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Herbal Teas

Finding an ethical and eco-friendly herb and fruit tea. Ranking the environmental and ethical record of 30 brands of herbal and fruit teas and rooibos tea.

We also look at plastic in teabags, loose teas, shine a light on the ethics of Pukka Tea and Teapigs and give our recommended buys.

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying herbal teas:

  • Is it Fairtrade? Tea plantation workers often receive poverty wages and extremely poor conditions in return for their labour. Look for Fairtrade tea to ensure that the person growing your tea is receiving at least minimum standards of employment. 

  • Is it organic? Synthetic pesticides and herbicides threaten insect populations, contaminate water sources and can have ecosystem-wide knock-on effects. Look for organic certification to avoid ingredients grown with these chemicals, and to support farming methods that are more in tune with nature.

  • Is it home-grown? Many herbal teas can be grown in your own garden. This is a good way to cut down on food miles and ensure that they are grown in an environmentally friendly way. Otherwise, look for locally-grown herbs to put in your tea.

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What not to buy

What to avoid when buying herbal teas:

  • Is it in a teabag? Although many brands have now moved away from using plastic in teabags, the process of packaging tea tends to concentrate profits in already wealthy countries, away from tea-growing areas. Look for loose leaf tea to avoid this unnecessary use of resources and unfair distribution of wealth.

  • Is it blended? Teas may be blends from multiple sources. Opt for a single source tea or a company that identifies its growers, as it is likely that a greater portion of the price you pay will reach the original producer.

  • Are you overfilling your kettle? Discounting any milk, the biggest portion of the greenhouse gas emissions from a cup of tea comes from boiling the kettle.

     

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Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

In France and Germany, infusions are twice as popular as black and green tea. Not quite so in the UK though, where in 2020, sales of black and green tea were over 20 times that of herbal and fruit infusions. We actually drank about twice as much black and green tea as France, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands combined.

Globally, black tea is still way ahead in sales, but its growth is in decline, and more potential is seen to be in fruit and herbal teas. The chief executive of the multinational Unilever, in the build up to their decision to move away from teas, said “Two-thirds of our [tea] business is in black tea. . . and for a decade it’s been a drag on Unilever’s growth”.

Even Unilever's classic PG Tips is not creating enough profit for them to want to keep it, and its Lipton and widely available herbal-focused brand Pukka will also be transferred later in 2022. The new parent, CVC Capital Partners, is a private equity firm, which makes investments for some of the most criticised banks including Barclays and HSBC, and has its headquarters in a tax haven.

If that makes you want to reach for a calming chamomile, don’t worry, we’ll tell you where you can buy ethical and eco-friendly herb teas. The guide also looks at which brands are certified organic, or are otherwise most transparent about where and how they source their herbs.

What is a herbal tea?

Herbal teas, more accurately known as infusions, are made from fruits, flowers or leaves - they are not strictly ‘teas’ as they are not from the ‘tea’ plant. Most herbal teas are drunk with hot water alone, but rooibos tea is often drunk with milk.

Some come as a single ingredient, others are blends. Some blends may actually contain unexpected ingredients such as black or green tea, sugar, honey or dairy products so do read the packet.

And if you’re choosing herbal tea to avoid caffeine, you should be aware that Yerba Mate contains about twice as much caffeine as black tea, although about half that of coffee.

Are herbal tea companies vegetarian or vegan?

Some herbal tea brands come from company groups which also sell meat or fish:

Clear glass cup with fresh herbs in it and saucers of fresh herbs on table

How to avoid plastic in your tea – go loose!

The easiest way to avoid plastic in teabags, is to avoid teabags altogether by using loose tea infusions.

Loose herbal or fruit teas are available from many brands, including some of the top scorers on our score table.

Or you may be able to find a local project sustainably growing or harvesting loose herbs, and at the same time support the local economy and community too. The best example we found was Hackney Herbals in London, which creates some beautiful varieties such as Pick Me Up, mixing golden marigold petals with elderflower and lemon verbena.

Or you might want to follow the guidance from Grass Roots Remedies for how to grow or gather your own ingredients. (See 'Making your own herbal teas' below.)

When you get to brewing loose tea, there are various types of strainers you can use, but basket infusers are easiest if you’re making just a cup at a time. Herbal tea flavours are not always strong, some can be subtle, but you can usually get a stronger flavour with a longer brew.

