For many people, there is nothing more British than tea. The humble cuppa is a universal British experience: enjoyed by both young and old, to celebrate happy occasions and offer comfort on sad ones. There is a deeply-held belief that almost any problem can be solved, or at least improved, by a nice cup of tea.
But how accurate is it to claim tea as a British stereotype? We know that tea was consumed in China 5,000 years ago, with rich and diverse histories of tea ceremonies and rituals in China, India and Japan among others. We also know that the growth of the tea industry in Britain was the result of imports from its colonies during the Empire, at huge profit to the British Government. The history of tea is not nearly as quaint as the afternoon ritual we have come to know and love.
To mark International Tea Day 2022 (hot on the heels of World Bee Day), and to discover more about what lies behind the 62 billion cups of tea drunk every year in Britain, UNRIC spoke to Professor Monique Simmonds, Deputy Director of Science–Partnerships at Kew Gardens, about the backstory of this very important plant.
Where does tea come from, and does it only belong in a cup?
Camellia sinensis, the main species of Camellia that is used to make tea, originates from Yunnan and Sichuan provinces of China, with Yunnan being considered the “birthplace of tea”. Within China, tea has been drunk as a “tea” for thousands of years and it has also been used as a traditional Chinese medicine.
There are about 250 different species of Camellia, and C. sinensis is the main one used for tea. The seeds of another species, C. oleifera, are used to make oil for cosmetics and cooking.
Where do the different flavours of tea come from?
The areas in which tea naturally grows in China are subject to sessional changes in weather and the flavour of tea made from leaves harvested in spring, summer and autumn varies greatly, with spring tea being of high value and is mostly kept for domestic use. The differences in flavour are associated with differences in the chemistry of the leaves. This is very different from tea now grown on other parts of the world such as Kenya, where there is less variation in the climate and the leaves harvested at different times in the year have a similar chemistry. This is good for large scale tea producers that want their tea to have a consistent flavour.
How did tea arrive in Britain?
Tea as a drink was introduced to Britain by Mr Wickham, an agent for the East India Company in 1615. Botanists like Robert Fortune were then sent by the British East India company to China to discover how they made tea and took back samples from different regions. Today, the UK is the biggest importer in Europe, with 139.8 thousand tons in 2013 [FAO Current Situation and Medium Term Outlook for Tea, FAO, 2014].
A cuppa with a conscience: Ethical Tea Partnership
The story has not changed: the tea industry is still vulnerable to exploitation and unfair trading practices. And yet its importance as an instrument of change cannot be overstated. Tea production provides livelihoods for millions of people in some of the poorest countries in the world, and can play a vital role in rural development, poverty reduction and food security. Its delicate growing conditions also make it highly susceptible to environmental changes caused by climate change, impacting both the end product and the entire supply chain of workers whose livelihood it represents.
Enter, the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP), a UK-based organisation working to promote an ethical, sustainable tea industry in the face of these challenges. UNRIC spoke to Jenny Costelloe, Executive Director of the Ethical Tea Partnership, to find out more about ETP’s mission.
What was the impetus behind founding ETP?
ETP was founded in 1997 by a coalition of tea companies seeking to source tea ethically. Our current strategy was developed to create transformational change for the tea sector, through projects, business pilots and policy work. Our aim is to have a positive impact across three focus areas: the economics of tea; (improving living wage for tea workers and a living income for tea farmers), equality for women and young people in tea; and the environmental sustainability of tea.
What are the greatest obstacles to creating a sustainable tea sector?
The tea sector faces many challenges. The climate crisis is having, and will continue to have, detrimental effects for tea farmers in all tea growing regions. Deforestation, soil erosion, droughts, and flooding are just some of the most pressing issues tea farmers face. This is exacerbated by poverty, gender inequality, and legacies of colonisation as well as outdated legislation that acts as barriers to address deep-rooted issues to create a more sustainable tea sector.
To address the climate crisis, we are exploring the potential for a ‘net zero’ tea industry. This requires a unified and consistent approach to accurately determine tea’s carbon footprint. This is something we are working on for the sector and is crucial to help companies to set realistic emission reduction targets and more importantly help them find ways to reach those targets.
While we need to make the tea industry more environmentally sustainable, we also need to make the tea industry more sustainable for those that rely on it to make a living. Tea is a commodity that commands low prices, and this means smallholder tea farmers suffer from poor working conditions, low wages, and discrimination in many tea growing regions. We must work across the tea supply chain to improve the economics of tea, but this isn’t a quick or easy process and will require time and investment.
A lot of ETP’s work is in parallel with the UN SDGs and other UN agencies. How do these partnerships help shape ETP’s mission?
The Sustainable Developing Goals (SDGs) are fundamental for the future of tea, and we frequently evaluate our work to understand our contribution to the SDGs. When we map the footprint of tea against the SDGs, we can see that there is much work that needs to be done to make progress to reach all 17 SDGs across all tea producing regions. The SDGs provide a common vernacular for many stakeholders to use together.
One example of the SDGs underpinning a partnership is our membership with the UN-based Better Than Cash Alliance. We are working with the Alliance to research how digital payments in the tea sector can ignite faster progress towards the SDGs, specifically around gender equality.
What are some of ETP’s successes?
A lot of our work focuses on putting communities at the core of our programme and pilots and we’re doing this in Malawi to help smallholder farmers diversify their income streams through the development of Village and Saving Loan Associations. We have over 400 of these groups set up across the country and they work to encourage group saving in a joint fund. The VSLA model is successful because it encourages mutual accountability and trust amongst the members. Many members use loans for other business initiatives and group savings to buy shared plots of land or cattle. We are also able to offer training and educational workshops to strengthen the performance of the groups, we believe these groups will be truly sustainable once projects and programmes end.
We also are extremely proud of the work we are doing in Assam, India with UNCIEF on the ‘Improving Lives programme’. The programme focuses on helping children and young people living in tea communities that face numerous issues such as healthcare, child development and nutrition, water, sanitation, hygiene, education and child protection. The project has been scaled up with increased investment over three years and we estimate that we’ve improved the lives of over 250,000 women, girls, and boys in Assam. Its reach spans more than 25% of all tea estates in Assam.
The UK is known for being a tea-drinking nation. What can people do to help support a sustainable tea sector?
Consumers play a critical role in creating sustainable change across the supply chain. This means we must work to educate the consumer to make well informed decisions and to understand more about the journey of the tea leaf to the teacup. More tea companies are providing information on their environmental efforts as pressure mounts for greater transparency in tea supply chains.
We can also do more to get consumers to think about their consumption and how much energy they use to make a cup of tea. The Smart Boil initiative led by the UK Tea and Infusions Association aims to make UK tea drinkers ‘Smart Boilers.’ This means getting everyone to only boil the amount of water needed, once, and if people can, switch to renewable energy in their own homes. Small changes make a huge difference to reduce carbon emissions, so it is very much about changing consumer behaviour over time.