Tea

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 30 tea brands.

We also look at ethical buying options, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Hambleden Herbs 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.

What to buy

What to look for when buying tea:

  • 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 it is receiving at least minimum standards of employment. 

  • Is it organic? Often made from petroleum, chemical pesticides threaten bee populations, contaminate water sources, and cause large-scale destruction of habitats. Look for organic to avoid tea grown with these chemicals. 

  • Is it home-grown? While this is obviously not an option for traditional breakfast varieties, many herbal teas can be grown in your own garden, which is a 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.

Best Buys

Our Best Buys are Fairtrade [F] and / or organic [o] teas from:

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying tea:

  • Is it in a tea bag? Almost all tea bags sold in the UK contain plastic. The process of packaging tea also tends to concentrate profits in already wealthy countries, away from tea-growing areas. Look for lose leaf tea to avoid this unnecessary use of resources and unfair distribution of wealth.

  • Is it blended? Teas marked only as 'tea', 'green tea' or 'Everyday tea' are likely to be blends from multiple sources. Opt for a single source tea (like Assam or Darjeeling) or for a company that identifies its growers, as it is likely that a greater portion of the price you pay will reach the original producer.

  • Profits over people? A War on Want report found that tea pickers in India and Kenya received less than 1% of the amount paid for each cup of tea. Look for Fairtrade tea produced on small hold farms to try and ensure that some of the price paid goes back to the workers.

Companies to avoid

We would recommend avoiding tea brands owned by Unilever. In 2011, a report found discimination against female workers, health and safety violations, and issues around the payment of wages on the tea plantations used by Unilever. More recently, the company has been criticised for abuses in the factories and palm oil plantations that it uses. It owns the tea brands:

  • PG Tips
  • Lyons
  • Pukka Herbs

Score table

Updated live from our research database

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

Clearspring green teas [O]

Company Profile: Clearspring Ltd
16

Hambleden Herbs loose green tea [O]

Company Profile: Hambleden Herbs
16

Hampstead Tea [O]

Company Profile: Hampstead Tea & Coffee Co Ltd
16

Steenbergs organic fairtrade tea [F,O]

Company Profile: Steenbergs
16

Dragonfly organic speciality teas [O]

Company Profile: Tea Times Holding Ltd
15

Steenbergs organic tea [O]

Company Profile: Steenbergs
15

Higher Living Tea [O]

Company Profile: Only Natural Products Ltd
13.5

Punjana tea [FT]

Company Profile: Punjana Ltd
13.5

Thompson's organic green tea [O]

Company Profile: Punjana Ltd
13.5

Brew Tea Company tea and herbal tea

Company Profile: Cafeology
13

Heath & Heather herbal/rooibos/green tea [O]

Company Profile: Typhoo Tea Ltd
13

Ridgways black/green tea (F)

Company Profile: Typhoo Tea Ltd
13

Ridgways organic tea [O]

Company Profile: Typhoo Tea Ltd
13

Punjana tea (including loose)

Company Profile: Punjana Ltd
12.5

Thompson's Tea

Company Profile: Punjana Ltd
12.5

Traidcraft tea [F]

Company Profile: Traidcraft plc
12.5

Typhoo tea [S]

Company Profile: Typhoo Tea Ltd
12.5

Clipper tea [F,O]

Company Profile: Kallo Foods Limited
12

Fresh Brew

Company Profile: Typhoo Tea Ltd
12

Glengettie Tea

Company Profile: Typhoo Tea Ltd
12

Heath & Heather herbal/green teas

Company Profile: Typhoo Tea Ltd
12

Lift Instant Tea

Company Profile: Typhoo Tea Ltd
12

Melrose's Tea

Company Profile: Typhoo Tea Ltd
12

Typhoo QT instant

Company Profile: Typhoo Tea Ltd
12

Yogi Tea green or black teas [O]

Company Profile: Yogi Tea GmbH
12

Clipper tea [F]

Company Profile: Kallo Foods Limited
11

Clipper tea [O]

Company Profile: Kallo Foods Limited
11

Taylors of Harrogate Teas [S]

Company Profile: Bettys & Taylors of Harrogate Ltd
10

Yorkshire Tea [S]

Company Profile: Bettys & Taylors of Harrogate Ltd
10

Teapigs Everyday Brew [S]

