Last updated: January 2014
When it comes to purchasing tea, UK consumers have been given more opportunities than ever to shop in a more ethically responsible way. At most supermarkets you can now opt to go Fairtrade, Organic or Rainforest Alliance, with another initiative, Utz Certified, likely to be heading our way sometime soon.
The question this article asks is whether there is any difference between these ethical labels. Put plainly, which initiative is most deserving of your support?
Varieties of both Fairtrade and Organic tea have been on the market since the 1990s. Globally, 14% of Fairtrade tea volume sold to consumers is also certified Organic, however in total only around 6% of tea grown on certified Fairtrade farms is actually sold at the Fairtrade price – this is basically due to lack of demand in the market.
The rise of Rainforest Alliance
While Fairtrade and Organic remain firmly within their niches, one initiative, Rainforest Alliance, appears to be proving that responsibly sourced tea is actually a fast-growing industry. Since entering the market in 2006, Rainforest Alliance farms now account for 11.5% of the global tea supply, with certified volumes increasing by 24% in 2012 alone.
This is largely down to its deal with multinational consumer goods giant Unilever, owner of PG Tips (the UK’s most popular tea brand) and Lipton. In 2007, Unilever, which buys close to 12% of the world’s black tea supply, “committed to purchasing all of its tea from sustainable sources”– with Rainforest Alliance as their favoured option.
The rapid rise of Rainforest Alliance in the tea sector represents a recent shift towards more mainstream, arguably ‘business-friendly’ ethical labels: “Rather than emphasising how products are traded, Rainforest Alliance certification…focuses on how farms are managed”.3
This approach stands in stark contrast to Fairtrade’s emphasis on minimum prices as a way to shift the terms of trade towards producers. Beyond differences in opinion on the use of price mechanisms, however, can much be distinguished between the different labels?
Muddying the waters?
One of the main sources of confusion for consumers is the broadly similar claims being made by competing ethical labels. Even when taking a more detailed look at the codes of conduct for Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance and Organic, you notice far more similarities than differences. This is because the overarching objectives – concerning environmental protection, labour rights and good management – are widely accepted and hence difficult to disagree with in principle.
Meanwhile, the particular standards that emerge from these objectives are often hard to measure accurately, or just plain vague. The key question that arises, therefore, is: which labels are making the biggest strides towards realising these commonly held objectives?
All about the implementation
A noticeable difference between the more established labels such as Organic and Fairtrade, and newer entrants such as Rainforest Alliance and Utz Certified, is the rate of growth and the speed with which vast areas can become certified.
The rapid roll-out of Rainforest Alliance across the tea sector is partly due to its focus on scale over scope; increasingly there is a sense of competition between labels – a scramble to scale up as quickly as possible.
In reality, however, there is a big difference between a tea-growing area becoming certified and it comprehensively matching up with the standards of a particular code of conduct. A certified area can be enormous in scale, involving thousands of farmers and workers. An annual audit spread over a few days simply cannot verify hundreds of standards comprehensively across such vast areas.
For Rainforest Alliance, gaps in the implementation of their standards dramatically came to the fore in a 2011 report by not-for-profit research organisation SOMO, which uncovered widespread cases of gender and ethnic discrimination, sexual harassment and poor housing conditions on farms supplying to Unilever in Kenya and India. In its response, Unilever highlighted the challenge of ensuring compliance with Rainforest Alliance standards:
“Our tea plantation is more than 75km (50 miles) long and employs 16,000 people, so we do not pretend that occasional issues never arise”.1
This matter-of-fact recognition of the reality on many certified farms and estates contrasts with Rainforest Alliance’s response (no longer available online), which essentially dismissed the report’s claims, refusing to co-operate with SOMO unless it revealed its sources – which include vulnerable workers who understandably prefer to remain anonymous.
Which label is better, and why?
The main concern being raised in this article is that the recent entry of more business-friendly initiatives such as Rainforest Alliance and Utz Certified into the tea sector is ‘muddying the waters’; that is, masking real differences between themselves and more established labels such as Fairtrade and Organic by superficially echoing common values and objectives.
This is not to claim that Fairtrade and Organic are without flaws; they have both received sustained criticism from a number of angles. (See, for example, the article on Living Wages.) However, from an ethical point of view, there are arguably a greater number of questions for Rainforest Alliance.
One downside of choosing Rainforest Alliance is that as little as 30% of the product you purchase from the supermarket is guaranteed to be sourced from Rainforest Alliance-certified farms or estates. In addition, there are few Rainforest Alliance standards that you can easily grasp and objectively verify.
Organic has the most stringent and detailed environmental criteria of any ethical label. On the other hand, Fairtrade certification guarantees a handful of core benefits that anyone can understand – most notably minimum prices, premiums, and access to credit. Rainforest Alliance, in contrast, is competing for the middle market, with laudable yet vague standards across the socio-economic and environmental spectrum.
While some have correctly highlighted the fact that few Fairtrade farmers can sell all (or even half) of their tea at the Fairtrade price,1 responsibility for this lack of demand is also closely linked to the rush to support more mainstream options by the big multinationals dominating the tea industry.
Rainforest Alliance is undoubtedly working to train farmers up to improve the quality of their tea, as well as taking real steps in collaboration with the Forest Stewardship Council to make tea production more sustainable. But in order to foster real development, farmers need a basic level of income stability and security, and arguably only Fairtrade – or even better, double-certified Fairtrade-Organic – can bring this stability.
The Ethical Tea Partnership
The Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) was formed in 1997 when a number of large tea companies took the decision to work together to monitor and assure their own supply chains. The ETP now has more than 20 international members from Europe, North America and Australasia.
The ETP conducts monitoring and certification, which consists of audits of the tea producers who supply the member companies. This program is free of charge to the producers, and encompasses both issues of social concern, and environmental issues. Some of the social concerns include health and safety, freely chosen employment, wages and benefits, working hours, and a variety of other issues such as are typically handled by labour organisations.
The fundamental principles of the ETP standard are those of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) Base Code which is closely based on International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions. Environmental issues assessed in the monitoring include water and energy use, soil and ecosystem conservation, chemical use, and waste management.
There are only three companies in the tea product guide which are members: Betty & Taylors of Harrogate, Twinings and Tetley Group.