Of the brands which scored green (12 or above), the following sold loose fruit/herb teas

Loose herb/fruit teas
Top scoring brand Types of loose fruit/herb teas sold

Postcard Teas

several varieties

Hamsptead Tea chamomile, lemon & ginger
Hambleden Herbs several varieties
Steenbergs many varieties
Tick Tock rooibos and rooibos blends
Higher Living Tutti Frutti only
Thompson’s mint, or lemon or apple fruit mix

As a general rule, classic teabags sealed round the edges, or pyramid teabags, use plastic or PLA (plant-based plastic that can be disposed of in council food waste bin but won’t degrade in home compost). Teabags with a string and tag are usually cleverly folded and probably don’t use a sealant, but have a look at the edges. Most tea company websites now state how their teabags are sealed.

Choose ‘string and tag’ plastic free teabags

Infusions from the following brands use plastic-free teabags:

Teabags using PLA

Bags from the following brands used PLA:

Infographic: Guide to brewing Loose Leaf Tea
Infographic from Green Shoppers Guide

Making your own herbal teas

Rhona, from the Grass Roots Remedies Co-op in Edinburgh, gives us a guide to why and how to pick and dry plants for tea yourselves.

Why make your own?

It’s an act imbued with ethical principles: by foraging for or cultivating your own herbs to include in your herbal teas you can be sure of the origin of the plants. Some plants incorporated into herbal teas are harvested from unsustainable sources, using unknown labour and environmental practices, and over-harvesting of endangered species. And of course, it’s cheaper, fresher, and more empowering to make your own.

What to harvest

Common wild plants, naturalised plants and some cultivated plants (which can be easily cultivated in a small garden space, window boxes or pots) are all used in commercially available herbal teas.

In general, the best time to forage foliage from plants is when they are just coming up in spring – before flowering and when the leaves are fresh and green.

Herbs to harvest from the wild include:

Leaves of dandelion, nettle, yarrow, plantain (Plantago major) and mallow, wild rose petals, elderflowers, lime flowers (Tilia cordata /T. platyphyllus/T.vulgaris), and both the flowers and surrounding leaves of meadowsweet and hawthorn.

Growing herbs to harvest and dry for tea:

Mint, sage, chamomile, lemon balm, calendula, hops.

You can use your foraged or cultivated herbs fresh and just pop a couple of tablespoons of them in a tea pot but, in order to have wonderful herbal teas all year round, it’s common to dry and store them in airtight containers until you’re ready to blend and drink them.

How do I dry my herbs?

Herbs can be tied in bunches and dried in a warm dry environment – ideally in the dark (or not in direct sunlight), but by far the best way, if you want to produce a good quantity, is to buy a herb-drying rack. These are commercially available online. The herbs are ready when they are completely dry to touch, which can take up to four or five weeks, depending on conditions. Spread the herbs out on the drying racks, ensuring they do not overlap.

How to drink

When you grow and prepare your own dried herbs for tea, they do not then come in a teabag! So, it is time to splash out on an infusion teapot or dedicate a cafetière to brewing teas. If you prefer your tea one mug at a time, get a tea ball. Herbal teas, ideally, should be left to brew for eight to ten minutes before drinking; that way you can be sure of extracting the useful compounds from the herb. 

Grass Roots Remedies is an Edinburgh-based workers co-operative whose central philosophy is that herbal medicine is the medicine of the people and should be accessible to everyone. We offer a series of practical courses and workshops including CommuniTea foraging, run the only fully integrated Community Herbal Clinic in Scotland, operating alongside NHS provision, and produce simple resources to enable folks to practice herbalism at home.

Do herbal teas have health benefits?

Many people drink herbal tea just because they like it. But a lot of the ingredients have also been used as traditional medicinal remedies.

Many people know chamomile as calming, and peppermint or fennel can be used to aid digestion. Some people use nettle tea for hay fever.

THIE, the European association representing the interests of producers and traders of tea, says on its website that

“the claims proposed for botanical products like tea and herbal infusions have yet to be evaluated by the European Food Safety Authority because the European Commission and the Member States could not agree on a procedure for the evaluation of such claims. THIE has submitted a large list of claims referring to the beneficial properties of tea and herbal infusions together with the substantiating evidence. It is most regrettable that no real progress has been made by the authorities for more than 10 years now. This restricts the possibilities to highlight the beneficial properties of teas and herbal infusions.”

Clear glass mug with golden coloured tea with infuser in the mug

Organic fruit and herb teas

There are lots of certified organic herbal teas out there, as shown by the [O] after brands on our score table. These all gained a positive Product Sustainability mark, as the organic growing methods maintain soil health, and manage pests and diseases through natural resources like manure or compost, rather than synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. Organic growing therefore protects growers and the environment from pesticide-related ill health, reduces dependence on fossil fuel based fertilisers, and aims to strengthen the ecosystem for the long term.