Company Profile: Teapigs Ltd
7.5

Tetley Rainforest Alliance tea [S]

Company Profile: Tata Global Beverages Services (was Tetley Tea Group)
7.5

Teapigs tea

Company Profile: Teapigs Ltd
7
7

Pukka Herbs teas [O, F]

Company Profile: Pukka Herbs
4.5

Twinings Fairtrade Breakfast tea [O,F]

Company Profile: R Twining & Co Ltd
4

Jacksons of Piccadilly fairtrade teas [F]

Company Profile: R Twining & Co Ltd
3

Twinings organic tea [O]

Company Profile: R Twining & Co Ltd
3

Lyons tea [S]

Company Profile: Unilever
2.5

PG Tips tea [S]

Company Profile: Unilever
2.5

Jackson of Piccadilly tea

Company Profile: R Twining & Co Ltd
2

Twinings tea

Company Profile: R Twining & Co Ltd
2

What is most important to you?

Animals
Environment
People
Politics
Product sustainability

Our Analysis

Although global prices for tea are at historically high levels, in real terms (accounting for inflation) the prices paid to producers are barely level with, or are even below, where they were 30 years ago. Tea farmers and tea workers are the most vulnerable in the tea supply chain, having very little bargaining power in a market littered with middlemen and dominated by a few big companies.

According to UK charity War on Want, the structure of the global supply chain means that the lion’s share of profits is captured by these big companies.

Tea is usually exported after primary processing (drying and bulk packaging). This means that blending, final packaging and marketing – which are the most lucrative stages in the overall process – are mainly carried out by the tea brands in the buyer countries.

The buying side of the tea supply chain is very concentrated, which gives the companies involved a high level of power over the prices paid to producers. Just four corporations dominate the global tea trade: Unilever (which produces Lipton and PG Tips), Tata Tea (which produces Tetley), Van Rees (a tea trading company) and James Finlay (a tea packing company).

In the UK, the retail market is similarly concentrated, with the top four companies controlling 74% of the retail market by value: Tetley (Tata), PG Tips (Unilever), Twinings (Associated British Foods) and Yorkshire Tea (Taylors of Harrogate). PG Tips and Tetley alone account for around half of the tea sold.[1]

As tea passes through the tea brands and retailers, (the final two stages of its journey to the consumer), they capture a massive 86% of the value added, compared to 7% for the producing country.

Very little of the profits included in the retail price of a box of tea goes to the tea-producing country. Instead, whilst multinational corporations reap large rewards, tea workers are condemned to a life of penury. A tea picker makes just 1p for each £1.60 box of tea bags sold in a British supermarket.

Supermarket own brands

Supermarket own-brands account for only 20% of the market so we have not included them in this guide. See our guide to the seven major Supermarkets. 

All Co-op’s own brand tea has been Fairtrade since 2008 and Marks & Spencer’s from 2006. They both also sell own-brand tea that is both Fairtrade and organic.

Price comparison

[F,O] = Fairtrade and organic [F] = Fairtrade certified [RA] = Rainforest Alliance
Brand Pence per teabag
Tetley [RA] 3
PG Tips [RA] 3
Co-op [F] [O] 3
Cafédirect [F] 3
Traidcraft [F] 4
Hampstead Darjeeling [F] [O] 7
Pukka Green Chai [F] [O] 10

Caffeine in tea

Teas from the Camellia sinensis plant contain caffeine. Caffeine protects the tender young leaf buds of the tea plant from being eaten by insects.

Heavy caffeine use is known to have unpleasant effects and negative impacts on health, including anxiety and insomnia, and for this reason some tea drinkers seek to moderate their caffeine intake.

The caffeine content of tea varies widely from one tea to the next, and depends on how the tea is brewed, but tends to be within the range of 15-70mg per cup (a typical cup of coffee contains 80-135 mg of caffeine).

Tea can be made from different parts of the tea plant, and these parts contain different quantities of caffeine. Leaf buds (tips) and younger leaves are higher in caffeine than older, mature leaves.

The quantity of leaf used and the length of time the leaves are steeped both directly influence the caffeine content of the final cup of tea. Using more leaves and steeping for a longer time both increase the caffeine in the resulting cup.

