April 20, 2017

That’s my cup of tea

Ah …tea.

Saviour of afternoons and soother of stressful situations. This wonderful drink is making a comeback, and research shows consumers want it to taste great and do great things for those who grow it. This time, it’s all about drinking responsibly, says UTZ’s Melanie Mokken.

Those Aussie ancestors knew what they were about, especially when it came to drink. No, not that kind of drink – back in the 1800s, Australians held the world record for drinking the most tea per person, beating even the tannin-addicted Brits at their own game.

In the intervening years, coffee took over from its paler cousin, but tea is once again making a comeback in the Australian market, with consumers becoming more aware of the health benefits and the ever-widening availability of different flavours and origins.

In fact, from herbal tea to Rooibos, Oolong to Jasmine, tea has never been so popular. It’s even starting to give rise to new trends, such as pairing tea with cheese instead of wine (yes, really), and tea blending and mixology evenings.

(Not) All The Tea In China
A good old cuppa is the most popular drink in the world after water, with tea grown in over 50 countries worldwide. While it’s actually native to Asia, almost 80% of the world’s tea now comes from four countries: China, India, Kenya and Sri Lanka. Australia has its own history with tea, with Aboriginal Australians brewing and drinking their version from the plant species leptospermum long before Captain Cook came along and proclaimed it “tea”. When the first naval fleet arrived from the UK a couple of years later, they brought with them copious amounts of what we now see as more traditional tea, produced from the leaves of camellia senensis. And so the Australian tea industry was born – today, the country still produces small amounts of its own, mostly in New South Wales and Queensland.

Trouble Brewing
But tea is a heady mistress, and needs a lot of love and attention to thrive. It needs space, and won’t produce its first usable leaves until five to seven years after planting. Once it does crop, it needs to be harvested by hand, as machines will damage the delicate leaves.
Partly because of this, the tea industry faces several challenges in its methods of production and workers’ conditions.

Nowadays there are about 13 million smallholder farmers and tea plantation workers globally, but many work for low wages in unhealthy working and living conditions. The delicate but lowly task of plucking tea leaves most often falls to women, who then miss out on leadership and management roles. Few tea farmers own their own land, and so opportunities for economic advancement are slim.

Meanwhile, environmental issues aren’t helping. Climate change is increasing temperatures and causing more variable rainfall patterns worldwide, and the ever-sensitive Camellia isn’t taking this well, producing smaller crops and lower quality leaves. There’s no two ways about it; life is tough for tea producers.

How Do You Take Your Tea?
Research shows that Australian consumers are savvy about such issues, and keen to know that the tea they drink is helping to address problems, not adding to them. In February 2017, research firm Datamonitor reported of the Australian hot drinks market, “Consumers [are] becoming more concerned about the origin and quality of products. Manufacturers answer this demand through their commitment to sustainability, as well as ensuring they use ingredients and produce that is of a high quality and adheres to ethical practices”.

One way of working towards these ethical practices is to source tea grown under a certification scheme. Such schemes are committed to sustainability, which means improving both growing conditions and workers’ lives, while taking care of the environment.

UTZ certification, for example, puts in place a strict code of conduct that requires better harvesting and plucking methods, better handling of fertilisers and pesticides, and better conditions for workers. If producers fail to meet the conditions within a set time frame, they cannot become, or remain, certified.

Producers also receive a premium for their certified tea, which can then be reinvested in the farm or estate in order to make further improvements over the longer term.

In addition, a good traceability system – part and parcel of certification – connects farmers with successful actors throughout the supply chain, meaning a stable supply of high-quality product that’s traceable all the way from the field to the customer’s cup (or pot). When a dependable supply chain’s in place, both buyers and producers benefit from knowing exactly where and when the tea is coming from.

It’s In The Bag
While talk of good agricultural practices and traceability is all well and good, what consumers really want to know is, does it work? Well, 37-year-old Subhash Abeywickrama can tell you all about that. Subhash is the hugely enthusiastic General Manager at Mathurata Plantations, one of the largest tea plantations in Sri Lanka. Ceylon tea has long been famous for its purity and quality, but the industry faces a variety of challenges, and production and quality had fallen dramatically.

Three years ago, Subhash’s plantation was feeling the pinch. Unhappy, disillusioned workers were holding regular strikes, and you couldn’t really blame them. Long days in the baking sun, cramped living conditions with up to 20 families sharing the same building, and a lack of basic necessities such as running water were driving workers to breaking point. But the company was running at the biggest loss of all tea producers in Sri Lanka, and new investment wasn’t an option.

Then Mathurata Plantations signed up to UTZ certification. Now, there’s no point pretending that a magic wand was waved and everything fell into place overnight, but the emphasis on workers’ rights and conditions, on equality for women and improved growing practices, has brought about some really impressive changes over the last three years.

Here are just a few of them. Four thousand workers have had a full health check, 560 new individual family homes built, clean water has been piped in, Child Development Centres built, nutrition advice and healthy foods handed out, women have taken up management positions instead of traditional plucking roles, savings groups have started up, sun shelters have been built, health and safety rules introduced and separate washroom facilities provided. And that’s just the beginning – there are plans in place for a lot more.

As Subhash has it, “We already see that dramatic change has taken place. It is making a huge difference to workers’ lives. They know now that we are serious about looking after their needs. In return they support us, which has been one of the biggest advantages of certification.”
In other words, a virtuous circle has been formed, where workers know they are valued, have the knowledge and skills to work better, and so crop quality improves and sales are on the up, giving more profit to invest back into the plantation. Three years ago Mathurata Plantations had the lowest sales of any tea producer in Sri Lanka. Today they are the top performer.

One For The Pot
Independent research has backed up Mathurata’s experiences, showing that with their focus on improved quality and quantity, stable and integrated supply chains, and improvements in farmers’ lives, certification programs really can help address sustainability and ethical issues.
This allows companies who sell certified products to insulate themselves against fluctuating prices, and at the same time meet the needs and expectations of their customers. And, of course, it means better longer-term prospects for the people all over the world who grow and produce our tea.

It’s what we as consumers already want to see, and demand is only likely to increase as tea’s popularity grows over the coming years. And so the more we can help increase the sustainability of the industry as a whole, the better it will be for everyone. And, the more we can relax and enjoy that lovely cup of tea we’ve all been looking forward to.

Right. Who’s going to put the kettle on?

ABOUT The Author
Melanie Mokken is an enthusiastic Dutchie with a dream job, where her passion for sustainability, love of coffee and her not-so-guilty (more like proud) pleasure in chocolate are combined. As Market Development Manager for UTZ, a global sustainability program for coffee, cocoa and tea, she connects people across the world over their favourite products. After living in Amsterdam and Cape Town, Melanie has now embarked on an exciting journey down under – making Sydney her home – in order to help Australian companies create a sustainable coffee, cocoa and tea industry. Watch this space!

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