Tea sustainability perspectives and certifications

In December 2021, T&CTJ announced a collaboration with Firsd Tea to create what we believed to be 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 available on T&CTJ’s and Firsd Tea’s websites. The article below is the final installment in a three-part series that has highlighted key findings from the survey. By Jason Walker.

Firsd Tea 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. In conjunction with Tea & Coffee Trade Journal and a third-party research firm, 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 tea, coffee, and related industries 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. Part three of this series focuses on sustainability and certifications.

As a quick recap from the previous coverage, the survey of tea and coffee professionals revealed:

  1. Industry professionals show strong concerns about the environmental impact on their businesses — 80 per cent are worried about climate change’s effects on their operations.
  2. Respondents are generally split as to the tea industry’s performance in some human welfare areas, like gender equity and poverty reduction.

The survey also revealed some surprising attitudes about sustainability and certifications. 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 per cent), leaf grade (90 per cent), origin/terroir (88 per cent) and price (83 per cent) above sustainability (79 per cent). In addition, a significant majority of Industry respondents (85 per cent) 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 per cent, non-GMO at 58 per cent, and Rainforest Alliance/UTZ at 56 per cent. Taken together, these findings suggest that sustainability is seen as lower in importance among consumers, and that sustainability-focused certifications are even lower in priority.

Then there is the obvious disconnect between concerns about environment and human welfare and the prominence of organic certification. Do consumers mistakenly view organic certification as a sustainability credential? The organic programme was never designed to serve as a mark of sustainability; its standards and compliance measures do not include any forms of evaluation of environmental or human welfare impacts. From the producers’ perspective, compliance with organic certifications does overlap with certain compliance practices of other certifications, (e.g., non-GMO and regenerative agriculture), but these are also not certifications with a dominant emphasis on the people plus planet issues of sustainability.

Mixed results concerning certifications

On the surface, the findings suggest that industry respondents see consumers as more concerned about the impact of tea purchase decisions on their immediate and local well-being: be it price, absence of pollutants (e.g., organic), and overall food quality. However, Mintel Consulting’s recently published global 2022 Sustainability Barometer showed that consumers who are more invested in sustainable purchase decisions do rely on certifications as an important guide in making those choices.

Write-in feedback from respondents reflect split attitudes toward the role of certifications. Some respondents feel more certification, and more enforcement of certification practices is needed. Others feel that certification often places too much focus on administrative paper-pushing and not enough on-the-ground support. Some commenters believe certification alone is too costly for small farmers and not transparent enough in terms of actual practices recorded and activities in the value chain. The most often repeated comments regarding certification call for more action in terms of less economic burden for growers and legal/compulsory compliance across a unified, streamlined certification scheme for organisations.

Any discrepancies in sustainability across consumer perceptions, business practices, and certifications may soon face a re-alignment. Governments across the globe have passed or are drafting legal guidance that will require businesses to further comply with sustainability practices. For example, the European Union published its Draft Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive in February of 2022. If ratified in its current form, the directive would require companies to identify and seek to rectify negative impacts on the environment and human welfare that are found within the business’s value chain. In the United States, California passed the California Transparency In Supply Chains Act, with the explicit purpose of increasing awareness of human welfare issues within organisational supply chains. These are just a couple of examples of laws directed toward enforcement of corporate sustainability practices. As these laws develop, certification bodies will likely adjust their certification process to streamline the path to legal compliance or to exceed the legal standards so that their certification badge stands out as a mark of greater distinction.

When viewed as an integrated whole, the report findings indicate that sustainability certifications may be unbalanced in terms of their perceived value to tea consumers. This may be partially due to the certification’s role in environmental and human welfare aspects of sustainability, and as a factor of public sentiment towards sustainability initiatives. Additionally, industry members tend to see more of the transparency issues and economic costs associated with certification as obstacles to providing greater value in tea sustainability.

  • Jason Walker is marketing director of Firsd Tea North America. Prior to his work with 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].

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