It is a widespread myth that black tea contains more caffeine than green tea, and another myth that white tea contains the least caffeine of all teas.

Caffeine levels generally vary more among individual teas than across broad categories of tea such as black, white, green, oolong, or pu-erh.

One exception to this is matcha tea which is known to contain very high levels of caffeine. This is due in part to higher caffeine levels in the leaf used to produced matcha, but also because matcha is a powdered tea, and so the entire tea leaf is consumed when brewing. So a cup of matcha tea contains 100% of the caffeine in the leaf. 

Tea Certification

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”.

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”.

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.

Table: Tea certification

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. 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, 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 rated are members: Betty & Taylors of Harrogate, Twinings and Tetley Group.

Wages for tea pickers

A report this year from Oxfam found that tea pickers’ wages are often below the poverty line, whether they are on certified or non-certified estates.

It was out of concern over wages in the tea industry that a group of organisations, led by Oxfam and the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP), commissioned an investigation into workers’ pay and benefits on plantations in Malawi, West Java in Indonesia and Assam in India. These areas were chosen to be representative of the tea export market and included a mix of ethically certified and non-certified estates.

Image: Tea Picker
Tea Picker, Indonesia, photo credit: UN Women Asia and the Pacific

The report found that the tea industry currently pays poverty wages. These are often blanket rates that hover around the producing country’s legal minimum wage or the World Bank’s poverty line. Basic wages are often below the poverty line which may be reached when productivity payments and in-kind benefits are included.

In Assam, India, tea pluckers earn 12p an hour or 89 rupees (£1) a day. The legal minimum daily wage for an unskilled worker in Assam is 158.54 rupees. How wages are set means that the situation is the same across all Assam tea plantations and across all tea brands and certifications.

Through interviews with workers, management and stakeholders on the estates, the research team uncovered a complex web of issues around wages. These included: poor corporate understanding of local wage-setting mechanisms; supplementing wages with in-kind benefits (such as food, fuel, accommodation, childcare) that may be of questionable value to workers; and the disempowerment of female workers (the majority of the workforce).

The obvious implication of poverty wages is that families cannot support themselves on their tea plantation wages2 and children, particularly girls, become vulnerable to traffickers. They are promised good jobs and exciting lives in the city but end up in domestic slavery, suffering physical and sexual abuse. Few are paid and some never see their families again.

Low tea plantation wages feed the supply of traffickers as well as slaves. Why work on the local tea plantation for 500 rupees per month when you could earn 4,000-10,000 rupees per girl from a Delhi ‘placement agency’?

Certified poverty?

Regardless of whether the tea is for Tetley, Lipton or Twinings; or certified as Fairtrade, Ethical Tea Partnership or Rainforest Alliance, workers are paid the same poverty rate.

This is because, for the wages element of certification, standards only require that wages should not fall below the legal minimum. The report therefore concluded that certification is no guarantee that workers’ wages meet their households’ basic needs.

However, the report focused purely on hired labour on plantations. Smallholders were out of scope for this study. But, Fairtrade International’s own research concluded that the incomes of Malawi tea smallholders increased threefold with Fairtrade, a big contrast to Oxfam’s findings on plantation wages.4 Cafédirect reports that 22% of the value of a box of Cafédirect tea goes directly to the producer co-ops (who are all smallholder tea growers with no estates involved).[6] So it seems that some Fairtrade products may be more beneficial than others – Fairtrade tea from smallholders rather than from plantations.

Ethical certification also brings workers a number of other financial and non-financial benefits, which were also not looked at in Oxfam’s research. For example, Fairtrade means better conditions in terms of overtime, maternity, and written contracts. Also the Fairtrade premium is paid on top of the Fairtrade price and producers decide how to invest it – usually in education, healthcare, farm improvements or processing facilities – to increase income.

What’s going to happen?

After seeing the results of the research, the organisations behind the report, which include Unilever, IDH (the Sustainable Trade Initiative), Fairtrade International, UTZ and Rainforest Alliance now recognise the urgency of the problem and are committed to tackling the problem. They are taking its findings very seriously and have agreed a plan of action to address the issues it uncovered, beginning with expanding the investigation to include other major tea-producing countries and using these investigations to support sustainable livelihoods in ways that are relevant to local workers and their economic and social contexts.

