Tea Sustainability Perspectives and the Environment

Firsd Tea, in collaboration with Tea & Coffee Trade Journal and a third-party research firm, recently released a first-of-its-kind Sustainability Perspectives Report in 2022 to capture the tea and coffee industry’s views on how well the tea sector performs in areas of sustainable practices. The study was developed with guidance from industry peers and an academic research and think-tank. Respondents of the survey included a diverse spectrum of wholesalers, importers, exporters, retailers, and others based in North America, Europe and Asia.

While many studies have examined consumers’ perceptions of sustainability, this study targeted professionals in the tea, coffee, cocoa and wine sectors to understand their concerns and views on the tea industry’s sustainability performance. The findings of the research can generally be grouped into perspectives about three areas: environment, people and certifications.

This article represents the first of three articles on the survey respondents’ perspectives on sustainability within the tea industry.

Climate and Operations

A widespread concern about climate’s potential impact on the industry was one of the more glaring findings. Eighty percent of respondents expressed worry about the effects of climate change on their business operations. In fact, respondents considered the tea industry (93 percent) more sensitive to climate change than the coffee (82 percent), wine (65 percent), and cocoa (63 percent) industries.

The effects of climate change may be most obvious at the farm level. Changing rain patterns, drought, and extreme temperatures can impact early/late flushing, stunted plant growth and damage, spread of pests and blight, and disruption of harvesting. These concerns were reflected in the responses as well, with changing rain patterns (95 percent) unpredictable weather (94 percent) and extreme heat (91 percent) ranked as the biggest threats to the industry. All these can directly impact yields and the economic costs of tea production.

Additionally, unpredictable weather patterns created by climate change, like increased floods and flood damage, snow and hurricanes/typhoons can impinge upon logistics activities and delay deliveries. Longer-term shifts in average temperatures could also affect consumption patterns of hot and/or iced teas. Climate change could therefore create a snowball effect from farm to consumer.

Respondents (84 percent) also believe that consumers are concerned about the environment and carbon footprint. Further research may shed more light on the particulars of this concern, as it may include loss of flora and fauna around tea farms, welfare of workers whose local environments are impacted, and the economic costs associated with more challenging growing conditions.

Climate and Products

In spite of the seemingly widespread concerns about climate’s impact, sustainability was not a
high-priority consideration for industry respondents in terms of their decisions to carry specific teas
in their product offerings. Respondents ranked flavour (96 percent), leaf grade (90 percent), origin/terroir (88 percent) and price (83 percent) above sustainability (79 percent). The seeming contradiction between the perceived concerns over the business impact of climate change and the lower prioritisation of sustainably sourced teas invites further investigation.

Climate and Certifications

The survey results paint an unclear picture of the perceived value of some product certifications as they may relate to understandings about sustainability. A significant portion of respondents (85 percent) view organic certification as the most valued certification standard among consumers. Certifications more closely associated with sustainability fared lower in perceived value, with Fair Trade at 68 percent, non-GMO at 58 percent, and Rainforest Alliance at 56 percent.

The connection between this perception of consumers’ valuation of certifications and industry members’ prioritised criteria for carrying a tea may have a cause-effect relationship, but it remains unclear as to which one causes the other. Other factors may also be at play. Further investigation may also clarify whether consumers mistakenly view organic certification as a form of sustainability certification.

Views of the Future

Respondents did reveal a sense of optimism about the future of sustainability and the environment. On a 1-10 scale, respondents gave an average score of 4 to score the tea industry’s sustainability performance 10 years ago. That average score improved to 5.5 for current sustainability performance, and optimism about further improvement 10 years from now was indicated in an average scoring of 6.9.

Next Steps

Beyond the opportunity for further study, the Sustainability Perspectives Report points toward ways that tea industry professionals can begin to engage with pressing environmental concerns. One of the first steps would be to evaluate the data being collected, and the effective dissemination of information regarding sustainability practices and their impacts. This evaluation could uncover gaps where certain groups, be they producers, distributors or consumers, may not be receiving sufficient quality information in a timely manner to properly understand the picture of climate and environment in the tea industry.

Coinciding with an assessment of information about climate and sustainability comes an evaluation of the prioritisation of climate and environmental concerns as they shape purchase decisions along the supply and value chains. Diving into the details may indicate how supply/demand challenges, packaging, product placement and similar factors can shift concerns towards greater prioritisation of sustainability issues during buying/purchasing processes.

This initial study lays the groundwork for additional research and dialogue on next steps for the tea industry – both upstream and downstream on the supply/value chains. Meaningful changes to further improve sustainability practices that protect the environment will likely call for active participation from producers, consumers, and stakeholders in between. Dialogue on these environmental concerns will also need to consider the social and economic concerns of sustainability, which will be explored in future articles.

  • Jason Walker is marketing director of Firsd Tea North America. Prior
    to his work with Secaucus, New Jersey-based Firsd Tea, Walker served in
    a variety of roles in tea and beverage business capacities. His experience
    includes business services for small tea companies, a top-ranked online
    destination for tea consumer education and co-founding a coffee business.
    He may be reached at: [email protected].

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