution of questionnaires and audits in other countries are now being planned and will follow progressively.
In June 1999, the Tea Sourcing Partnership joined the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), a U.K. government-backed strategic alliance between the commercial sector, trade unions and non-government organizations.
Tea Sourcing Partnership members now represent approximately 60% of all tea packed in the U.K. and between them, they account for over 40 of the country’s most popular tea brands, including retailers’ own brands.
The majority of tea producing countries are already well controlled by government legislation and union agreements within each country concerned and the Tea Sourcing Partnership does not attempt to impose developed world standards on developing countries. It aims simply to ensure that the local legislation and union agreements as they apply in a given country are being adhered to.
Members of the Tea Sourcing Partnership have agreed that Tea Sourcing Partnership members must include all - not just some - of their brands under the scheme.
Members will not make on-pack claims about the ethical nature of their products, since the group believes that responsible sourcing should be standard business practice. “This may change, however,” adds Fiona Hunter. “We are discussing whether the Tea Sourcing Partnership logo will eventually be placed on packaging in order to raise the public awareness of the importance of the scheme and to let customers know that the Tea Sourcing Partnership is monitoring this aspect of the trade.”
About the Auditors and the Audits
The Tea Sourcing Partnership selected BVQI because it has extensive experience in carrying out quality, environmental, food safety and social audits in over 70 countries on behalf of 25,000 clients, and draws on the skills of over 1,200 fully trained professional auditors. The company ‘s global resources include offices in 150 countries giving essential language skills and familiarity with local laws and customs. BVQI has been accredited to carry out quality systems audits by 18 national accreditation agencies including agencies in the U.S., the U.K., Argentina, Canada, France, Spain, and Japan. The company is also accredited to carry out social audits worldwide.
The first stage of an audit is to send out a questionnaire to the relevant estate for completion. This covers the estate’s policy on the Tea Sourcing Partnership criteria - terms and conditions of employment, health and safety, education, maternity provision, and housing, based on local legislation and union agreements. These will have been independently checked by an expert labor lawyer in the relevant country.
Information in the completed questionnaire, returned by the estate, is entered into a central database, which is held in the U.K. at the Tea Sourcing Partnership secretariat for use only within the Tea Sourcing Partnership.
An independent audit of the estate’s site is then arranged by BVQI and BVQI auditors explain to the estate’s senior management the aims of the audit and how it will be conducted. Two auditors, who are trained in social accountability issues and are familiar with local customs, language, and legislation, then arrange a visit to the estate to independently check that the estate complies with Tea Sourcing Partnership criteria. This is done by examining documents and company records, interviewing a number of employees, individuals, and groups (of both managers and other staff), and by observing working conditions. The audit takes a person half a day per “unit” - tea growing area, factory, administration center, housing and welfare areas may count as one unit.
The audit team then gives the site managers a general overview of the findings, outlining strengths and weaknesses. An audit report is sent to the Tea Sourcing Partnership, which awards a certificate if all the criteria have been met. If the criteria are not met, the TSP enters into dialogue with the auditee in order to discuss possible solutions to any problems and to put those solutions in place.
The Tea Sourcing Partnership demands commitment from producers to match its own commitment and if a producer does not comply with TSP requirements, after due process, all Tea Sourcing Partnership members will cease to trade with that company until compliance is demonstrated.
The research being carried out by the Tea Sourcing Partnership will establish the current status and demonstrate that minimum requirements are being met. The complex and detailed information generated by the scheme will form the long-term basis for encouraging continuous improvement where applicable.
The scheme is now in its fourth year and is growing organically, strengthened by the immense amount of time invested by the Tea Sourcing Partnership members. Pilot audits in Kenya and Sri Lanka, and the subsequent audit roll-outs in Kenya, have taught the members a tremendous amount, helping to refine both the questionnaires and the auditing technique. “It certainly has not been plain sailing, and the timescales we anticipated have not always run according to plan,” says Fiona Hunter. “However, all our experiences will make the scheme as robust as possible as we continue to roll out across our seven countries.” As at the end of December 2000, the audits in Kenya were nearing completion
What has the response from the estates been? Feedback indicates that audits are not disruptive and fit into the normal day to day running of the business. Feedback from customers continues to underline just how important this issue is and how much it influences the blend of tea that the U.K. consumer buys.
The costs of the auditing scheme are not passed on to the consumer or to the estates involved in the work of the partnership but are borne by the member companies.
Differences between the Tea Sourcing Partnership and Fairtrade?
“There are several key differences between the Tea Sourcing Partnership and Fairtrade,” explains Fiona Hunter. “Our scheme is independent, monitored by expert third party auditors, and it has been tailor-made for the tea trade by the tea trade. Perhaps the most fundamental, however, is the size of the Tea Sourcing Partnership scheme. Covering 1,500 estates in seven of the world’s largest tea producing countries, we believe it is the largest scheme of its kind.”
The Future of the Tea Sourcing Partnership
The Tea Sourcing Partnership is a member of the U.K.’s Ethical Trading Initiative and is able to share learning with other similar schemes that are developing in Europe and other parts of the world. It has attracted a great deal of interest in the tea producing world, including a number of approaches from companies in other countries who want to find out more or to join the scheme. However, for the moment, the Tea Sourcing Partnership is concentrating on the current membership and on developing the information from producer countries. Nevertheless, approaches from anyone who wishes to join the scheme is welcome - for the Partnership recognizes that at some date in the future, it may become a global organization.
For more information about the TSP, please write to: P.O. Box 2287, Caterham CR3 0ZW, United Kingdom. Tel/Fax: (+44) (0) 20 8645 0333, Web site: www.teasourcingpartnership.org.uk.