Tea sustainability perspectives & human welfare

More than half of respondents feel the tea industry performs well on workers' rights. Image: Firsd Tea

In December 2021, T&CTJ announced that we were collaborating with Firsd Tea to create what we believe is the ‘first of its kind’ tea survey to gauge sustainability perceptions of the tea industry among business leaders in tea, coffee and related industries. The survey ran through February 2022 and the report is now available on T&CTJ’s and Firsd Tea’s websites. The article below is the second in a three-part series that outlines some of the initial findings from the survey. By Jason Walker

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. Survey respondents 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 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 second of three articles on the survey respondents’ perspectives on sustainability within the tea industry. The first article in the series (July/August issue) looked at perspectives on sustainability and the environment, while this one explores perspectives on the human side.

Source for both graphs: Sustainability Perspectives Report

Overall, 67 per cent of respondents in tea and related industries say the tea industry implements general sustainability practices very well or somewhat well. ‘General sustainability practices’ can be understood as including issues related to people and the environment. Looking at some of the specifics in the area of human welfare, however, suggests that the tea industry may not be as strong in those areas of practice. 61 per cent of respondents feel the tea industry performs very well or somewhat well on workers’ rights. This performance is seen as stronger than that of the coffee industry, of which only 46 per cent of respondents feel that coffee did very well or somewhat well.

Further questions indicate that the tea industry is believed to have weaker performance in fostering safe and caring communities (53 per cent), gender equity (51 per cent) and poverty reduction (46 per cent). Respondents are roughly split down the middle in these areas, although some respondents’ write-in comments mention the importance of gender equity. These remarks call for more women in management positions. Several comments also emphasise the need for fair/better wages for farmers and labourers.

This split in sentiment stands in contrast to the more widely shared environmental concerns expressed in the previous article. Those findings reveal that 80 per cent of respondents are worried about the effects of climate change on their business operations. Eighty-four per cent of respondents also feel that the environment/carbon footprint is the most important sustainability issue to consumers. This partiality toward concern for the environment appears to misalign with many of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) regarding social welfare. The SDGs include, among others: reducing poverty, ending hunger, providing quality education, improving gender equality, and promoting safe and equitable workplaces. It remains unclear as to why concerns about the environment show stronger numbers than those related to people.

Response to certification question in the tea survey

Similarly, sustainability certifications that aim to promote the welfare of tea industry workers carry less importance than other product factors. Organic certification beat out other certifications as being considered more valuable to consumers. Eighty-five per cent of respondents feel organic certification is the most important, compared to Fair Trade (68 per cent) and Rainforest Alliance (56 per cent) — certifications that exist to overtly raise awareness of the social justice aspect of sustainability.

New questions raised

The findings of this research raise further questions to explore and address within the tea industry and beyond. Some of the more pertinent questions include:

  1. Is there a greater, perhaps unbalanced, emphasis in the perceptions of sustainability that prioritises the environment above human welfare?
  2. To what extent are equity and social justice issues viewed as tea-industry specific versus seen as larger issues of a culture or society? Perhaps human welfare problems are perceived as beyond the tea industry’s purview, and more as widespread/inherent national or societal problems.
  3. How well are sustainability certifications perceived in terms of their roles in helping people and the planet?
  4. Are the human stories of sustainability being sufficiently and accurately told, so that industry members and consumers have a full and accurate understanding?
  • 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. His insights draw upon his diverse range of experience in sales, operations and management in the tea world. He may be reached at: [email protected].

Related content

Leave a reply

Tea & Coffee Trade Journal