The organisations also plan to improve understanding about wage issues among workers and improve trust and constructive dialogue. Most of the discussions about wage issues in supply chains currently take place at the international level, but this would bring it back to the national context and local realities of the workers themselves.

The organisations have also agreed to change the way that wages and benefits are monitored and audited. The goal is to develop one approach for assessing wages that is applied consistently across the tea sector and to create and maintain a repository of information to be shared between these organisations.

Consumers of certified products can also be reassured that certification organisations have committed to improve the certification process for waged workers so that it requires plantations to gradually increase workers’ wages to the level of a living wage. Fairtrade International has recently finished a public consultation on the draft of a new Standard for Hired Labour. That draft includes attempts to strengthen the ‘teeth’ of Fairtrade certification when it comes to getting beyond paying a minimum wage to paying a ‘living wage’.

“This isn’t a problem we are going to fix overnight” said Rachel Wilshaw, Oxfam’s Ethical Trade Manager, “but in 15 years of working on these issues it is the best chance we have had to make a real difference to the lives of hundreds of thousands of tea pickers. In two or three years from now, I hope women working on tea plantations around the globe will start to experience real change.”

Fairtrade International’s response to the report

“Fairtrade alone has limited power to raise sector wages, as they are often negotiated at industry and country/regional level. We therefore seek to work with tea industry partners, other certifiers, NGOs, trade unions, civil society and governments to bridge the wage gap. Our participation in recent industry initiatives such as the Tea 2030 project and the next phase of this, Tea Wages study, will also facilitate discussion on a new approach to setting tea industry wage benchmarks and the promotion of wage bargaining, so that better wages become a commitment of everyone along the Tea supply chain.

Fairtrade contributes directly to alleviating poverty through payment of Fairtrade premiums of over US$6 million per annum to small farmer organizations and plantation workers in the tea sector. Recent impact studies have shown a range of tangible benefits accruing to workers, their families and communities, including in Malawi.

Fairtrade will thus continue to work toward a Living Wage while delivering additional worker benefits through the payment of Fairtrade premiums, linked to sales volumes.”

How to buy better tea

Alex Zorach, Founder and Editor of blog site RateTea.com, explains that, in addition to buying Fairtrade tea, there are other conscious decisions that tea drinkers can do to influence where their money flows in the tea industry.

  • Buy direct sourced tea – avoid buying from companies that do not identify anything about the origin of their teas. Farmer-owned cooperatives with a retail presence, which may or may not be Fairtrade certified, can also be a good source of tea, like the Makaibari Estate in Darjeeling, India).
  • Buy single origin tea, rather than blends – blending is a practice carried out primarily in wealthy countries. Blended tea is a generic tea from two or more geographic areas and marked only as 'tea', 'green tea' or 'Everyday tea'. 'Earl Grey' and 'English Breakfast' tea may also be blended tea.
    Single origin tea, like Assam or Darjeeling, is a tea that hails from a single geographic region, estate, garden or small country. With single origin tea, it is more likely that a greater portion of the price you pay will reach the original producer.
  • Buy loose-leaf tea rather than tea bags – the packaging of tea into tea bags, besides using energy and resources that are discarded, also tends to concentrate profit in wealthy countries. By buying loose-leaf tea, you not only reduce waste and resource usage, but you make it more likely that a greater portion of the price you are paying reaches the producers.
  • Grow your own herbs for herbal tea or buy locally-grown ones.

Company behind the brand

Life for Hambleden Herbs began back in 1982 on an organic herb farm in the small village of Hambleden in the Oxfordshire countryside. In 1985 its dried herb range was launched and at the time was the only certified organic range of dried herbs in the UK. Organic herbal tea was launched four years later. It only sells Soil Association certified herbs, spices and teas.

Want to know more?

See detailed company information, ethical ratings and issues for all companies mentioned in this guide, by clicking on a brand name in the Score table.  

This information is reserved for subscribers only. Don't miss out, become a subscriber today.

Start your 30 day trial today!

Ethics made easy - comprehensive, simple to use, transparent and reliable ethical rankings. Subscribe today for a wealth of data at your fingertips.

We will take payment when you order, but you can cancel by phone or email within 30 days for a full no-questions-asked refund!

Start your 30 day trial today!

References:

  1. Mintel Tea and Other Hot Drinks, June 2013