Small companies seen as offering an environmental alternative through providing only or mostly organic products were given a best rating for Environmental Reporting. This applied to:

Postcard Teas also received a best Environmental Reporting rating, as although it wasn’t certified it stated, "Nearly all the small tea farms we know and work with farm without unsustainable oil based agrochemicals. Many small tea producers also have a form of polyculture, growing a diversity of crops and fruits for themselves to eat as well as to sell. This is important as this plant diversity encourages more biodiversity including the animals that feed on the tea plant’s pests so it can boost the farm’s yield and quality without resorting to pesticide use."

Are fruit and herb teas ethically sourced?

Most of the companies actually say very little on their websites about where or how they source the ingredients for their herbal teas. They are more likely to discuss the sourcing of black tea products, or coffee – two ingredients which have had far more attention.

Postcard Teas were the most transparent about where they sourced ingredients, giving the location and name of all the growers.

Steenbergs also gave a bit of detail of its concerns over ensuring suppliers and their workers had a fair wage, as well as decent levels of sanitation, power and education.

Dragonfly stated that it dealt directly with farmers wherever possible, to support small-scale production and artisanal tea making techniques.

Floradix stated that the majority of raw materials came from certified organic cultivation mainly in Germany and Europe, but occasionally also further afield e.g. South America.

Essential Trading emailed to say that most of the herbs are Fairtrade, Fair for Life or FairWild certified.

The other top scorers only had general information as follows:

Hampstead Tea - “All our loose leaf teas come from ethical and organic/biodynamic estates”

Hambleden Herbs - “we continue to use some of the same suppliers that we did 30 years ago”

Thompson's - “We take great care to source our teas and herbs from the finest producers in the world, and from growers who share our ideals in treating workers fairly, and giving regard to proper wages, healthcare and education.” However it also mentioned using brokers and that tea can also be purchased through auction.

Tick Tock - “Trading thoughtfully with all of our tea suppliers is a given, with relationships based on trust and respect going back decades.”

Eleven O’Clock - “Grown organically on Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms“

The London Tea Company – no information found, although they were certified Fairtrade.

Higher Living / Dr Stuart’s – no information found, although they were mostly certified organic

 

Herbal teas in supermarkets

Supermarkets may have own-brand herbal teas. We haven’t included them on our table but you can see our supermarkets guide for how they fared. Many of the brands on our table are more likely to be found in health shops (or online), with only some being widely found in supermarkets, none of which we would happily recommend.

Twinings herbal teas may be the most widely available, but are part of the Associated British Foods group with its £13bn turnover, which includes Allied Bakeries and British Sugar, and also Primark. British Sugar have successfully lobbied the UK government to authorise the use of a bee-harming pesticide, containing the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam.

Greenwashing teas?

Some brands that appear 'ethical' are owned by large multinational companies with less ethical backgrounds. We highlight three of these brands, which you're likely see in supermarkets and elsewhere, as this helps to explain the low scores these brands receive in our table.

Teapigs and Good Earth are mainstream brands, owned by the multinational Tata brand, despite their alternative looking packaging. Tata owns Jaguar Land Rover as well as an airline company, and manufactures military vehicles including some it supplies to the oppressive regime in Myanmar, gaining it a place on the Burma ‘Dirty List’.

Pukka is widely available, particularly since it was bought by Unilever in 2020. If you focus on just Pukka, it has been a FairWild registered brand since 2012, a standard for sustainable wild harvesting and equitable fair trade. Although we wouldn’t recommend it due to Unilever’s involvement in political donations, likely tax avoidance and more, Pukka may be the best option of those available in supermarkets. 

Under Unilever’s ownership, Pukka has an Ethiscore of less than 3. But, at the end of 2021 Unilever agreed to sell its whole tea business to private equity firm CVC Capital Partners. The sale is due to complete later in 2022. Unite the union, which represents workers at Unilever’s PG Tips factory in Manchester, has expressed concern about the sale to private equity. CVC’s approach to ethics across its portfolio appears less well developed than Unilever’s so the forthcoming transfer of ownership looks unlikely to improve Pukka's score.

Company Profiles

Greenypeeps is a new addition to this guide. It is a partnership with a larger tea supplier in Sri Lanka which takes care of all of its production.

All of the Greenypeeps teas were organic and most of them were also Fairtrade certified. However as it was connected to the larger company it was not eligible for small company exemptions on Ethical Consumer ratings, so did lose marks for a lack of reporting or policy in some areas.

Steenbergs, which focuses on loose teas, included quite a bit of detail on its website about how it took care of its staff, stating: “All staff and the directors are paid the same hourly rate, which is set at 2% above the living wage”, and “In our recruitment policy, we try, so far as possible, to offer employment to people, especially young adults, that have not achieved high educational attainment, giving them a start on the employment ladder to move on to other employment later. We've, also, helped staff with navigating their way through the NHS, housing issues, residency paperwork, and citizenship applications, etc.”

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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