Tea Sustainability Survey 2023: Progress, apprehension & priority concerns

Tea & Coffee Trade Journal and Firsd Tea collaborated on a second tea sustainability survey in 2023, the results of which were released in October. The first story in a two-part series based on the survey assesses respondents views on tea sustainability with regard to people and the planet. By Jason Walker

When Firsd Tea North America and Tea & Coffee Trade Journal planned a first-of-its-kind sustainability perspectives survey in 2021, they embarked on a mission to understand how professionals within tea and related industries perceived sustainability. We discovered overwhelming apprehension about the risk of climate change on operations, cautious hope for the future, and an under-prioritisation of sustainability when selecting teas to offer consumers.

But to truly grasp industry views on sustainability, it was necessary to continue listening and tracking how collected data either yielded the same patterns or evolved into changing trends. That is why the two organisations again partnered to survey professionals in tea and related industries to understand how they currently view sustainability efforts within the sector and their outlooks for the future. The findings have been published in the 2023 Sustainability Perspectives Report and are available online here. In this two-part article series, the results of that report will be further explored in terms of the planet and people.

General impressions remain positive

On a broader scale, the results cast a positive light. In terms of overall sustainability performance, 73 percent of respondents indicated the belief that the tea industry implements sustainability very well or somewhat well. In comparison, 68 percent believed coffee performed within those same parameters. Further probing into the environmental aspects of that performance, 75 percent of respondents in tea and related industries believe the tea industry performs well or somewhat well in terms of reducing environmental impact.

Additionally, the sustainability reputations of several producing countries improved. Japan still remained No. 1 (96 percent), but remarkable differences did surface from 2022. Though every country witnessed positive increases among survey-takers, Vietnam (+37 percent), Kenya (+33 percent), China (+26 percent), and Sri Lanka (+26 percent) saw significant improvements in 2023 from the 2022 study.

Respondents also expressed general optimism in the industry’s sustainability direction. When asked to rank how the tea industry performed with sustainability ten years ago on a scale of one to ten, with one being the worst and ten being the best, the average score was 4.9. This score was 0.9 higher than last year’s average score. Rankings of how the tea industry currently performs reached 6.38, up 1.38 points over the 2022 average. Average rankings of how the tea industry will perform ten years from now also increased from 6.9 in 2022 to 7.79 in 2023.

Areas of concern

While respondents had positive outlooks on some general aspects, their answers also revealed areas of greater concern. Most professionals in tea and related industries remain aware of and concerned about the environment at a more personal level. 75 percent (versus. 80 percent in 2022) of respondents said they were worried about climate change’s effects on their business operations.

More specifically, most respondents said changing rain patterns (95 percent in 2022 versus 100 percent in 2023) and extreme heat (91 percent in 2022 versus 97 percent in 2023) were the biggest climate change risk factors with pest problems close in third (89 percent in 2022 versus 96 percent in 2023).

Climate concerns and certifications

When it came to standards and certifications that respondents in tea and related industries felt were most important to consumers, the results reinforced the previous study — 95 percent said organic certification led the way versus 85 percent in 2022. This year, non-GMO surpassed Fair Trade as the second most important standard to consumers in the eyes of tea and related industry professionals (81 percent to 68 percent, respectively). Rainforest Alliance (53 percent) remained in fourth place.

Though most respondents remain worried about climate change, they continue to rank ‘sustainability’ as a low-priority factor when selecting teas for their businesses. In 2023, respondents still listed flavour (96 percent), leaf grade (91 percent) and origin/terroir (90 percent) as the top three characteristics that contributed to their decisions to stock particular tea types.

Implications

The report paints a largely positive picture of overall tea industry sustainability progress. Respondents tend to feel that improvements are being made both overall and in the perception of particular producing countries. They also remain generally optimistic about the future. However, the report points to key areas for further action and research:

  1. Continued surveys will help reveal industry trends and shifts. While corporate sustainability reports and sustainability certifications provide more of the ‘harder’ metrics on gaps and progress, the perspectives report continues to provide the ‘softer’ metrics that indicate motivations and readiness for change. As such, the survey has become a barometer for the industry to assess readiness and acceptance of change within the overall tea product ecosystem.
  2. Environment and climate concerns are still tilting the wrong direction. Respondents generally believed that the tea industry’s sustainability performance would improve in the next ten years, but this was tempered against the continued concerns over the tea plant’s susceptibility to climate change, and environmental impacts on tea business operation. Respondents may feel that conditions will get worse before they get better. Alternatively, the divergence may indicate respondent’s beliefs that deep environmental damage is beyond the realm of control and may arrive in spite of marked progress in sustainability practices. The sustainability perspectives survey draws those underlying concerns to the fore so that latent worries can be exposed and addressed.
  3. In addition to the ambivalence of sentiments was a potential mismatch in action. Flavour, origin, and pricing have long been seen as driving factors in tea purchase. At the same time, respondents rated organic certification and non-GMO as the certifications most important to consumers. Taken together, these findings may suggest one or more of the following:
  • Respondents may believe that quality and value (price) are the ultimate factors in consumers’ purchasing decisions.
  • Respondents may believe that consumers are more interested in clean/healthy products, with that concern centering on more immediate and personal impacts. Organic and non-GMO certified products are often viewed as safer, pollution-less products that more directly affect the health of the end-user. While organic practices may benefit the environment by virtue of the absence of pesticides, their potential for environmental improvement are not part of their primary agenda.
  • Even if respondents believe that consumers want teas that meet quality, price, sustainability and certification standards altogether, respondents believe they are willing to make tradeoffs in the area of sustainability to get what they want in the other areas.

Each of these areas provide opportunities for further discussion and research, especially in the areas of consumer preferences and purchase decisions. Understanding the tea industry’s and retailers’ effectiveness in promoting sustainable teas will be an important factor. On the consumer side, dialogue on how consumers make tradeoffs in using their purchasing power to reflect their values is an important consideration.

Firsd Tea and the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal would like to thank all of the members of the tea, coffee, and cocoa industries who contributed to the survey. A diverse range of respondents from across the world and across the supply chains provided us with their distinctive insights. It is our hope that the survey report continues to spark change and dialog on the importance of sustainability practices as they affect the future of these global industries and their consumers.

  • 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].

Related content

Leave a reply

Tea & Coffee Trade Journal